Saturday, 7 April 2012

Plan B: The socially concious rapper changing the way people think about the working class.

Hip hop is a strange beast. It’s almost the rock and roll of modern times. It is to the 21st century what Rock and Roll was to the mid-20th century. It’s reprobated by parents and the ruling classes alike as somehow applauding and even encouraging a life of hedonism, extravagance and sin but revered by young people as a tool for rebelling against authority. It can however, from time to time, highlight and discuss complex social, political and moral issues in much the same way as rock and roll did (And in some ways, still does). Every now and then an artist comes along who wants more than to just make records and make money; there comes an artist who wants to make a difference. Plan B is such an artist.

“What does the word chav mean?” Quite a simple question really. We all have a socially constructed image of what a chav is. He’s a man who looks like Wayne Rooney, sounds like Dizzee Rascal and dresses like a guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show. This is the question that Plan B asks the crowd gathered in the convention centre. He knows exactly what the slew of people gathered in the room are thinking. And it ain’t far off my terse description.

“I believe it stands for "council house and violent". It's a word that is used to ridicule and label people who come from a less educated background than the rest of society. For me, it's no different from similar words used to be prejudiced towards race or sex. The difference is, in this country we openly say the word chav. The papers openly ridicule the poor and less unfortunate.” This was Plan B’s definition.

This is only a snippet of the masterful talk on disadvantaged youth which Plan B, real name Ben Drew, gave recently at the TEDxObserver convention in London. An impassioned Plan B calmly and coolly outlined his views on the perceived “underclass” in Britain, the London riots and media portrayals of “chavs” while backing up his arguments with personal anecdotes. He spoke slowly, it was clear he wasn’t used to public speaking, but he talked assuredly and discussed how he’s helping highlight these issues and how he’s working with disadvantaged youths.

One of the ways he’s accentuating the issues facing working-class youths is by directing and writing the soundtrack to a new film scheduled for release this summer, ill Manors, which focuses on the lives of four working-class youths in London. The single which takes its name from the film and focuses on the London Riots of last summer was released last month and boy did it light a fuse.  

ill Manors, the song, has sparked mass debate online in the past few weeks regarding its lyrical content and even the video which accompanies it. Some see it as Plan B endorsing the rioters and their actions while others see it as an alternative take on the riots, focusing on a perspective not taken into account by the mainstream press last year; the perspective of the rioters. Some even see it as some sort of working class anthem and Dorian Lynskey, writing for The Guardian, went as far as christening it “the greatest British protest song in years.” Whatever your take is on it, one can’t help but admit that it’s refreshing to see a mainstream artist take such a keen interest in such an important and divisive event.

The song itself sees Plan B revert back to his old hip-hopping ways and is a long way off his last album, the soulful smash-hit The Defamation of Strickland Banks. The songs deals with not only the riots themselves, but also some of the causes and the reaction. The lyrics are sharp, aggressive and brilliantly witty. The song is raucously angry. Anger is the main emotion expressed. “Oi! I said, Oi! What you looking at you little rich boy? We’re poor round ‘ere, run home and lock your door!” shouts Plan B during the particularly aggressive and embattled chorus.

“There's no such thing as broken Britain, we're just bloody broke in Britain. What needs fixing is the system, not shop windows down in Brixton. Riots on the television, you can't put us all in prison!”

It’s clear the message Plan B is trying to convey. The rioters feel no sense of belonging in a society that demonizes and vilifies them. They don’t feel any respect for authority as they don’t feel any respect from authority.  

Indeed, on the subject of society and the working class, this is what Plan B had to say during his speech at TEDxObserver; “You’ve got a whole generation of kids who do not feel like they’re part of this society and they start rioting and looting and taking the things that society has made them feel are the most important things.” Ill Manors echo these sentiments.

This is no standalone act however. Plan B is not merely satisfied by highlighting the problem with a film and song, he really does want to change things. He ended his speech by revealing his next move, “The next step for me is to try and create an umbrella organisation that is going to bring in money and disperse it amongst these individuals within their communities, working within their communities, doing positive things with no funding.” 

He told the crowd of a hairdresser named Andrew Curtis who, instead of accepting a high-paying job from renowned hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, set up a hairdressing academy with his girlfriend to teach underprivileged youths how to cut hair. These, Plan B claims, are the kinds of people he wants to help.

The riots, and most pertinently the reaction to them, have further alienated the “underclass”, as Plan B calls them, from society and indeed from the government. Plan B claimed in a recent interview with NME Magazine that the rioters played into the hands of the Government by rioting, that they “proved everything they've [the government] been saying."

He’s correct. The riots made it easier for the Government and middle class to castigate and condemn the working class. It confirmed to them what they had assumed all along; the working class are all violent thugs with no hope and no future (Not all middle class people hold this view, I might add). This widens the gap in communication and understanding between the classes. People will be less inclined to help those financially less fortunate than themselves as they don’t see them as deserving of any help.

This is where an artist like Plan B comes in. He is in the unique position of being able to speak to all classes. As someone who comes from a working class background his opinion is valued by the poor and as a celebrity his opinion is valued by Middle England. He has the status and the faculty to appeal to all classes.

Him being a rapper is important too. As an avowed rocker, it does a teensy weensy bit pain me to say this but it’s true; Hip-hop is far and away the most successful genre of music right now. It’s adored by working class and middle class alike and is the choice genre for the majority of young people. Thanks to this, Plan B has the target audience within his grasp.

As he says himself “If I wanna talk to these kids, if I wanna get through to them I’ve gotta talk to them in their language, I got to swear. I’ve gotta talk about violent and negative things because that’s what they’re attracted to.”

Let’s hope he can get through to these kids and let’s hope there are more artists and musicians out there with the same moral fibre as Ben Drew. If there is, they may just help form a society that is more inclusive and more in sync with all its members.

Here's Plan B's speech at the TEDxObserver convention in full. Definitely worth a listen if you have the time.

And here's the song ill Manors. If you haven't heard it yet, first, smack yourself and then it that "play" button.

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