And now for something completely different…
In terms of pre-release material that gets sent our way at UKHH, it’s not often that we get a book for review. To state the complete fucking obvious, hip hop lyricism in its essence is poetry (call Michael Owen and tell him there’s a new king of commentary in town). This said… by the same token that not all poetry would translate into sick bars over a jazz sample and 808, a good portion of hip hop lyrics (even by some of the greatest MCs) wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny as a book of poetry.
Potent Whisper is one of that special breed of writers that has one foot planted firmly in each world. Having proved himself as a formidable spitter over beats, the rapper/poet has leaned more towards a focus on the spoken word in recent times with his ‘Rhyming Guide to…’ pieces carving himself out a niche as one of the most eloquently and incisively analytical voices of the left to use rhyme as the format.
While PW is not alone in a massive and diverse category of rappers who’ve undeniably earned the status of master poets, it still can seem that in an endless sea of rhymers, such artists are rare. Beyond this, when hip hop in its original form and arguably purest essence has protest at its heart, It’s a shame that it’s even more rare today to find political lyricists who beyond a general rage at the system, aim to educate, organise and genuinely walk the walk.
This isn’t to say that all hip hop should be that at all. There’s plenty of ridiculously sick music in the genre that says fuck you for the point of fuck you or revels in vulgarity. There are all kinds of dope lyricists, commenting on every facet of reality under the sun. Or just aiming to make you laugh, or to jump out your seat and nod your head like it being attached to your neck is a problem that needs a solution. But. There is still a place for the word to be the underpinnings of a movement and to incite change. As Potent Whisper put it to me in his own words recently:
“As somebody who initially found myself through Hip Hop I have often found myself a bit disheartened by our communities distance from the things I believe Hip Hop to be at its root. I don’t believe that Hip Hop should just be about politics/organising etc. but do feel it’s missing in a big way. There is so much power in the UK Hip Hop community. Real power! I often wonder what we could do with it if we had the inclination.”
This ethic is abundantly clear from the first words of The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain. The book is essentially a written collection of the poet’s recent body of spoken word works, the videos of which you can catch on YouTube. With the exception of ‘Nothing is Nothing’ which almost has the feel of a short instrumental interlude on an EP, each of the guide’s 9 poems takes a specific current injustice and picks it apart from its structural routes and the perpetrators who stand to gain from it, to the methods used to enact it. Then, eventually moves to action that its victims can (and should) take to seek solution and justice. If this sounds formulaic, its because in a sense it is. If you’re concerned about it being formulaic however, then you’ve missed the point. The clue’s in the title.
What PW sets out to do with his writing is to be a guide. While elusive metaphors in poetry can be beautiful and inspiring they don’t work as a road map. Potent Whisper’s literary mode is intentionally designed to declutter and demystify the complicated workings of business interests and laws that get passed unnoticed. The ones that directly lead to suffering of the most vulnerable people in our society. His aim is to use lyricism to engage people with the politics that affect them by putting this in a clear, logical and entertaining medium. When these policies are otherwise only fed to the public in bullshit spin or language so technical and dry that nobody understands it, a handbook that clearly lays them bare in a way that’s accessible to everyone is a dangerous tool.
As PW summarises it at the end of his preface: “Imagine there was a lion that you could not see, about to attack you. Imagine that a friend shouts to warn you, but speaks in a language foreign to you. You don’t understand their warning and you get eaten. Academics are that well-meaning friend; consider me your translator.”
Through the 9 poems that fill the 72 pages of The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain, PW acts as a story teller. The stories are all true and readers will be somewhat aware of all of them. If not they will at least be aware of the issues that are their backdrop, best epitomised by ‘The Rhyming Guide to Lauri Love’. This tragic story of the fates of two hackers Aaron Swartz and Lauri Love may not be familiar, but the issues of scapegoating, disproportionate ‘justice’, illegal extradition and human rights failures that are at play underneath bring suspicions and beliefs held by a lot of us into frightening relief.
Other topics in the writer’s crosshairs include the privatisation of the NHS, Tory austerity measures, gentrification, voter engagement and the obscene cost of trident while people are starving. Penultimate poem ‘Grenfell Britain’ which the book owes it’s title to, most starkly exemplifies the contrast of rage, analysis and hope that is characteristic of Potent Whisper’s stanzas throughout. Whatever the subject, he talks about things that ring painfully true but hopelessly complex in a way that breaks down the legislation and agendas behind them into simpler pieces. Then lines those pieces up in order, with a bitter wit that paints a blow by blow picture of how things got from A to B. Once the muddy picture’s clarified. There’s an answer.
PW’s choice to have put out all the material contained in this collection online entirely as spoken word, instead of utilising beats has been a smart one. When taking on issues of this weight with his mission statement being that the point should be fully heard and understood, using silence as the backing track leaves more space for every word to be fully comprehended. Taking this approach has resulted in releasing the material as a book being the natural progression. It works.
With illustrations by Marco Bevilacqua, The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain, dedicated to the victims of the Grenfell fire, is available to buy now, published by Dog Section Press.
Get yourself some food for thought. This is as hip hop as a paperback can come.