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Theatre

'Whose voices have the right to be heard?': Censorship of Black culture has existed for decades

James Meteyard and Jammz's new play uses grime to examine themes of censorship, the right to exist and freedom of expression

Between the Lines. Image: Ali Wright

Between the Lines is a play borne out of collaboration between myself and Jammz as co-writers, Maggie Norris the director, and perhaps most crucially, the members of The Big House. 

Set in a pirate radio station in Hackney, the play spans the last 15 years, exploring the birth of grime music, one of Britain’s most celebrated and influential subcultures. We use this microcosm to examine themes of censorship, the right to exist and freedom of expression. 

We started with the music – looking at how the songs blaring from speakers and out of car windows of young people in certain areas of London changed over the years from garage to grime to drill. The lyrical content went from partying and status, to gang culture and slew tracks, to direct provocation and explicit intent of violent crime. 

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In recent years, drill rappers Skengdo x Am received a two-year suspended prison sentence for performing their song Attempted live after a court order banned them from doing so. This felt so wrong to us. Art is an expression of experience, why is the art being censored, while the problematic experiences these young people are facing aren’t being addressed? It’s a ‘band aid’ approach rather than addressing the root course of the problems within our society which these young people are rapping about. 

Further to this, even the association with the music can have serious implications. Just this week The Guardian published an article alleging, “Rap and drill music was used as evidence against 250 defendants.” They specifically reference one joint enterprise case where, “12 people were charged with murder despite there being only one principal offender suspect.” This was due to a gang narrative being formed around one drill music video as part of the prosecution, “even though none of the 12 rapped in the video nor had any role in producing it. These defendants appeared as extras.”

Examples of this kind of censorship of Black experience and culture have sadly been present for decades and Between the Lines explores this generational trauma through the lens of a Jamaican family, who lie at the core of this story. 

As we watch them fight for their voice to be heard through their music, cheat their way around a system which they believe doesn’t provide for them and feel the cracks emerge under their relentless struggle to exist, we see the value of the art beyond just a song.

The cast of Big House members brings a rawness to these pertinent themes and the authenticity of their musical performances unleashes the power behind Jammz’s lyrics. 

At a time when the conditions of society feel harsher by the day, when the streets of London feel less and less safe and tensions continue to rise between authorities and minority communities across the western world, Between the Lines asks the question… whose voices have the right to be heard? And who is making that decision?

James Meteyard is the co-writer of Between the Lines, which runs until 1 June at the New Diorama Theatre, London. newdiorama.com/whats-on/between-the-lines

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