If you were one of the most talked-about artists in the country, with multi-platinum sales in the UK and Europe, you would imagine that you might have someone keeping a closer eye on what you wear to photoshoots.
Last week the ever-attentive Brian Whelan posted a short blog pointing out that Plan B had appeared on the cover of the latest issue of Shortlist wearing a t-shirt adorned with the name of one of the world’s most prominent neo-Nazi bands. Skrewdriver were instrumental in the spread of white power rock during the ‘80s, openly professing support for National Socialism and raising funds for the National Front. That one of the country’s most successful musicians could appear on the cover of one of the country’s most popular free magazines wearing a t-shirt bearing their name is astonishing. That there was no one from his label in the room with an inkling that this might be a bad idea is illustrative, perhaps, of the incompetence of the majors.
Ben Drew insists that he had no idea who Skrewdriver were – a claim that raises a series of other questions about an artist who professes to be a social commentator. Drew is clearly not a neo-Nazi, but neither is his poor taste in t-shirts his least appealing attribute. To identify that, you need to conduct a toss-up between rape apology and dangerous, counter-productive liberalism.
The Defamation of Strickland Banks, Drew’s 1.2 million-selling second album, is a 50-minute invocation to disbelieve accusations of rape. The record follows the incarceration of a ‘misunderstood’ soul singer following his conviction for raping a woman during a one-night stand. Banks maintains that the woman accused him through spite, having fallen in love with him and later been spurned. Every week in the UK, women are dissuaded from reporting rapes because they worry that they will not be believed. One in four women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape. Records like Strickland Banks contribute to a climate in which they feel unable to come forward.
Latent, insidious misogyny is a theme that appears repeatedly in Drew’s work and interviews. Often it is the pitifully unintelligent objectification that characterises “lad” culture – as in the Shortlist piece, in which he laughs that he would like to be “front row, with binoculars” for the Olympic women’s volleyball. Elsewhere, though, it is even more troubling. Drew is little more than five minutes into Ill Manors before “bitches sucking cock” are casually tossed into a description of the East End, as if they are another piece of street furniture. Over and over during the Ill Manors story women are defined exclusively in terms of their sexual use to the male characters. Women “ round to fuck,” while “prozzies” wander round in “fucking high heels”. Meanwhile in ‘Playing With Fire’ Jake, the album’s protagonist, “Got a fuck today/Yeah he bust his very first nut today/In some stupid bitch”. It’s as disgusting as it is inelegantly written.
Lyrically, this is about the level at which Plan B operates. The rapper is incapable even of inventiveness in his misogyny. Much of it goes unnoticed – not because it isn’t appalling, but because you’ve heard it a thousand times before. It is the misogyny of the British gangster film; the mindset in which women are either an accessory or a hassle to men, who are the only ones to enjoy the luxury of agency.
This lack of imagination quickly becomes Ill Manors’ signal quality. The record, which acts as a counterpart to the film of the same name and, in Drew’s eyes, as an album in its own right, is the musical equivalent of your grandmother telling you that the minute you look at a joint you will immediately begin an inexorable march towards a violent death. For an album that is supposed to be a revelatory exposition of the “real” inner city, Ill Manors’ imagery seems entirely mediated by cheap television drama. It often feels like listening to an episode of The Bill, in which the writers piece together Gritty Urban Realism from a scrapbook of hackneyed signifiers. There is the Good Kid Who Is Pressured Into A Life Of Crime; the Threateningly Aloof Gangster; the Conflicted But Broadly Optimistic Ending. You’ve heard these stories a thousand times before; you already know the characters inside out. In fact, they are not really characters at all – they are tools, cribbed equally from Guy Ritchie and Shane Meadows, used to construct a framework on which Drew can balance his own infuriating self-importance.
That self-importance reaches its zenith towards the end of the record, when Drew holds himself up as a symbol of working class success. ‘Live Once’ is a wide-eyed, moving-on-up paean to up-by-your-bootstraps work ethics, built almost entirely from lyrical cliché. “You can be anything you want to be/There ain’t nothing stopping you/Just like there weren’t no stopping me…/…Never be afraid to say what’s in your heart/Follow your dreams”, Drew raps, as if reciting the contents of a Hallmark graduation card. The track is illustrative of Drew’s apparent worldview: that effort is all it takes, that structural violence can be ignored, and that anyone can achieve anything if they just try hard enough – the necessary corollary of which is that, if you are not succeeding, it is because you are slacking.
It is this philosophy that makes Drew so frustrating – and, ultimately, so dangerous. There is no structural critique anywhere in Drew’s work. Instead, throughout Ill Manors, characters’ fates are determined either by personal choice or by some vague circumstance, the real implications or roots of which are never fully explored. In ‘Playing With Fire’ the protagonist is found to have “made his decision/And now he’s just another poster boy for David Cameron’s broken Britain”. Personal responsibility trumps all.
The only pressures to which Jake is exposed come from other individuals – from a gang, or from his family. There is no awareness of any external influence; no examination of the structural reasons for Ill Manors’ bleakness. Race is touched on in only at most a two-dimensional way, through a hastily dismissed National Front member. Police harassment is not mentioned at all. But perhaps most surprising is Drew’s total lack of class analysis. He takes soundbitey sideswipes at the “rich boy” in the title track, but that is as far as his critique goes. For Drew, success means a transition from poverty to wealth. He resolutely fails to question the existence of those categories and, in so doing, he strengthens them.
This relentless emphasis on personal responsibility, along with his refusal to engage in any systemic critique, means that Drew’s message is, as Toby Young said in the Guardian of the film, a very conservative one. By ignoring even the most basic structural factors, Drew perpetuates a sense that we can fix our problems without first addressing the system that creates them. It is not enough to suggest, as he does in ‘Live Once’, that “everything will be OK” provided that you work hard enough. Indeed, this trope of the ‘noble working class’, toiling with honour in order to better themselves, has become one of the most effective tools of the resurgent right, used every day by those who claim that the poor are poor only because they are not trying hard enough. It is the same logic that says unemployment is a personal choice, or that crime exists only because there are people who are irreconcilably bad. It is the same logic that ignores the daily, deadly assault exerted on the working class, while insisting that people continue to exist within the strict and ever-receding parameters set for them by capitalism. It is the logic that sustains the cracked edifice of that horrific system; the logic that encourages people to climb its ladder rather than question its foundation.
It is worrying then, if unsurprising, that Drew’s work has been so effusively welcomed by the liberal left. Liberalism is similarly incapable of structural critique; similarly desperate for the upkeep of capitalism – just with the edges worn down a bit. The liberal wants equal access to an oppressive system; she longs for ‘social mobility’ in order that everyone should have the opportunity to join the oppressive class. The real goal for the left must be nothing less than the end of capitalism. By refusing to address its systemic roots, and by encouraging the working class to further engross themselves in the system that exploits them, Drew, like all liberals, ultimately prolongs the injustice against which he claims to fight.