All in the Ghetto: Gentrification and Hip-Hop in London
Presented at "It Ain't Where You're From, It's Where You're At" International Hip-Hop Studies Conference at University of Cambridge in 2016
The song above is by Anglo-German band Jahcoozi, who's vocalist is a London-born Sri Lankan woman called Sasha Perera. The song, "Takin Your Streets", is a critique of gentrification in London parodying the most visible proponents of this process, the much-maligned hipsters. While hipsters may be the easiest target for any anti-gentrification sentiment, they are merely part of a much larger process based on real estate speculation and development. My intention with this entry is to look at some of the ways rappers and hip-hop interact with gentrification in London and how the music created can and has been used as a means to resist the process. I will also, however, look at some of the ways hip-hop could be seen as part of the problem at the same time and how that needs to be negotiated. This topic is by no means a London specific phenomenon. I could easily have spoken about New York, Berlin or any number of major urban centres across the world. Why I chose London, other than the personal reason of having grown-up there, is because of the speed that gentrification has taken hold across the city and how much it has changed the make-up, both demographically and physically, of every area it has reached. For example, in the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, two of the poorest neighbourhoods of Britain in 2004, the average income has risen markedly in the last ten years and let's just say that wasn't because the same people were being alleviated from poverty. Much of this has been done under the guise of 'regeneration' and 'restructuring' and any number of other buzzwords meaning the same. The rhetorical emphasis has been on changing and improving an area through investment and development. But improving it for who? This focus on investment has the outcome of attracting people with more money than those already residing in an area. As a result rent prices increase to levels that these newcomers can afford and continue to rise as demands increase, pushing out existing residents who can no longer afford to live in the area. In the case of London, this has gotten out of control. With landlords able to charge whatever they want in rent because there will always be someone willing to pay it in order to live in the city. Many of these are recent graduates moving for jobs. Rappers have often been on the front line of this changing landscape. Traditionally rappers have emerged out of poor, socially excluded and alienated communities and it is on the council estates of London that many hip-hop and grime MC's have watched as their local shops have closed down and been turned into artisan boutiques that do not cater for their needs. As Reiland Rabaka commented, hip-hop “is like a large panoramic mirror reflecting contemporary culture, politics and society” and for London's rappers, hip-hop has been a way to comment on and challenge the effects of gentrification (2011: 189).
So first of all, what exactly is gentrification? Geographer Eric Clark describes it as “a process involving a change in the population of land-users such that the new users are of a higher socio-economic status than the previous users, together with an associated change in the built environment through a reinvestment in fixed capital" (Clark, 2004: 263) In essence it is a back-to-the-city movement directed by money rather than people. Replicating a policy adopted by neo-liberal politicians in the USA in the 1970's, the strategies of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative governments encouraged a disinvestment in many of the poorest inner city wards in Britain. Consequently, outmigration increased as those who could afford to leave the slowly depreciating areas departed for other boroughs or nearby commuter towns. As this trend intensified, land values decreased predicated by a perceived reputation of crime, drugs and violence executed by an economically redundant ‘underclass’. This created what Neil Smith (1979) called the “rent gap”, where there is a disparity between the current value of a property and the potentially achievable value. With this apparent depreciation of worth, real estate speculators step in. Targeting more middle class clientele attracted by the investment potential and the affordable price of housing compared to neighbouring boroughs. Many of these newcomers have an a lot more disposable income than current residents and as a result services change to cater for this more free-spending demographic. For example, investment in services such as public transport and public libraries decreased as apparent demand was not so high; to the detriment of poorer residents, many of whom have been displaced as rents increased. The Independent newspaper reported in 2015 that over 50,000 families had been displaced from London boroughs in the previous three years, which equates to around 500 families a week. While this is very much a broader housing issue, gentrification has certainly played a large part. The development of these previously run-down areas attracted the interest of the government, who essentially made it their policy to encourage developers to build flats and lofts on previously abandoned or disused land. In many cases, local councils struggling for money essentially surrendered to the developers as a means of increasing income, removing many obstacles that could have hindered construction. Such developments tended to place plush and expensive accommodation alongside the council estates where the poorest lived. Placing such polarising lives in close proximity creates tension as those poorer residents are made aware of what has been denied them and what has been taken away. During the 1980's and 1990's this effectively became a major political strategy to give prominence to the potential for enterprise to resolve the crisis of the inner city as social welfare was replaced by an emphasis on the free-market. As a result, subsequent Conservative and New Labour governments did all they could to encourage the notion of London as a consumerist playground taking a particular interest in gentrification as a means of regeneration.
Before I go into where rappers and hip-hop come into this, I think it’s worth looking at some examples of how gentrification is portrayed in London hip-hop. I'm going to play two songs back to back and then talk about the different ways they deal with gentrification. First of all we have the song that gave its title to this presentation, ‘All in the Ghetto’ by Riz MC, also known as Riz Ahmed now a successful actor in films such as ‘Four Lions’ and ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. He was also in ‘Ill Manors’ directed by rapper Plan B and it is the title track from the soundtrack to that film that I will play after, performed by the director.
So as you can probably tell we have two quite different approaches. One is very much a parody that pokes fun at those people moving in whereas the other plays a lot more on the media-driven stereotypes of life on a council estate. While ‘All in the Ghetto’ is explicitly about gentrification, ‘Ill Manors’ does not directly address it. The are, however, elements within the subject matter that draw on aspects of the effects of the process. I first want to look at how these two songs can been seen as anti-gentrification. As Tricia Rose has argued, “life on the margins of post-industrial urban America is inscribed in hip-hop style, sound, lyrics and thematics” and this can be related to the lives of youths growing up on council estates in the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite London environment (1994: 71). For many, in some of the poorest boroughs in the capital they are geographically so close to the heart of London, but so far removed economically that it could be a different world. As Dizzee Rascal can be seen saying in the video produced for his 2001 Mercury Prize nomination, while pointing to Canary Wharf and the buildings around that made up the financial centre, “there are rich people moving in now, people who work in the city. You can tell they are not living the same way as us” (Chrisafis, 2003). This is what many of the rappers involved with hip-hop and grime would have seen as their boroughs became the desirable places to live because of their proximity to central London. When you consider that at the same time, statistically, the top ten percent of earners were paid four times as much as the lowest twenty percent, the disparity was particularly stark. It is within this context that hip-hop can give a voice to the tensions and contradictions that come with the shifting terrain of the processes of gentrification. It is through the music and lyrics that a context and resistance can be formed that attempts to seize the public landscape back from those who are progressively taking it away, or at least claiming it for a much more consumerist purpose. In ‘All in the Ghetto’ there is clearly an idea of gentrification as an invading presence, with what Riz MC calls “creatives and professionals coming in hordes”. It is the middle classes who are seen as the invading horde in this case riding their bicycles as proverbial Trojan horses to take over an, in the case of this song anyway, ambiguous neighbourhood. Plan B appears to echo this sentiment with the chorus taunt aimed at the “little rich boy”, the newcomer who would previously not have gone near such a deprived place. Many of these people are graduates straight out of university or young professionals and predominantly white. As Riz MC states, there are “a lot more Harrys and a lot less Dwaynes”. At the same time, these groups are searching for the next “cool and dirty scene”, preferably with an exotic culture be it Caribbean, Turkish or Indian that they can be around. Traditionally in London, it is such places that have the poorest residents, but also the more vibrant culture due to the mix of nationalities. Riz MC is clearly critical of the incomers' attitude, openly attacking those who are “squatting like its hot” and whose presence is contributing to an increase in rents, leaving locals exclaiming “what's with these prices?” There is also commentary on the changing landscape that comes with this new middle class population with locations previously with a reputation for nefarious activity now turned into art galleries, trendy clubs and vegan shops. This leads me into the next aspect that I would like to address and that is how these two songs could be seen as part of the problem of gentrification.
Hip-hop has always been seen as a disaffection of capitalism and its free market principles and yet a large part of hip-hop culture is set within these same confines. As a result there is something of an irony of consumerism when it comes to the music. Generally much consumption of hip-hop, such as buying records, downloads etc, is more readily available to well off households who have a greater disposable income and so some of the people who are moving in as part of gentrification are consumers of the same music produced by the people they are pushing out. This is particularly evident with grime. As a style of music that is so geographically connected to one specific area, in this case East London, and with a vocabulary that is often considered impenetrable to outsiders, many fans believe grime can only be understood within the contexts of boroughs such as Bow. As a result fans who heard the music at university or as the popularity of Dizzee Rascal spread have a desire to live in the epicentre of grime where the illegal raves and warehouse parties were happening and the basement studios were based. Even though their incoming presence has the effect of pushing out those who were actively involved in forming the scene that they now want to be a part of. There is an element of this in the idea of cultural credibility, in searching for the authentic article. As with grime fans wanting to be near the scene to be a part of it, there is an element of “conforming by being non-conformist” through imitating without taking the risks that those who started the scene did, as one line in All in the Ghetto goes “it’s your trashy phase, but it’s how I live” (Dyckhoff, 2003: 201). To put it in simpler terms, there is a touch of the poser about them. Another component of attraction I want to look at is the perceived possibility of danger that comes with these deprived neighbourhoods. The glamorisation of these apparent dangers in the lyrics of hip-hop and grime records about areas like Hackney or Peckham can prove to be attractive to those who consume the music and want to be near its production. This proximity can possibly be seen as a status enhancer, in a similar way to what rappers claim when commenting on what is going on around them. Plan B addresses this idea of the attractiveness of danger through his deliberate use of stereotypes of council estate living and the idea of the urban safari, treating the neighbouring estate as something to gawp at and visit for the thrill of what could happen. Riz continues this idea saying that these people have “been through the ends like a tourist” and using the examples of gang wars and shootings as elements that bring excitement and consequently increase prices as it adds another layer of authenticity that makes the area even more attractive. This use of danger in song, however, can be used as a means to vilify and attack its producers. This was particularly prevalent in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots when hip-hop was blamed as a key component in the motivations of the rioters. By using that rhetoric, politicians and the media were able to further isolate and victimise those who already have little attention paid to their experiences rather than listening to what pushed them to the extremes of rioting. In addition, the actions of developers and politicians in the harsh treatment of participants in the aftermath of the riots and in the placing of the 2012 Olympic site in a poor neighbourhood, shows a motivation to remove those deemed as threatening youth in favour of a more prosperous middle class demographic that gentrification can provide.
I hope I have to some extent been able to explain some ways in which rappers address and react to gentrification in London. Gentrification displaces many and affects even more, all for the pursuit of profit and capital gain. Hip-hop helps give a voice and a source of alternative identity for those who have been marginalised and rendered voiceless as their support institutions have been removed. It would, however, be dangerous to consider hip-hop as the saviour against gentrification. Many rappers who write about its affects either implicitly or explicitly tend to focus on the most visual aspect of the process, namely the people coming in. These groups, however, are merely part of the wider phenomenon and are just as much at the mercy to the whims of capital, albeit with a much larger safety net. This can be seen where those considered the first wave of gentrifiers, the so-called artists stage, are pushed out themselves as prices and rents reach levels even they can't afford. Gentrification itself is part of a much wider problem at a global level that focuses on benefitting those who have means to the detriment of those who haven't. As a result, hip-hop cannot be seen as either the solution to or the cause of gentrification. The music provides a commentary on what is going on around rappers but that can help increase awareness of these issues and potentially politicise people into getting involved and taking action to reclaim urban space. I have no doubt that many gentrifiers who move in and frequent these new establishments that emerge may well have liberal ideals and mean well, but their presence does precipitate the exclusion of people who have less expendable income. After all organic food and fair trade coffee is only “good for everyone if you can pay the price”.
Chrisafis, A. (2003) “Rapper wins Mercury prize”. The Guardian 10th September
Clark, E. (2004) “The Order and Simplicity of Gentrification - A Political Challenge” in R. Atkinson & G. Bridge Gentrification in a Global Context. Routledge, pp. 261–270.
Dyckhoff, T. (2003) “Higher and Higher: How London Fell for the Loft” in J. Kerr & A. Gibson London: From Punk to Blair. Reaktion Books, London, pp. 198–207.
Rabaka, R. (2011). Hip-Hop’s Inheritance: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Hip-Hop Feminist Movement. Lexington Books, Lanham, Md.
Rose, T. (1994). “A Style Nobody Can Deal With: Politics, Style and the Postindustrial City in Hip-Hop” in T. Rose & A. Ross Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture. Routledge, New York, pp. 71–88.
Routledge, P. (2011) “London riots: Is rap music to blame for encouraging this culture of violence?” The Daily Mirror, 9th August
Smith, N. (1979) “Toward a Theory of Gentrification A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People”. Journal of the American Planning Association 45, 538–548.
Staff (2015) “Welfare cuts and soaring rents have pushed 50,000 families out of London in the last three years” The Independent, 29th April