33. My England – Lady Sovereign

Grime splattered its way into the mainstream public consciousness in the mid 2000s like the leavings of countless self-conscious, bandwagon-jumping white broadcasters hitting a fan the size of the Radio 1 airwaves. A generation of self-purportedly angry, edgy young men immediately began shouting incoherently into microphones while a drum machine malfunctioned in the background.

Album cover of Public Warning by Lady Sovereign

In reality, grime originated a few years earlier, in hard-bitten, primarily black communities, typically in pre-gentrification East London. The genre’s sparsely urban, aggressive, percussive backdrops invoked the soundscapes of its geographical and social origins, while the lyrics and thematic material dealt with the experiences and harsh reality of life in some of UK’s most underprivileged streets.

A largely oral tradition recounting the stories, the lore even, of real people, I would contend that grime is pretty much pure folk music. I’ll save that argument for another writing project, however. No, really; stay tuned.

The trouble is, as so intrinsically a product of a specific time a place, grime didn’t really stand the test of time. A few established, establishment even, names such as the ubiquitous Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah notwithstanding, grime has largely fallen by the wayside.

Perhaps a colluding factor, if not a criticism that one could level at grime, is that it took itself so very painfully seriously. To anyone who has heard it, particularly those not from similar backgrounds to its progenitors, this much is indisputable—for the most part. The exception, the feisty, pint-sized diamond in the grimy rough, was one Amanda Louise Harman, aka Lady Sovereign.

Portrait of Lady Sovereign

A mere teenager when she burst onto the scene—signing in 2004 for Universal in the UK and later Def Jam in the US, no less—Lady Sovereign stole the limelight. Effortlessly at least as technically adept as any of her peers, she was cheeky, smart, charismatic and funny. Sov brought a much-needed sense of humour to the genre: you only have to read the lyrics to Tango—about the dangers of profligate fake tan abuse—and 2009’s Student Union (“It was crap at the Student Union bar…is this how you get to be a doctor?”) to see that.

For our purposes, however, I’ve chosen My England, an album track from 2006’s Public Warning. From the brass band intro to the slyly subversive references to the English traditional song canon (see, I told you there would be folk music), this track is different from the outset.

In My England, Sov gives the lie to the stereotypical jam, Jerusalem and croquet-and-crumpets-with-the-village-green-preservation-society vision of England that we, perhaps quite incorrectly, may like to believe that outsiders still hold of us. By “outsiders”, I guess I mainly just mean Hugh Grant-movie-going Americans:

It ain’t about the tea and biscuits
I’m one of those English misfits
I don’t drink tea, I drink spirits
And I talk a lot of slang in my lyrics

Sov’s lyrics navigate the duality and reality of life for the disenfranchised, underprivileged English youth in the Tony Blair era, the insipid, bourgeois optimism of that period proving ultimately vacuous—sandwiched as it was between decades of destruction of the very fabric of the country at the hand of successive Tory governments:

Police carry guns not truncheons
Make your own assumptions
London ain’t all crumpets and trumpets
It’s one big slum pit

Of course, the many cultural references peppered throughout the narrative do date the track a little:

No, I don’t watch the Antiques Roadshow
I’d rather listen to Run the Road
And smoke someone’s fresh homegrown
And not get bloated on a plate of scones
Cricket, bowls, croquet?
Nah PS2 all the way

The nature of the specific games console isn’t important: there are truths here. Sov is speaking with honesty, and I think her point stands:

This is the picture I painted my low down
This my London that I call my home town
It’s where I’m living and this is my low down
This is my England I’m letting you know now

There may be listeners, oblivious to life beyond the village fete and the outsize vegetable marrow competition, who may feel that since the song is based in London, that the reality of the situation does not apply to them. Well, this isn’t about you. This, as Sov so deftly points out, is about life in an English council apartment, not your English Country Garden.

Public Warning was followed in 2009 with Jigsaw and sadly, at the time of writing, no further Lady Sovereign albums have seen the light of day. Sov’s partner in crime was co-writer and producer Gabriel Olegavich, whose other projects include London-based house act Spektrum, who once reached the dizzy heights of No. 70 on the UK singles charts.

In an unexpected yet pleasing turn of events, Gabriel Olegavich also happens to be Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of eminent Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, and is a prolific and well-regarded classical composer in his own right.

I’ve added a few Lady Sovereign tracks to the playlist to get you started, and also a few bits and bobs from the aforementioned artists. As ever, enjoy.

Artist: Lady Sovereign
Album: Public Warning
Writer: Gabriel Olegavich; Louise Harman
Producer: Gabriel Olegavich
Released: 2006; Universal Island Records

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