As grime music pushes into the mainstream and the number of tie-ups between brands and artists increases, how can authenticity be preserved?
As grime music pushes into the mainstream and is met by brands eager to tie up with artists, how can authenticity be preserved?
For artist and producer Prince Rapid, the early days of grime were a time of inventiveness – not least when it came to the challenge posed by scaling the heights of inner-city tower blocks to mount radio aerials. He was an original member of Ruff Sqwad (pictured below), a group formed 15 years ago in Bow, east London. It is now considered one of the key pioneers of grime music, a genre that emerged in the capital in the early 2000s and is influenced by garage, jungle and hip-hop. In the early days, grime’s only outlet was pirate radio, which explains why Rapid – whose real name is Prince Owusu-agyekum – and many of his friends found themselves setting up rooftop broadcast systems. Those were the lengths they would go to get their sounds heard. You no longer have to tune in to pirate radio to listen to grime. Mykaell Riley, director of the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster, worked on a recent study of the genre (“State of play: grime”) commissioned by Ticketmaster. He describes grime as the most “significant musical development within the UK for decades”. So, as grime goes mainstream, commercial opportunities have inevitably followed, and brands as varied as Adidas and HSBC have used it in their marketing. Just last month, grime posterboy Skepta – winner of the 2016 Mercury Prize, UK popular music’s most prestigious award – starred in Nike’s triumphant viral ad “Nothing beats a Londoner”. Nike’s agency, Wieden & Kennedy London, said Skepta was chosen for the video precisely because he is something of a hero to many young Londoners. This wave of brand interest is testament to grime’s growing influence. But the relationship between marketers and subcultures is rarely an easy one. “A bit like punk in the 1970s, grime is the sound of anti-establishment youth,” says Henry Scotland, managing partner of Iris, which has worked with grime musicians for brands including Superdry and Adidas. “Unless the brand already plays some role in youth or street culture, there’s a real risk of appearing to appropriate a subculture they have no permission to play with.” Owusu-agyekum himself fronted an ad campaign for soft-drinks brand KA, when it held a competition last September to discover the best emerging grime artist in the UK. The winner, Birmingham rapper Lady Sanity, was rewarded with an artist-development package and recognised at The KA and GRM Daily Rated Awards, a grime industry ceremony. Owusu-agyekum’s collaboration with KA Drinks made sense because he grew up drinking its products, he says. The company was also already involved in the grime community, having co-created and sponsored the Rated Awards for two years.
That kind of authenticity was also evident in Adidas’ 2016 collaboration with grime MC Stormzy, who provided a soundtrack to mark footballer Paul Pogba’s transfer from Juventus to Manchester United. The pair are mutual admirers and from a similar background, says Gareth Leeding, creative director of We Are Social Sport, the agency behind the campaign. “The value exchange was right for both the talent involved and the brand. It felt authentic and because of that everyone came out on top together,” Leeding says of the work. “It needs to be a collaboration to make sure both sides are happy and [the work is] authentic to what they would normally do.” It also helps if the brand and artist have a