Grime on the sails: Skepta takes the Opera House underground

October 8th 2018

Photo by Ken Leanfore 

On his Opera House debut, Skepta did a perfect job of encapsulating everything his career (and by extension, British music) has been through over the past two years, delivering a performance that was true to the Tottenham MC’s anti-establishment ethos. Kyle Fensom reviews his historic, sold-out performance at the Sydney Opera House.

When he arrives on stage, Skepta (real name: Joseph Junior Adenuga) introduces himself to the braying, hype-drunk crowd with a simple question: “Sydney Opera House, wah gwan?”, a combination of words that have probably never been heard within the Concert Hall walls. Skepta is the first ever Grime artist to perform at the iconic venue, and while art forms like Grime don’t need the recognition of historically white institutions to legitimise them, this sold out show nevertheless represents a high-water mark for the genre in Australia.

But it’s also a moment of poetic justice for a resilient genre that has always had to struggle against outside forces which seek to deny it. Because this was a concert which was not meant to happen; it had no right to exist. In April, a delegate for then-Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton rejected Skepta’s visa application based on character grounds, citing a 2016 incident in which Skepta punched a man in a nightclub in Melbourne. The decision was eventually overturned thanks to lobbying from, among others, Fuzzy Events and the Sydney Opera House, and Skepta was granted a visa a fortnight out from the start of his tour.

“…far from feeling the need to deliver some meaningful, capital-S Statement addressing the moment, Skepta knows the very fact of his being here is enough of a statement.”

With that prelude behind him, Skepta bursts onto the Concert Hall stage with a breathless one-two intro of ‘Ghost Ride’ and ‘Skepta Interlude’. A curve-ball of an opening for sure, but it foreshadows the energy and the no-bullshit dynamics that will colour his entire set.

Appropriately, the setlist is mostly taken up by tracks off his Mercury Prize-winning fourth record, Konnichiwa, an abrasive, spartan album completely devoid of pretence, and widely credited with taking Grime back to its anti-establishment roots. Skepta’s minimalist stage set-up reflects this aesthetic, while his cool detached demeanour and effortless charisma embodies it.

“I’m your fitness instructor now”, he announces as he launches into the first Konnichiwa cut, ‘Lyrics’. His athleticism as a performer is on full display, endlessly bouncing across the stage, dividing his time between all corners of the crowd.

For a self-described activist whose music feels like some of the most genuinely anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian popular art out there today, there was always the possibility that playing an institution like the Opera House would feel disingenuous. I worried about this a lot before the show, especially when we were made to pass through airport-grade security on our way in. But the setting did little to blunt the revolutionary politics of hearing the back-to-back combination of ‘Crime Riddim’ and ‘It Ain’t Safe’ blast through the Concert Hall.

“This is some different shit, not gonna lie” he says acknowledging the unfamiliar grandeur of it all. But far from feeling the need to deliver some meaningful, capital-S Statement addressing the moment, Skepta knows the very fact of his being here is enough of a statement, and the Concert Hall has never felt more underground. A shadowy landscape of barely visible fans engulfed in smoke, its symphonic acoustics suffocated by blasts of air horn, choppy Garage beats, pummelling, floor-to-ceiling bass and low-cost Grime synths.

And then there were goosebumps – midway through the anarchy of ‘Shutdown’, the crowd hushes and the disembodied voice of racist privilege echoes across the Concert Hall: “A bunch of young men all dressed in black, dancing extremely aggressively on stage, it made me feel so intimidated”. It’s the kind of bigotry and moral panic which once threatened the existence of Grime itself, but here, on this stage, Skepta hangs it up by its ankles and drains it of its power, turning it around as an object of self-evident mockery.

But Grime has a bit of history to reckon with itself. What is the genre to make of the decade or so that it spent languishing in cultural and artistic obscurity between the explosion of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner and the resurgence spearheaded by Konnichiwa? How do artists such as Skepta disavow the corporatisation, commercialism and decadence that ransacked the genre during this time, but still pay homage to its historical golden age? How do you initiate fans into this history who might’ve only come to the genre in the latter half of the decade?

“This was less of a performance and more of a coup, like Skepta had stormed the Opera House overthrowing the entire system that was holding him back.”

The air bristles with these sorts of tensions as Skepta veers from Konnichiwa and wades into his back catalogue, tentatively feeling out the crowd by asking if there are any old school fans out there (there are) before diving into ‘Ace Hood Flow’ off his 2012 mixtape Blacklisted. He tests them out again when he’s joined by Boy Better Know-affiliate Shorty for a Grime medley that includes snippets of ‘That’s Not Me’ and Shorty’s own single, ‘What’s Going On’; the two MCs trading verses in what feels like an homage to their legendary Lord of the Mics clashes.

On both occasions, Skepta appears so overwhelmed by the back-catalogue reaction that the facade cracks and he struggles to finish without breaking into a grin. He says over and over how appreciative he is to see tour merch from every period in the crowd; he doubles over in joy and pulls his hood down over his face; at one point, you can catch him wiping away a tear from underneath his sunglasses. In between the posturing, the coolly detached charisma, the efficient performance and all his talk of getting grimey, you finally feel how much this tour and this show really mean to him.

It’s not hard to see why it would mean so much: until recently Grime shows being shut down by the cops was the norm. In the space of just three years, Skepta has gone from shutting down a Shoreditch carpark to selling out the Sydney Opera House. This was less of a performance and more of a coup, like Skepta had stormed the Opera House overthrowing the entire system that was holding him back: Australia’s visa laws, the structural racism of old institutions, the segregation of historically white spaces, the entire history of Grime, even his own past.

P.S. It would be remiss of me not to mention that yes, he brought out A$AP Rocky at the end to perform ‘Praise The Lord (Da Shine)’, like, three times and no, I don’t think the Concert Hall has ever been that hyped before.

Photos by Ken Leanfore 

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