Why Wiley’s MBE is yet another twist in his career
22 Jan 2018
Over his 20-year career, the Godfather of Grime has never failed to keep us guessing. An unpredictable, capricious, peerless innovator, Wiley has pioneered one of the most important scenes in UK culture, argued with teenage fans on Twitter (“im not 40 u dusty tramp go tell ya mum i said your house smells of mash potato”), leaked his own album weeks before official release, refused to play Glastonbury because of the rain and achieved #1 in the UK singles chart with ‘Heatwave’.
Wiley can now add the bestowal of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire from the Queen for his services to music to this erratic-but-eminent list. For some, the acceptance of such a title is bewildering. Grime has often been paralleled with punk due to sharing a similar DIY, anti-establishment ethos, and receiving an MBE is the establishment’s ultimate emblem of approval. In 2018, Wiley will be presented with his honours from the Queen alongside the likes of music royalty, Ringo Starr and Barry Gibb.
It’s both Wiley’s eccentricity and tenacity that has spawned his innovative ability. Having started his career producing jungle as a part of SS Crew, he then moved on to making UK garage with Pay As U Go Cartel. The aspirational aesthetic of those within UKG left many including Wiley somewhat on the periphery, with a “no trainers” rule for example, enforced in many clubs. As UKG began to pander to mainstream attention, a darker, abrasive, MC-led genre began to gain traction on inner London pirate radio stations such as Rinse and Deja Vu. Pioneered by Wiley, grime was building. By driving around London to sell his white labels, Wiley carried the genre on his back and used the majority of his profits to propel other artists he admired, such as Dizzee Rascal and Skepta. Wiley describes his altruistic spirit in his autobiography Eskiboy, where he explains “I can’t be happy with £10 if you’ve only got a fiver.”
However, tales of unpredictability often accompany Wiley’s plaudits. In Eskiboy, Wiley even states himself “I’m four different people”. It would make too much sense for Wiley to reject the offer of an MBE. Grime began speaking to and standing for a disillusioned youth, who needed to express themselves. Pirate radio stations gave young people the space to do this, and proprietors of stations were continually sanctioned by police (Slimzee was famously awarded the first ASBO for setting up broadcast materials on top of tower blocks for Rinse). A complete disconnect between the establishment and grime culture is inherent in the genre’s DNA. Therefore, the pioneer and undisputed “Godfather” of the movement receiving an award for an “outstanding achievement or service to the community. This will have had a long-term, significant impact and stand out as an example to others”, from the same institution that continuously punished those trying to keep the culture alive is hard for some to digest.
This is not the first time the British establishment have tried to engage with grime. Fellow BBK member Skepta hinted he had rejected an offer from HRH last year, stating in ‘Hypocrisy’, “The MBE got rejected. I’m not tryna be accepted”. The news of the rejection spurred Tory culture minister Matt Hancock to publicly endorse Skepta and the wider scene, saying he listened to grime in his ministerial car. However, when asked, he was unable to name a single track he’d supposedly listened to. In an unprecedented and unwelcomed move, he also attempted to raise parallels between core Conservative values and Skepta’s/ grime’s success: “Grime represents modern Britain… the entrepreneurial, go-getting nature. It speaks that wherever you come from, you can make it”.
Having read Eskiboy, it’s easy to see why many might have expected Wiley to reject the award. He discusses diasporic issues with feeling at home in Britain, and posits, “My home is nowhere […] because me and my people shouldn’t be here, we should be back in Africa. And we’re not. We’re scattered across the earth.” The E3 MC also extends this argument to language, “we need to remember that English is not our language. Black people sometimes forget that we may walk around talking it, that we’ve been taught it, but that’s not the language we were speaking hundreds of years back”.
A reason for rejection that has been cited by many non-white nominees is the intrinsic link between the honours and the colonialism of the British Empire. For example, the exploitation innocent African people faced at the hands of the British Empire through slavery is undoubtedly a key reason many black people have extensive ancestry in Britain, or have a British surname despite their African roots. For many, this award is ingrained in the system of hereditary privilege. Being a “member” of an establishment so embedded in entitlement at others’ expense, and an institution that still refuses to apologise for sanctioning slavery, is far from enticing.
A true maverick, the Godfather’s royal recognition is yet another twist in his long-standing career. In a statement to the Press Association, he said that his award was “the school grade I wanted and didn’t get” and he is “finally there”. I can understand why he would accept the award; receiving honours puts the Godfather in an echelon of musical greats and for some, reaffirms his influence on wider UK culture. However, I don’t believe the MBE will mean anything for the wider grime scene, a culture that has existed without recognition from the establishment for many years. A man of four characters, Wiley’s unapologetic, confounding, pioneering, publicly self-destructive actions have made for an illustrious, rollercoaster career. Attempting to foresee what Wiley will do next is pointless, but one thing is for certain, it will be on his terms.