Stormzy must have gotten used to breaking barriers by now.
With two BRIT Awards on his mantelpiece, countless sold out tours, Top 10 singles and a number one album under his belt, there’s little the Croydon MC hasn’t been able to turn to gold.
The rapper’s latest venture, though, is one of his most powerful to date. Linking with Penguin Random House, Stormzy has confirmed plans to launch his own publishing imprint, with #Merky Books set to focus on young writers.
As he wrote on Instagram: “I know too many talented writers that don’t always have an outlet or a means to get their work seen and hopefully #Merky Books can now be a reference point for them to say ‘I can be an author’ and for that to be a realistic and achievable goal.”
Launching with Rise Up: The #Merky Journey So Far on November 1st, it’s a bold, emphatically ambitious gesture, which couldn’t come at a more potent time for a publishing industry only just beginning to grapple with Britain’s astonishingly diverse music scene.
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The past 18 months have witnessed a host of fantastic titles exploring both the music and culture that surrounds grime. Wiley’s Godfather tome – split into 96 chapters – managed to somehow both set the record straight and engage in yet more mythologising, an endlessly entertaining picaresque tome that documented a figure who stands as perhaps grime’s most potent folk hero.
1Xtra host, original Roll Deep lynchpin and all-round grime advocate DJ Target has also put pen to paper, writing his essential new book Grime Kids: The Inside Story Of The Global Grime Takeover. It’s a fascinating, probing account of grime’s white heat explosion, it’s initial grapples with the music industry, it’s retreat from the public eye, and it’s astonishing resurgence.
Indeed, Target’s tale – teenage producer, pirate radio personality, becoming a key part of the BBC’s radio output – mirrors and intersects with grime’s own journey from the underground to the charts.
In Target’s own words the book is “my personal journey from a young grime kid and growing up with the likes of Wiley and discovering Dizzee Rascal, to being a member of two of the most influential collectives and experiencing both underground and mainstream success with Roll Deep, through to my position today as a National Radio broadcaster on BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra.”
Writing from the perspective of someone who was there, at every vital turn, DJ Target is able to blend reminiscence with insight, a true insider’s tale that is able to make sense of a genre who’s prime motive – and Achilles heel – is the ability to do exactly what it wants, when it wants.
Finding a narrative amid such an anarchic beast isn’t easy, and Target’s ability to blend so many contradictory voices with his own to create something lucid, and revelatory, shouldn’t be under-estimated.
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The current crop goes beyond the musicians, producers, and rappers, however. Just as grime isn’t just music, it’s also the culture around it, the writing that has been prompted by grime’s phenomenal creative evolution touches on so much more than simply who created what beat, and which rapper sent for which other artist.
Jeffrey Boakye’s Hold Tight is an incredible book, which piles together succinct track analyses to offer insight into black identity, masculinity, the manner in which language can be subverted and improved upon, and so much more. Released on the adventurous Influx Books imprint, it became one of Rough Trade’s Books Of The Year in 2017, in part for its ability to tease out key aspects of grime and connect them with broader cultural strands.
The author told gal dem last year: “The book starts with (the phrase) ‘black people’. Those are the first words that you see and that’s what we’re really talking about — it’s in the subtext and in the context and this book is celebrating as well as critiquing grime’s relationship with itself.”
Journalist Dan Hancox is one of the most persistently insightful journalists documenting underground culture in London and beyond, a voice who has spoken with grime musicians for over a decade now. New book Inner City Pressure picks apart the story of grime in full, reaching back to the final chapters of the UK garage explosion, and taking it right up to the present day.
An exhaustive, thrilling account of one of UK music’s most fascinating and complex musical experiences, Inner City Pressure itself embodies a subtle shift in the way publishing is approaching grime in 2018. When Dan Hancox released his tome Stand Up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth Of Grime in 2013 it emerged as an eBook. Fast forward five years and Inner City Pressure is emerging through Williams Collins’ heavyweight stable.
It’s no coincidence that attitudes towards grime and black British music are shifting within the publishing world. The success of vital works such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race have made it starkly clear that there is a massive audience for potent black voices, for stories that sit outwith the well-worn and often hackneyed paths audiences have been granted.
Furthermore, the publishing industry itself is beginning to wake up to the fact that it must change and adapt to reflect the country it operates in. A study last year found that the industry as a whole was 90% white, and this undoubtedly shapes the range of titles they pursue.
The reason the current crop of titles exploring grime is exceptional is in part due to its lack of any antecedent – there aren’t similar titles analysing the growth of jungle, the global surge of drum ‘n’ bass, or even the rise and fall of UK garage. Indeed, the few books available that focus on club culture tend to focus on its whitest elements – Acid House for example.
Penguin Random House went public on their plans to modernise and diversify, and despite enduring torrid criticism from authors such as Lioner Shriver issued a statement which noted: "Books shape our culture, and this should not be driven only by people who come from a narrow section of society."
It’s this edict that Stormzy’s #Merky Books project is being built upon, an opportunity for the energy that surrounds grime to be used to open doors for young writers from different backgrounds. Much of the writing around grime so far mirrors the electricity with which musicians, producers, and rappers approach the music they are involved in – we can’t wait to see what #Merky Books has in store.
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