The Mercury Music Prize has attracted plenty of criticism in recent years for a supposed ladding-up of its shortlisting and a tendency to err on the side of safety in its winners. The 2019 nominees were, whilst there were some fine individual releases amongst them, again slightly a thrown together looking bunch, but on the night the ceremony – broadcast much to its chagrin no doubt by the BBC – a thing happened far more interesting than the awards itself (Although congratulations are due to Dave for stealing the gong with Psychodrama).
Enter slowthai, the Northampton rapper/MC. The warning signs for any dozing production teams were already there: his debut album was called There’s Nothing Great About Britain and at the end of it’s opening track he jovially calls the country’s reigning monarch a “c**t”.
slowthai, aka Tyrone Frampton, spent his rendition of Doorman chanting “F**K Boris”, whilst holding up an effigy of the British Prime Minister’s severed head, the audacity of the act challenging music on TV’s dubious perch in entertainment schedules as a Jools Holland led boogie-woogie ruined safe space.
The largely right-wing British media were, predictably, FURIOUS. Nothing irks them more than a lack of control over the country’s narrative: The Daily Telegraph’s manipulative, barrel scraping coverage of the incident linked its cartoon depiction of violence disingenuously to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a fascist inspired vigilante three years ago. Predictably also a slew of Puppy-Avatar sporting Twitter accounts interrupted some usual tedious Corbyn/Lineker/Thunberg trolling to express the xeroxed outrage their Brexit mentors had handed down to them. What the sponsorship team at Hyundai made of it all is anyone’s guess.
The righteous are unsurprisingly the same people who spend all day every day defending the principle of free speech on social media – provided that what’s being spoken fits their narrative. Credit Frampton with the brains then to understand the opportunity such a platform gave him, one during which he’s subsequently claimed he could “Hold up a mirror to Britain”.
We need risk takers like him. As successive governments have wound down the arts in educational curricula, as publicly funded spaces have closed and as benefit cuts have meant juggling a music career with a zero hours contract is inevitable, the disenfranchised have simply walked away. Being young and angry often leads instead now to other expressions than creative ones, the sort that society as a whole takes no time to understand before condemning.
If slowthai – or Bristolian punks Idles, who also took a swipe at mainstream culture’s tropes during their rendition of Never Fight A Man With A Perm – cannot make us uncomfortable, then the mediums for doing so have either been silently closed off, or we’re living in a harmonious Shangri-La of liberal self-delusion. Both are profoundly worrying, whether you agree with the specific sentiment carried or not. As much as people must have the right to speak, they then must have the right to offend us too.