UK grime scene faces obstacles to US ovation
Amazing music means little to an audience that can’t understand the artist’s accent.
There are people who understand London-based rapper Guvna B’s accent, and he’s been honored for it. In 2010, he won Best Gospel Act at the MOBO Awards, which is essentially the UK version of the BET Awards. And his last album, Odd 1 Out, topped the Official UK Christian & Gospel Chart.
However, the vast majority of Guvna B’s following is on the east side of the Atlantic Ocean. This month, he featured in a song by Grammy Award-winning, Contemporary Christian Music artist Matt Redman of the United Kingdom, yet few Americans have reciprocated Guvna B’s attempts to collaborate.
“I don’t really get [a cold shoulder] here in the UK or other territories — it’s always the Americans, man,” Guvna B laughed. “Can’t they get with my accent? What am I doing?”
He may be onto something.
Dwayne Tryumf, a pioneer of UK Christian rap, has spent a significant amount of time in the United States — even living in Memphis, Tennessee for a three-month discipleship course that Lecrae invited him to take. Tryumf got used to hearing, “What did you say?” when he rapped.
“When I go on Rap Genius and see the American interpretations of what I said, sometimes it’s quite funny because they had no idea what I said,” Tryumf laughed. “The American accent is a bit smoother, and the English accent is a bit harder edged.”
If an English accent gives Americans a hard time, grime, a genre of music birthed in London that often features a more up-tempo beat than American hip hop, wouldn’t make their listening experience easier. A Star, who Guvna B called the best grime artist in the UK scene, offered a comparable American-effort to grime — not double-time songs like Andy Mineo’s “Paganini,” but Lecrae’s “Don’t Waste Your Life” featuring Tryumf.
Tryumf developed a fan base in the U.S., but he confessed that he once disliked grime, preferring the Grandmaster Flash and Slick Rick records that his father bought back from visits to Tryumf’s grandmother in The Bronx.
Grime also wasn’t the childhood soundtrack of S.O. or Jahaziel, rappers who live in London and are signed to American-based record labels, Lamp Mode Recordings and Xist Music, respectively. Instead, Eminem, Nas and Jay Z influenced S.O., who’s from Nigeria. And Notorious B.I.G. influenced Jahaziel.
Guvna B and A Star, though, grew up on grime, and the combination of their rap style and accent can feel like a barrier between them and American listeners.
“We know we have some dope emcees here,” A Star said, “but it’s hard to be understood by the Americans because of our accent. It kind of makes us feel like, ‘Do we have to sound like Americans in order to be accepted by them?’ It can get quite frustrating sometimes” — frustration that stems from a struggle to pay bills.
While most UK rappers have heard Americans gripe about their accent, grime is a younger obstacle, birthed shortly after Efrem Buckle, former member of the rap group Ministri of Defence (M.O.D), began to rap. Buckle, who with M.O.D featured on The Ambassador’s 1999 album Christology, told Rapzilla that most of the few UK rappers who existed before the turn of the century performed with an American twang.
“That was the culture we received,” he said. “If you wanted to sound proper, you kind of had to Americanize your accent.”
Tryumf, S.O. and Jahaziel attested that the U.S. Christian rap scene has little knowledge of the one across the Atlantic, which must increase the temptation to adopt an American sound, especially with the uncultured fraction of the U.S. providing extra motivation.
“One time I was in Philadelphia,” Jahaziel said, “and a guy said to me, ‘They have black people in England? Man, the only black man that I thought was from England was Jeffrey,’” who is actor on the television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“S.O told me a girl said to him once, ‘You live in London? Have you seen the Eiffel Tower?’” which is in France. “You’re dealing with people who are just so used to their own thing, they’ve not been exposed to the wider world.”
Despite this, Guvna B, A Star, Triple O and the UK’s top Christian grime artists refuse to neglect their roots, which Buckle applauds them for.
“The reality is that the grime culture among young people is still very evasive and still very their first expression of their identity,” Buckle said. “If those guys like Guvna and A Star were going to think, ‘You know what, I can get a U.S. audience by just being more hip-hop oriented, they can end up doing a disservice to their community that God’s called them to reach.”
S.O. believes their dedication will ultimately pay dividends.
“Good music trumps accent,” he said. “Good music trumps sea levels because we have the internet. Rapzilla could post something right now and it could go.”