Newham: The East London Grime Site as A Place of Emancipatory Disruption

By Cammy Thomas


“‘Cos Newham, what the f*ck happened to Newham man?”

                                                                      Kano ‘Good Youtes Walk amongst Evil’


What are the results of a mass migration of cultures from the Caribbean, Africa, and India? The Windrush boats from the Caribbean which brought thousands of migrants to the British Isles were not just weighed down with people, those boats were also at risk from capsizing from the culture, swag and style passengers carried with them along with their cases! Amongst the passengers on those Windrush boats full of West Indians, people hoped to begin a new life in the country they called their motherland, maybe my granddad and grandma and your grandparents were on those same boats and had conversations, as they sailed towards the land of the unknown. Perhaps Kano’s grandparents shared a game of dominoes with Ghetts’ grandparents, perhaps Wiley’s grandparents tapped out a rhythm against the side of the boat with nervous anticipation as they approached the harbour at Tilbury docks in Essex, as they came ever closer to the country they would come to call home.

When my grandparents disembarked from Jamaica to the UK from the Windrush boats, they decided to settle in Coventry, West Midlands, which had a thriving and close knit community of Jamaican expats, who had each other’s backs in a country where the majority treated the new immigrants with contempt and suspicion. The same challenges my grandparents faced were also echoed further south, in the country’s capital, as migrants spread themselves far and wide across the UK with a large proportion of Caribbean’s (and later Africans and Indians) choosing to settle in London, Newham, East London – a borough created in 1965 from the Essex counties of East Ham and West Ham, (more on this in Dr. Joy White’s book ‘Regeneration Songs’)

Sociologist Joy White, shows off Grime Originals, N.A.S.T.Y Crew and Ayia Napa merch !

Newham was historically known as the gateway between London and Essex, the borough also appeared to act as a gateway for ethnic minority communities to converge and coexist, as Newham became the 2nd highest diverse group in the UK 2001 UK Census, this would have encouraged differing racial and cultural groups to bond together in the comfort of working-class relatability. In conjunction with the ethnic make-up of Newham, the borough also had the 2nd highest unemployment rates in the UK in 2001, add to that the disenfranchisement felt by the Caribbean diaspora, who migrated to the UK for a better life but could not secure employment. They were judged by the education system as underachievers, struggled to make ends meet to feed their children, and also had to deal with racial slurs and attacks from the National Front (A prominent anti-immigration fascist collective of the time) who held the view they did not belong in the UK and that immigrants should “Go home.” If you are Caribbean, African or Indian, then this will be familiar to you via your grandparents and parents’ stories. Former generations attempted to assimilate with their new neighbours and survive, the generations which came after, chose to fight the oppressive system; and rise.
A hive of creativity in the Ends – Newham

So, back to my earlier question, what happens when you get differing races, cultures, styles and traditions conflating against a backdrop of extreme poverty and adversity? You get a giant blend of concoctions, colliding and clashing until it explodes in chaos, fuelled further by frustrations, and expressed via raw and unabashed creativity. The oppression our grandparents felt in the past would not be tolerated in the present. The music and culture our relatives brought to the UK along with their suitcases, influenced the Grime artists we know and love today. Newham artists’ such as Footsie, Sharky Major and Jammer, grew up on reggae, some of them observed their relatives playing in sound systems and watched them participate in sound clashes which they would later incorporate into the culture of Grime. Another distinctive import from Jamaica was dancehall which was fused with the British sonic of jungle and it was here the Grime stars of the future learned that fusing music from their cultural heritage (reggae and dancehall) with syncopated sounds influenced by their national identity – British, they could reach a place of prominence. Even more importantly, hearing a distinctly British sound and English accents, with a Jamaican twist rise up the ranks of popularity, enabled future Grime artists growing up in East London and inner cities across the UK to have a sense of identity and belonging. Dr. Joy White’s presentation, ‘We need to talk about Newham…’ which took

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Making my way to Dr. Joy White and Chante Jay’s Presentation which took place at Stratford Library, East London, on 18th October 2019

place in the heart of East London at Stratford library on 18th October 2019, did a great job of setting the scene of what it was like to grow up in Newham with a series of interviews being shown to the audience, which Dr. Joy conducted approximately 10 years ago judging by the fresh faces of Ghetts and Lethal Bizzle on the screen. Within the interviews Dr. Joy conducted, artists’ went on to state they spit about where they are from, how they grew up and what they’ve experienced, which is not always pretty but it is always a raw depiction of inner city life. As Joy White succinctly put it during her presentation, “It is unlikely that Grime could have come out of the leafy suburbs of Richmond upon Thames.” The symbiotic blend of working class, poverty, struggle, pain, and community, saw friendships form which would go on to become the foundational structures of Grime crews, e.g. N.A.S.T.Y Crew and Newham generals. The Grime crews which formed in 2001/2 were fighting to establish their identity amongst the reluctant Garage stars, who had reigned the airwaves in their era, they were also trying to break free of the chains of an oppressive system, intent on enforcing stringent divides between rich and poor. Grime was borne from the frustrated cries of the forgotten youth that would be heard, in a place that was often ignored – Newham.

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Arguably the most prolific Grime crew to come out of Newham – Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You AKA N.A.S.T.Y Crew (Picture Credit: BBC Radio 1 Xtra)

Unlike their parents or grandparents of the Windrush generation, the generation which spawned the cold, icy, gritty sonic during Grime’s formative years, were not satisfied with existing silently in the hope of acceptance by the masses like their grandparents before them. The 2nd and 3rd gen. Caribbean, African and Asian diaspora were brisling with cocky confidence, arrogance and the urge to rise from the ashes and create, not only a new sound which represented the cold, bleak streets they found themselves treddin’ carefully and cautiously (almost as if they were on thin ice!), this nihilistic generation also created a new culture to juxtapose the sound. The sonic of Grime is a fusion of genre’s (reggae, dancehall, jungle and its predecessor garage) artists’ such as Wiley, Footsie, D Double E and Griminal, were exposed to by their parents growing up. The culture of Grime contains its own language and lingo “Reload”, “Dub plate”, “Tekkers”, “Leng”, its own ‘uniform’ – adopted from U.S hip hop clothing brands Avirex and Akademiks in the early days, nowadays Grime artists like Stormzy and Lady Leshurr are the faces of international brands ad campaigns, which further solidifies its identity and ensured its longevity. Grime was one of the only vehicles where the voices of an abandoned generation, muted by the suffocation of marginalisation; could be heard (via Newham’s speaker box!! – Déjà Vu radio, which was located in Stratford.)  .

‘Complex UK’ writer Chante Jay, delivers her presentation on how music brings people together (More on that in part 2!)

Such is the importance of Grime culture and its fearless and artistic expression, in recent years we have observed it cross the Atlantic Ocean with Skepta touring Canada and releasing his Mercury Prize winning 2016 album, ‘Konnichiwa’ featuring a plethora of U.S and UK artists. Drake has remained an avid supporter of Grime culture and recently played a massive part in resurrecting ‘Top Boy’, which features our fav Grime and UK Rap artists, Drake often surprising crowds at intimate UK venues performing alongside his fav’s. Grime ends its 2019 on yet another triumph with respected veteran and Newham General, D Double E featuring in Ikea’s first ever Christmas advert! A moment of pure pride for Newham and the Grime community as a whole, as you can hear on the advert, he has not had to compromise his authenticity to represent the brand or switch up his rhyming style to suit a commercial audience. Grime is now accepted in its true form, and to this day, 18 years later, it makes no apologies and refuses to conform or comply, and therein lies the beauty in the chaos of a genre we call; Grime.
The East London borough of Newham, showcasing Kano and Trapz’ manors (Maps devised by Dr. Joy White)

The forefathers of Grime mentioned in this piece and bigged up repeatedly during Dr. Joy White and Chante Jay’s presentations, began a movement and culture with a uniquely British identity, way back in 2001 / 2002, and its echoes can be heard loud and clear in present day, with artists’ such as Yizzy, Tommy B, Queenie, FFSYTHO, Novelist and Mez, putting their modern spin on a genre spanning almost 2 decades. We also hear the sonic fusions of cross over afro/dancehall and Grime tracks such as Kano and Kojo Funds ‘Pan fried’, Chip with ‘Snap Snap’ and Fekky ft. Shakka ‘My Size.’ the sound of Grime is ever evolving, transforming, merging and maturing. Who would have thought that 18 years ago Newham would be the torch bearer, providing the soundtrack for survivalists navigating a concrete jungle.

Not even Kano could have predicted that what he and his contemporaries began way back when, would go on to inspire multiple generations, so that they would too become the expressive forces of nature and modern-day catalysts for – emancipatory disruption.

“It feels really good, when you’ve had a few years in the game, starting out as kids, putting in work…It was just a hobby, we didn’t know it would turn out like this, it was purely just for passion”




If you would like to read more about Newham, East London and its impact on Grime music and culture, hit the link below to download Dr. Joy White’s book ‘Regeneration Songs’