The book “Where We Come From” by Aniefiok Ekpoudom is a comprehensive examination of the origins of British rap, delving into its social history.
Perhaps due to the fact that a lot of music produced after the beginning of the 21st century has been perceived as unchallenging and unoriginal, grime – and the unique styles of rap that emerged after its rise – still maintains a sense of novelty that takes away from its actual age. Those who can recall its origins may delude themselves into thinking it is still a young art form, but this is not the case. Dizzee Rascal, formerly known as the “boy in da corner,” will turn 40 this year. Songs by popular artists like Wiley, Lethal Bizzle, and Kano are now considered nostalgic throwbacks. Grime is now reaching middle age and feeling a bit sentimental, as seen in last year’s BBC documentary 8Bar: The Evolution of Grime and DJ Target’s book Grime Kids (which was recently adapted into a BBC drama).
Rephrasing: In line with the nostalgic tone, Aniefiok Ekpoudom has created a unique narrative of the development of the genre, highlighting specific individuals and locations that influenced the music.
According to the author, Where We Come From is not meant to be a complete documentation of UK Rap and Grime. Rather, it focuses on the interconnected experiences that influenced their creation. It is not a beginner’s guide and requires prior knowledge and appreciation for UK rap. Terms such as “bars”, “shotting”, and the significance of the Candy dance are assumed to be understood by the reader and are not explained.
The text showcases a unique history of rap that includes a map of the West Midlands, diverging from the usual focus on East London in UK rap. The author, Ekpoudom, deliberately chooses lesser-known artists such as Traxx and Despa, who have their own distinct backgrounds and experiences in the music industry. In south London, the story follows the journey of Cadet, a rapper who uses raw honesty and vulnerability in his lyrics as he strives for success.
Although Ekpoudom’s intention to bring attention to lesser-known individuals is admirable, the focus on relatively minor figures may be perceived as a missed opportunity. Additionally, the lack of visual representation of the subjects may lead readers to search for more information online. The book is also hindered by sections that seem unnecessary, such as a detailed background on Steve Jobs when Cadet works at an Apple store, which may not be relevant in 2023.
However, it still accomplishes its goal of providing a distinct and diverse social history. Ekpoudom connects the past and present to illustrate how grime was able to break into the mainstream. We discover how early trailblazers like So Solid Crew were part of the first wave of British Caribbean youth whose parents were British-born and raised, and how they were influenced by local Black British establishments such as Birmingham’s PCRL pirate radio station and the Rampage sound system at Notting Hill Carnival.
Connections are drawn between the powerful fury of grime music and the justified outrage of the Windrush generation. The Birmingham Museums Trust’s Black Oral History Project has preserved the powerful words of Esme Lancaster, who immigrated from Jamaica to Birmingham in the 1950s and faced subtle racism from her coworkers. She declared, “I am here. We are here. We are coming, and we are growing in number. One day, we will rise up like the children of Israel in Egypt. And if you don’t like it, you can leave or die.” This narrative extends beyond just the Black British community; Traxx’s Greek Cypriot background also delves into the diverse history of Wales, including the intriguing story of Tiger Bay’s immigrant past.
The publisher of the book, Faber, has utilized grandiose language such as “landmark” and “monumental” in its promotional efforts, which I believe is a misstep. It conceals the fact that this is a highly innovative and almost rebellious undertaking, filled with personal anecdotes and intimate experiences. None of the book’s main characters were world-changers. However, the transformations they underwent in their own lives – fueled by the rebellious energy of underground rap music – are truly noteworthy when examined with meticulous attention and care.