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Burning Questions of London - Class War or Pure Criminality

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

And to these people I would say this: you are not only wrecking the lives of others, you are not only wrecking your communities, you are potentially wrecking your own lives too.

— David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain

There is no future in England’s dreaming
Don’t be told what you want
Don’t be told what you need
There’s no future, no future,
No future for you…

— The Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

On Saturday August 6th, a group of around 200 people gathered outside a police station in Tottenham, in North London, to protest against the police shooting of 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan. According to some reports, the vigil was peaceful until a 16-year-old girl was pushed to the ground by policemen when she approached them to demand details of his death. The crowd erupted.

Two days later, the capital resembled a movie set, a video game, or a dystopian nightmare: take your pick from the similes. London had autoimmune disease: it was attacking itself.

Lawlessness reigned as hooded youths smashed windows, threw bricks, Molotov cocktails and metal road signs, burned shops and houses, and charged at riot police. The disruptions spread from Tottenham to other North London boroughs such as Wood Green, Enfield Town, and Ponders End, then south to Brixton and Croydon (outside of London), then east to Hackney, and to the west in Notting Hill.

Rioting and looting then emerged hundreds of miles away from London, in Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, and Gloucestershire. The death toll is five at the time of writing, with an unknown number in hospital after being beaten. Why did this happen? And how?

The latter is easier to answer.

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

“We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.” – Banksy

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

It started off as a crowd of 200 people protesting the death of a young black man. Partly because they knew him personally—and partly because he was the latest victim of police brutality and/or racism. Then, in the same way that the L.A. riots turned quickly from a protest with a point to mob rule, the London riots unraveled into an orgy of looting and chaos. The tipping point came when people realised they had outnumbered and overpowered police, that they could do whatever they wanted. And so they did.

The rioters on the first night were predominantly young black males. Yet after that, the rioters—and particularly the looters—could not be boxed in with tags of race, gender, or even age. Young girls, middle-aged men—many appeared to be opportunistic “bystanders” to the violence, who merely wanted their share of free stuff.

The disturbances only simmered to a halt after David Cameron deigned to return from his holiday in Italy and announce that the number of police on London’s streets would be increased from 6,000 to 16,000. Many of the most hardcore contingent were arrested and as people realised they were more likely to get caught, they stopped. And put the stolen iPhones and flat-screen TVs on eBay.

Now to the question of why. The rioters were unable to articulate a coherent justification for their actions: “We’re taking our taxes back… it’s about the rich people, yeah, or the Government, the Conservatives or whoever it is,” as if they’d been reading leftie newspapers for a good line to quote. The responsibility to explain why has fallen instead to the intellectuals, academics and journalists.

The response has fallen into two camps. The conservative right have maligned the rioters as “purely criminal” with Cameron saying they were “frankly sick”. The liberal left have tried to explain the underlying social, economic, political and cultural reasons, inviting derision from some who say they are condoning the looters.

To me, exploring the background context is not an excuse for the horrific attacks on individuals, livelihoods, private property and communities, but rather a question that begs to be asked.

It is easy to romanticise protests. Riots also erupted in England back in 1981, when 2 tone music could dress up aggression as meaningful political protest. But this time, it was not about demands for rights, or political participation, or less welfare cuts, or racial equality. The non-looting public were outraged and disgusted at the utter lack of conscious objective, or political engagement. They were furious that underprivileged kids would willfully destroy the shops of other underprivileged people who had worked hard to get where they were. This was not an attack on the rich, no matter the confused claims of the looters who spoke to journalists.

Those who claim, however, that the riots were merely about mindless greed and violence, somehow miss the point as well. As any historian, sociologist or anthropologist will try and tell you, all events have context and background: widespread criminality does not emerge simply as a result of individual faults.

Countless explanations have been offered already. Is it about broken familial structure, absentee parents, widespread lack of discipline, as those on the right say or social disenfranchisement, relentless humiliation and a lack of hope or future, as the left suggest? Is it the glamorisation of gangster culture, which promises wealth and status through violence and intimidation rather than the socially acceptable route of schooling and employment? Is it a question of race and the inevitable consequence of misguided multi-culturist policies?

Are we asking the right questions?

Building Utopia (HESO Magazine)

Building Utopia © Arnaud De Grave

It could be all of the above, and more. That violent, looting and arson exploded to such a scale suggests that the giddy euphoria of complete transgression—and the crowd mentality that encouraged it—are surely factors. But as it becomes clear that the participants came from myriad walks of life—teachers, millionaires’ daughters, eight year-old kids—and not all were impoverished, desperate, or angry, it also becomes harder to argue that there is one root cause.

For the opposition Labour government, it is convenient to claim that the violence erupted in response to recent austerity cuts, which affected student loans, health care, and youth facilities. For the British National Party and other xenophobes, it is convenient to point the finger at blacks. And for liberals, it is convenient to pin the blame on a consistent underinvestment in deprived areas and the increasingly large gap between the haves and have-nots. Is placing blame getting us anywhere?

It is nigh on impossible to prise apart the threads that knotted up to produce the situation. It would also be patronizing and presumptuous to suggest what the rioters are thinking, or what they have been through, particularly those belonging to the so-called “underclass”. I have never had a confrontation, never mind a conversation, with any of them.

Yet I lived in London for three years. I spent one of those years in a block of council flats in Hackney, where kids tossed Molotov cocktails in the courtyard at Halloween. Like the rest of the middle-class students there, I treated the deprivation and gang culture around me as a form of ersatz danger, as hip and edgy as the exposed brick walls in the local dive bar. I was an agent of gentrification, and the social mix was still impoverished enough to be cool and raw enough to make me feel alive.

But as well as being authentic, the undercurrents of violence, aggression and apathy that run through British life are depressing. Anyone who has lived in London or any part of the UK has been an unwilling witness to the carnage that hits urban centres on Friday and Saturday nights: the gutters awash with blood, smashed glass and drunk girls with their skirts up.

Yet perhaps people like me, who patronize and jeer at the underclass—their accents, their clothes, their limited lexicon—are to blame for their supposed alienation from society. Or maybe not. Maybe their actions last week were unforgivable: poverty is not necessarily a precursor to immorality.

Every article I read twists my arm and pulls me to a different conclusion. One thing I can be sure of is that the riots were not “about race”. Anyone who claims they were means one of two things: 1) since the majority of rioters were black, then all blacks are intrinsically criminal trouble-makers, or that 2) young black men suffer relentless institutionalized racism, and this was their reaction to it.

I think the fact that the participation of whites, even in the first night of riots, renders these arguments nonsensical. It is true that blacks are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by police on the street than whites, which might explain why anti-police sentiment is particularly rife among the black community.

Yet it is also true that they are responsible for 70% of gun crime in the capital, which might go far to deciphering some of the institutional racism within the police force and misgivings in society at large. If you agree that race is simply a social construct, born out of environment and culture, then it holds that there is no a priori connection between your skin colour and the likelihood of you being a criminal, shown by the difference between kids brought up in affluent and impoverished environments.

Yet it is undeniable that there is a general human impulse to gravitate towards people who are similar to you, which helps create the phenomenon of culture. We can observe a group of people and say that the way they behave and interact with each other constitutes “black culture,” just as we can for British Indians, Polish immigrants or Blood Sausage connoisseurs. To blame skin colour in itself, rather than environments and cultures, unfairly condemns people by their appearance alone, or their affinity for black pudding and so on.

Of course, you can argue that the elements of “black culture” in Britain that idolize American gangs are responsible for the racism leveled against them. You can argue that young black kids don’t have enough role models, or father figures, but aren’t there as many white and Asian kids who are exactly the same? Doesn’t that prove that it is more about environment than genetic heritage—and that it is more about class than race, as is usually the case in Britain?

It is class that allows people to call the rioters “mindless,” a codeword for thick, which is the British equivalent of dumb. It’s easy to be horrified, to jeer, to demean them as “feral”: base brutes lacking intelligence and morality and deserving of all the force the state can muster against them. But call someone a no-good criminal enough times and they will eventually begin to claim it as an identity. If you want to be fancy you can call it Foucauldian.I can see why the government is keener to talk about punishing them than trying to fix the social and cultural circumstances that led to their disenfranchisement and alienation from society. I too have no solutions to offer. The debate rages on between those who think that only severe punishment will teach the perpetrators to fear authority, to those who think the people who have been systemically abused and humiliated by society actually need help.

While retribution might be necessary, it is not going to solve the root of the problem, and might even spark future unrest. Wandsworth Council has announced that it is looking into evicting rioters who live in council houses (e.g. heavily subsidized rent), and even families of rioters. In addition to the absurdity of a family’s fate resting on a wayward kid (even rich kids go off the rails, remember Mr. PM), such a move is unlikely to cause anything other than resentment, and further potential unrest. If we continue to go down that route, the War on the Underclass might become just like the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror: a battle fought in the vain belief that increasing the forces that sparked the problem will eventually make it disappear.

Beardyman - The Interview - HESO Magazine

BeardyMan – The Interview

Beardyman in Bern by Beard Radio on Mixcloud

Beardyman - The Interview - HESO Magazine

Beardyman Beatboxing live

The two-time UK Beatbox Champion takes time out of his packed schedule to tell Heso Magazine about the inspirational genius of Bach and recording his solo album naked while surrounded by monks…

BeardyMan – The Interview

HESO Magazine: Your hometown is Brighton. For the benefit of readers outside England, enlighten us about the little town by the sea that gave us Beardyman…

Beardyman: Brighton is a beautiful little place. Some people call it London-on-sea, but they’re just jealous and overly nostalgic. It’s an awesome place to try and make it in music. True, it’s almost as expensive as London to live there, but the character of the place is still as hippy-like and alternative as ever. It’s got so much character. And it’s just the right size that you’ve got loads of students and young people who love music and like being entertained, but still small enough to make a name for yourself with a couple of years worth of good gigs. For people putting on their own nights there are places to start out—less than there were, but still places. It’s much less harsh than London in terms of attitude. If living in London makes you crazy, Brighton is the antidote. It’s chill. I love it.

HM: How did you get into beatboxing?

BM: I’ve always done it, since I can remember, but I didn’t know there was a name for it, let alone that you could make a living from it. Soon as I saw Rahzel though, I knew I had to give it a shot. That was in 2003 I think…I saw him rock a crowd for a whole hour, and just thought, wicked, I wanna do that! So I teamed up with Klumzy-tung, a ridiculous freestyle MC, and we just started seeing how silly we could be. We developed our own style of “silliness” mixed with hip-hop and drum n bass, and that showed me how silly you could be and get away with it. Since then I haven’t been afraid to be stupid on stage.

HM: When did you decide to commit to being a full-time beatboxer?

BM: It was a decision I took about two years ago. I hit a crossroads, where I could either try and be a musical artist or not sacrifice my degree and possibly my career in product design. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I thought I’d starve, but actually I’m doing OK. For now…haha!

HM: Who are your biggest influences?

BM: So many people inspire me: Jimi Hendrix, for his improvisational and technical genius; Bach for being able to play a six part fugue with two hands and one brain and improvise the whole thing, which is a bit like playing six games of chess blindfolded. Bobby McFerrin for his incredible vocal accuracy and ability to control an audience to such an extent that he can play them like a keyboard with his feet. There’s this clip of him at the Montreaux Jazz Festival doing it. It’s required viewing for any live musician. Rahzel and all beatboxers worldwide – I’m fascinated by stagecraft, and every beatboxer has their own style of theatre that they bring to a performance. James Brown, Tool, Tim Exile. Tim Exile’s amazing! He regularly clears rooms because his sets are so scary. I love him.

HM: Your live performances are packed full of musical and mimical creativity. Where does your inspiration come from?

BM: Anything really. Whatever makes me laugh, or whatever I’m having a joke about with my mates. You’ve got to check out the Lyrebird of Southern Australia. It’s the best mimic in all creation. It could take any beatboxer down, I’m not even joking. Check it out on YouTube – it’ll fuck your head up. It makes parrots look like amateurs. There’s a quote for you…”Parrots are fucking amateurs!”

Beardyman - The Interview - HESO Magazine

Beardyman getting the crowd going

HM: When you’re up on stage how much is improvisation? How do you prepare before a show?

BM: It’s a mixture depending on the show. I practice routines but I always end up changing them on the day because every crowd is different and you gotta roll with whatever vibe is flowing. It’s pretty cool being able to just adapt a set to do whatever you feel like doing. That’s the advantage of making all the music at the same time with your mouth.

HM: You have a lot of collaborations in the pipeline at the moment. What should we be looking out for this year?

BM: I’m going to be cutting down on gigs in a big way this next 6 months. I need to get this album recorded. I’m doing a freestyle album with musicians and MCs, a podcast with recorded gig material, a studio album and various other collaborations: one with A-skills, another with the Quemists, and many others this year, some of which are too exciting to talk about… but if they happen, then awesomeness will rain down from on high and bless all da people dem!

Also though, and most excitingly, the club-night run by myself and JFB, the UK DMC champion, is going from strength to strength. We have a club night in Brighton and in London, both in excellent venues and at both of them we have complete artistic license. JFB scratches with sounds he’s recorded and we make the entire set out of that. It’s really quite unique—come see it before it gets too big and we’re packing out stadiums!

HM: What can we expect from a Beardyman solo album?

BM: I’m going to record the whole album naked, surrounded by monks of all different faiths. Then I will throw it away and make a new album entirely out of samples of fish being gutted. I’ll release that on a major label under the pseudonym “Robbie Williams” and go on tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra…But really…I’m going to be releasing a couple of different strands of musical recordings: the live improvised stuff, which will be more fun and dance driven, and then there’ll be some slightly deeper, more polished stuff which will be broader in scope and audience. I play instruments too so I’ll be using them. No need to hem in your creativity just to fit into the beatbox mould.

HM: Can we expect to see you out in Japan anytime soon?

BM: Definitely. If someone wants to book me, I’d love to see Japan. I hear the sushi is very good…

Beardyman’s debut EP Mr. Maybe is available from iTunes

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