LONDON, UK — Sid Vicious and the rest of the Sex Pistols marked the 25th year of the British queen’s reign in 1977 by decrying her “fascist regime” from a boat on the River Thames. So where were the angry punks when Her Majesty this month celebrated 60 years of service?
The UK is wallowing in recession. Unemployment is high. The winds of austerity are whistling through deprived inner city areas.
So shouldn’t the kids be thrashing guitars and spitting from the tower blocks? Or did Vicious really die so that the charts could be filled with tepid dance tunes about love and heartbreak?
Step forward Ben Drew, aka rapper Plan B.
Plan B’s latest single “Ill Manors” is an explosive assault on the governmental neglect that helped trigger major riots last summer. Hailed by one music writer as “the first great mainstream protest song in years,” its lyrics rail against a society that alienates its urban poor. It also has a dynamite video.
Opinionated, eloquent and clearly talented, Drew has been feted as a spokesman for his generation both by broadsheet newspapers and by leftwing politicians keen to cash in on his hip-hop mockery of Britain under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
The 28-year-old has also directed a movie called “Ill Manors,” released in the UK this month, which explores life in a London underclass world of drugs, prostitution, illegal immigration and murder. The film has been almost universally well received by social commentators. Less so by serious film reviewers.
Drew does not wear hooded top and leather jacket of rebellion with ease. Not least, say critics, because he had already sold out to the system he claims to distrust.
Nevertheless, Britain clearly needs a firebrand young artist to soundtrack its austerity anger. It’s worth sizing him up.
The product of a broken family, Drew’s childhood was punctuated by both violence at home and at the school he was kicked out of for causing trouble. At 15, after hurling a chair at a teacher, he was sent to Tunmarsh, a center for “excluded pupils” in a gritty suburb of east London.
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Encouraged by staff at Tunmarsh, he began to develop his creative talents, first with art, then music. He also began hatching plans to stamp his mark on a generation that he believes is in danger not just from an uncaring society, but from its own failure to take responsibility for its actions.
“At this school I was there with other kids from a lot more dysfunctional families than me,” Drew told an audience at a British offshoot of the TEDx lecture series earlier this year. “One thing we shared was a lack of respect for authority, including teachers and police.”
Instead, he says, he and his fellow troublemakers were in thrall to rap artists whose lyrics were “like poetry, like reading a book.” He said: “One sentence can change your life. I realized this was a powerful tool and I wanted to change things: The stuff that I read in the paper; the stuff I came into contact with that I didn’t agree with.”
Two acclaimed albums on a Warner Music-owned label and several well-received acting roles in major film and television productions later, and Drew is turning his attentions to the persecution of the underprivileged.
This he does through the bombastic lyrics on “Ill Manors” (“There’s no such thing as broken Britain/We’re just bloody broke in Britain”) and through withering appraisals of the media which he says is guilty of weaponizing the word “chav” — a pejorative British name given to working class youths — to persecute people living on welfare.
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“The papers openly ridicule the poor and less fortunate,” he told the TEDx audience. “If you call kids words that are derogatory to them, then … you beat them into apathy. In the end they just say, ‘cool, I don’t care. I don’t want to be part of this society.’ And then the riots happen.”
With such coherently argued viewpoints, it’s unsurprising that Drew has become a darling of left-wing intellectuals. Not everyone is convinced, however. Plaudits from lawmakers and newspaper columnists are a “surefire sign you’re doing something wrong,” according to music writer Josh Hall.
“Drew has been so effusively welcomed by the faux-left commentariat because he conforms precisely to their prejudices while resolutely failing to challenge their porous theory,” he says. “He has ‘improved’ himself by sticking rigidly to the strictures of the system in which he found himself – a tactic that has seen him financed by one of the world’s largest record companies.”
Perhaps most damning of all is the unexpected praise Drew’s film has drawn from the right-wing establishment — particularly for its message that law breakers must take responsibility for their own actions.
“By the film’s end, we’re left in no doubt that the best way to deal with people like this is to hold them responsible for their crimes — and that means tougher policing and longer prison sentences,” wrote Toby Young, a political columnist for the tabloid Sun newspaper. “Without realizing it, Ben Drew has made a two-hour party political broadcast for the Conservative party.”
Sid Vicious must be rioting in his grave.
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