Skepta's 'Konnichiwa' changed UK music forever. We should celebrate it as much as The Beatles – iNews

Only when the dust settles is it possible to weigh the cultural impact of an artwork. In the case of Konnichiwa, the 2016 album from London rapper, producer, and style icon Skepta, it feels as if the dust can never settle — its author is always on the move, ascending further up fame’s spiral staircase. But fame is no reliable measure of artistry. Six years after its release on 6 May 2016, what is the creative legacy of this road to Damascus album?
While we felt the ripples in 2016 of a new wave of African-inflected sounds moving to the forefront, it’s safe to say it has long since washed over us. Afrobeats and Amapiano are global powerhouses; their stars collaborate with whoever they want (from Beyoncé to Ed Sheeran, David Guetta, to J Balvin). In 2016, this kind of collaboration was in its infancy. Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys posted phone camera footage of themselves dancing to Wizkid. The tide was turning. And somehow black music from the UK, maybe because of its close ties to the African continent, was a crucial part of this shift.
UK music has not been without its champions globally. Albums like (What’s the Story) Morning Glory and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band have reached such heights of worldwide recognition I don’t even need to name the artists who made them. And while black British music has been equally important to global musical culture (think of music without Soul II Soul, Loose Ends, Massive Attack, Tricky, Roni Size, Goldie and the list doesn’t nearly stop there) you’d be hard-pressed to find albums by black UK artists lauded in the same way. An album like Konnichiwa is a step towards redressing that imbalance but only if we see that album for the future-classic it is.
Skepta is proud of his Nigerian heritage. He went as far as tattooing an eagle, prominently featured on the Nigerian flag, on his chest. He’s part of the connection between UK musical culture and that of the African continent. In fact, he’s been repping for the motherland his whole career (even sampling Cameroonian-Nigerian artist Prince Nico Mbarga’s 1976 classic “Sweet Mother” for one of the tunes on his debut album).
Grime, the musical form in which Skepta flourished, owes an equal debt to the musical culture of Africa. Of course, you can trace its lyricism back through ragga and jungle to the Caribbean but the sonic palette is also suffused with soukous, afrobeat, and highlife references. It’s there in the groove; the percussive backbone of this most instrumentally stripped-down of genres. If you’ve ever seen a guitarist busking in an African city while a percussionist accompanies them (maybe clacking a ring against an empty bottle) then you know that the groove can be carried by just a few elements. And if you’ve ever been to a hall party in South East London when the DJ drops “Premier Gaou” by Magic System, another staple across British African communities, you know how infectious the grooves of the continent are.
Skepta is a groove-driven lyricist. He delves into the intricacies of his life and psyche but in an infectious, way. His bars are engineered for audience reaction. Listening to some of the out and out bangers on Konnichiwa, the likes of “Man”, “That’s Not Me”, and “Shutdown”, you will find a brace of singalong lyrics (whether crystallising the importance of the “gang”; your circle of close friends and family, or simply making an emphatic statement about how you want to carry yourself in this world; what you will and will not do). These more obvious successes of the album are undeniable but, for me, it’s the subtler moments that make this a stand-out body of work.
The album’s focus on groove yields a rawness that has guided grime since its inception. It’s the music of second-generation immigrant children, finding a way to be creative with the limited resources at hand. Games consoles, slow family computers running cracked copies of music production software, borrowed keyboards stretched to new sonic possibilities. If you listen to a track like “It Ain’t Safe” featuring Young Lord, you hear the grit deepen as you are submerged in the dark recesses of paranoia and fear which govern street life (from which grime borrows not just its style but also its uncompromising mood).
The stories in grime are told by those who know, or seem to know, such situations intimately. “The packs I sold had them buzzing on the road” raps Skepta, bringing the sound world of the album full circle by paying homage to the flow of Memphis rap royalty Project Pat. While he’s affirming his street credentials, Skepta is also showing us a life composed of limited options for, especially financial, success. By replacing the “packs” of illicit substances with musical output, Skepta is following a pathway explicated many times in American rap but his take on that path is complicated by the contours of black life in the UK.
The album documents an evolving historical moment in black British culture, drawing from a rich but under-celebrated lineage of artists tapping into the particular qualities of being from where they’re from to make globally significant music. Isn’t it this specificity that sets the classics apart from the rest?
Kayo Chingonyi presents Decode, a Radio Academy Award-winning podcast which takes a deep-dive into one album each season (most recently Skepta’s Konnichiwa). Listen exclusively on Spotify
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