Back in February, when Kanye West was flanked by Skepta, Jammer and numerous other UK MCs during his performance at UK pop awards ceremony The BRITS, the reaction was bittersweet. Wiley told NME, “Kanye West opened a door that's closed to most of us. There's no way Skepta or JME or Novelist or Stormzy were gonna get onstage without Kanye doing that. The doors are still shut in a way.” It was that irony that stung. British institutions have a long history of marginalizing grime: as recently as 2014, police controversially cancelled a major London event that featured grime acts in the name of “public safety.” Grime by nature is proudly underground and doesn't seek validation, but in February the question was: why did it take endorsement from an American rapper to open up that platform to them—why wasn’t Britain celebrating some of its own greatest musicians?
With all that in mind, there was cause to be wary of the announcement of the Grime Symphony at this year’s BBC Proms (an annual classical concert series held at the 144-year-old Royal Albert Hall). The central premise was that UK hip-hop and grime artists Little Simz, Stormzy, Krept and Konan, Fekky and more would perform their hits accompanied by orchestras rather than their original beats. Though fun, the concept also seemed a bit of a dubious honor: allowing grime a place in a canonized, legendary musical institution by making it more palatable for the masses. It also felt like the gesture was coming a little late.
But on the night itself, it would take a more miserable person than me to deny the sheer joy of seeing these artists take the Royal Albert Hall stage. Surrounded by a surprising mixture of grime fans and Proms fans (generally, middle-aged, middle class white people), I watched some of the genre’s most subversive moments unite them all. Sure, it was enjoyable to see a brass section wrap itself around the elastic DJ Mustard beat of cheeky rap duo Krept and Konan’s “Freak of the Week.” But the event’s real draw was hearing crowds roar lines like fuck the feds (in “Freak of the Week”) and smoking on a big fat zoot (that’s London slang for a joint—from Fekky’s “Still Sittin’ Here”) inside a hallowed British institution. Lethal Bizzle’s UK hit “Pow!” was famously banned in nightclubs on its release in 2004 for inciting over-enthusiastic mosh-pits; it seemed monumental that in 2015 he could perform it at the Proms.
“There’s no stopping it right now—grime, UK rap, underground culture in the UK—because everyone is just so ready.”—Stormzy
For the performers at the beginning of their careers, the opportunity to play the legendary concert hall had them feeling ambitious. “Royal Albert Hall, that’s something I can tell my mum,” rapper Fekky told me backstage, a grin brightening up his whole face after making the audience jump to his 2014 UK hit with grime legend Dizzee Rascal, “Still Sittin’ Here.” “When I first came in the game, all I wanted was a reload,” he continued. “Now, I just want to see how far I can take it. I want to see 20,000, 40,000 people singing it back to me.” 22-year-old grime MC Stormzy, chilling in his dressing room in an all-black Adidas tracksuit, felt positive not just about his own trajectory but about the forward motion of the whole movement. “There’s no stopping it right now, grime, UK rap, underground culture in the UK,” he told me, “because everyone is just so ready right now. The whole UK, that can’t be carried by one man. We need like, 50 dons out there merking it.” While the Grime Symphony was a fashionable look for the Proms, it also felt like an exciting moment for the future of these artists’ careers, in a genre that’s too often been overlooked by the British establishment.
“It was a progressive way to ensure that the doors are open for us to continue to do this in a credible way.”—Sian Anderson, BBC 1Xtra
Sian Anderson, a BBC 1Xtra DJ who co-presented the night’s live coverage, is hopeful that the show will be more than a one-off. “It was a progressive way to ensure that the doors are open for us to continue to do this in a credible way,” she told me on the phone the next day. Conscious that grime is a “tasty word on people’s lips” in 2015, she made clear that the future of the genre is not about teaming up with any brand or institution who want to hop on the bandwagon, but finding opportunities to bring true tastes of grime to a mass audience. “We all need to universally look at some of the more gritty artists,” Anderson told me. “Like, I’m really upset that Big Narstie wasn’t on the line-up. That would have been amazing...or just someone from the very beginning days of grime, that’s only ever made grime.” But right now, Anderson explains, there are few of these original acts who would sell tickets to a mass audience; the hope is that the success of this first Grime Symphony will lay the groundwork for even grimier events to come. “Grime doesn’t really care about being accepted in that way,” Anderson says. “But it’s just going to be easier, now that 1Xtra’s done it once.”
It’s this long-term thinking, these glimpses into a more diverse future right around the corner that had me tingling as I left the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday. It was the sight of, as Anderson put it, “a good 20 Caucasian old women going H.A.M. to Krept and Konan.” It was not the symphony, but the grime. Long after the orchestra stopped ringing in my ears, what I could hear were Wiley’s words, “the doors are still shut, in a way”—maybe so, but at the Grime Symphony I swear I could feel the draught blowing in.