2019 will go down as the year that Grime fulfilled its promise.
It built its audience through UK underground pirate radio stations in the late 1990s, then several seminal albums arrived in the early 2000s: and with a new generation of artists such as Stormzy headlining this year’s Glastonbury Festival, the music’s journey to the mainstream is complete.
Now, everyone is taking a bite of out of that style.
On the sonic front, grime’s affinity for busy, off-kilter beats has since been used by hip-hop heavyweights Kanye West and Drake, while its aesthetics and street-wise attitude has given birth to fashion trends and a hit television show.
With his role in bringing the unstoppable scene to forefront, you would think Kano would offer a grand narrative about why and how his art form has come to be accepted.
It's not that simple, he cautions ahead of his performance tonight at the On.DXB Festival at Dubai Studio City.
The rapper and star of the Netflix cult crime series Top Boy says it's hard to survey the landscape when you are in the eye of the storm.
“You can’t really tell what is going on and the effect of everything when you are in it, you know what I mean?” he tells me in a sit-down interview, his distinctive baritone speaking to both his London and Jamaican roots.
'The National's' Saeed Saeed interviewing Kano on the On.DXB stage:
“I know that from the outside looking in people are paying more attention to the music that we are making, but it doesn’t feel like I am riding some kind of wave. To me, it is still a fight and a battle. I know we artists are all looked at as some kind of collective, but we all have our own individual journeys. For me, writing and creating music can be quite a solitary thing.”
Kano is all about getting better as an artist
Despite the boisterous and anthemic sounds of his key tracks such as Boys Love Girls, Ps and Qs and Wheels Up, Kano – Kane Robinson – is a quiet and considerate man.
I learn pretty quickly to let him brood over questions. This will be no rapid-fire conversation. Kano takes his time and, in turn, offers penetrating insights into his art and creative process.
Broaching his latest and well received album, Hoodies All Summer, I offer my observation that, while it is ultimately a positive record, particularly through its message for self-empowerment, Kano's lyrics and weary vocals in it seem to be laced with concern. It is almost as if he is bemused by success, or even paranoid it could be suddenly snatched away.
“That’s because there is always something underlying it,” he says after a long pause.
“I can’t say that I am not driven by success or have a fear of being successful. But for me, the ultimate thing is just about being good at what I do. Because if I made an album that I didn't really like and it was super successful then I wouldn’t happy within. That's the kind of person I am. It goes back to the fight that I told you about earlier, it is about that struggle to get better and better.”
And it is all an organic process, Kano says. From the sourcing of the beats to the lyrical subject matter, each album is a process of discovery. While Hoodies all Summer finds Kano once again tapping into British societal issues such as gentrification, crime and police brutality, what is striking is the wide lens with which he manages to view each issue.
Kano is a street corner sociologist and 'Trouble' is a grime masterpiece
The key track of the album is Trouble. It's a lyrical masterclass and a showcase of grime's potent power in expressing what is happening in the UK's streets.
Accompanied by a powerful 17-minute video, the song is vivid snapshot of the harrowing and indiscriminate nature of youth violence in London.
Kano takes no side here. A street corner sociologist, he paints a powerful picture of the cycle of violence occurring daily in the UK’s streets. He begins by understanding the motivations of the socially disenfranchised youth. ("They have received very little support from other sections of the population / As a consequence of which, they must find money by these means") before taking us into the consequence of their actions ("You ever seen a mother's tears run down Gucci glasses?").
Kano then underscores the ambivalent attitude of politicians who “hush, don't make a sound / Been oppressin' us a couple centuries now / And these gunshots never reach your town." He then offers his role as an artist as inspiration: “My only obligation is to give inspiration / This the winners' table, and here's your invitation.”
Kano wants his music to act as an opportunity to discuss these important issues.
"With my last album (2016's Made in the Manor) it was all very inward looking and personal and I think I came to a place where I didn't really know what more to reveal about myself. So I was looking at what was happening in the UK, especially among the youth, and talking about that because these are things I am passionate about," he says.
“While this album has a different viewpoint with, as you said, a wider scope, the thing about it is that I had to make sure I was not talking down to people. I wanted to be on mutual terms. It’s an invitation to have this conversation.”
Kano on the upcoming UK elections
And with the UK election set to take place on Thursday, December 12, the searing issues discussed in Kano's music are set to be key talking points in the weeks to come. While preferring to keep his own counsel when it comes to his political leanings, Kano says the youth vote could be a decisive factor in what has already become a bitter battle between the UK’s major parties.
“I probably pay more attention to politics than what I used to. It is probably because of the time that we are in, the issues we face and the fact that I am older,” he says.
“But I do think this election is important, and the youth do have an influence and this is why [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn came as close as he did the last time. I think we had a massive part to play in that. I think, generally, it is always good to be aware of what is going on.”
Tickets for Kano’s concert tonight
To avail a 50 per cent discount (to Dh75 from Dh150) for Kano's concert tonight type the code 'GETONDXB' at platinumlist.net.
Kano will perform at 10pm, tonight at the Festival Stage at the Dubai Studio City Sound Stage. More information is available at ondxbfest.com