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Are we still generation vexed?

Given the state of the nation's youth, can we predict another riot? Thinkers and artists from Owen Jones to Stormzy weigh in

This is part of a series of articles on the state of the nation ahead of the seismic UK election on May 7. Check out what we demand from the next government, and don't forget to vote. 

Four years ago, news stations rolled with images of burning cars. Windows were smashed. Petrol was poured. Rioters were claiming the streets. I contributed to the dialogue with an ebook on that summer subject called Generation Vexed. It aimed to explore some of the causes of the tensions that young people were feeling at the time. 

In the run-up to a general election, eyes are once again drawn towards young voters and their concerns. Bedroom tax, dwindling social housing, increasing gentrification and zero-hour contracts have all affected working-class young people, and with plans to cap benefits and new proposals for 18-21 year olds to do mandatory work experience in order to claim jobseekers’ allowance, life may just be getting harder. It’s not news that TSG vans and counter-terrorism units still strike fear into many young men. The fact that there is a 50 per cent rise in long-term unemployment for young ethnic minority people in the UK doesn’t appear to bode well for the current government.

Since then, the social, political and cultural climate has shifted. In culture, young people have continued to carve out their own communities and spaces. Despite mainstream club culture feeling increasingly sanitised, and London witnessing club closures, sounds like house music, for instance, have continued to make themselves heard. Trends like shuffling have created clubbing communities despite demonisation (the dance was, not long ago, banned from some clubs owing to its association with young black males). Grime is continuing to sell out shows across the country, and acts like Krept and Konan have made social commentaries on mainstream platforms (just take their choreographed riot police performance at the MOBOs last year). Outside the rave, and on the streets, new tensions have arisen. 

What has been most clear in the time since writing though, is the different concerns a variety of communities are presented with. As Islamaphobia has become normalised into the fabric of everyday life, young Muslims are met with a culture of fear – one that is also felt by young Sikhs, Hindus and British Asians across the board, all who, to the untrained eye, may appear to resemble a mythical enemy that the tabloid media has carefully constructed. Young immigrants, and children of first-generation immigrants, are also aware of their status at the bottom of the social hierarchy. While Ukip rhetoric might be lampooned in liberal circles, the continued demonisation of the ‘immigrant problem’ can only result in civil unrest. In the black community, many young people are still affected by stop-and-search initiatives, and still feel disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system. White working-class identity, meanwhile, has become something to be feared – and its association with far-right groups like the BNP and Ukip in pop culture has led to a pressure-cooker environment. Certainly terms like ‘British values’ appear to have only contributed to a growing sense of fragmented identity in the UK.

So how much has really changed? The concerns from four years ago appear not only to still be rife – in many cases, they have amplified. So if the causes for unrest haven’t changed, why aren’t young people more angry about where we’re at? And why have the riots been relegated to the sidelines when the underlying causes have not gone away? Four years ago, our cities were burning. Though these events are talked about less and less in popular culture, who knows what could be bubbling, just below the surface? We spoke to five thinkers, personalities, artists and promoters. 

Stormzy, grime MC

Grime is still seen as a way out. Where I grew up, grime is a product of the environment. MCs were looked up to. In the areas we grew up in, people are frustrated. Right now, a lot of people are angry that there’s nothing going on – there’s no youth clubs, they go to college then there’s nothing to do. I know youth clubs are such a cliched example, but we could also have studio time, workshops, work experience or life skills - you can’t just leave young people to their own devices and forget about them. Young black men have a difficult relationship with police. I’m not on the estate so I don’t get stop-and-searched anymore but I still get pulled in the car. I don’t think things have changed. It’s never gonna change. Police make you feel on edge or give bad energy, which is where everything starts. It’s weird, because pop culture likes to make ‘urban culture’ cool, but it’s never taken seriously. When it comes to grime, when people don’t understand something they’re just intimidated. It’s funny not to hear the comedy of Skepta and D Double E, and think it’s intimidating, because when I hear rock music and it’s got people talking about drugs and overdosing, that’s scary to me. I see people in communities who are being pushed to the edge, and when you’re pushed and your voice ain’t being heard, who knows what could happen?

“I see people in communities who are being pushed to the edge, and when you’re pushed and your voice ain’t being heard, who knows what could happen?” – Stormzy

Mim Shake, radio presenter, actor

As a young, British Asian Muslim, Islamaphobia has made people from my background feel more marginalised compared to how they might have been feeling in the past. I’m 23 years old and the fact that I’m a Muslim means that there’s an even bigger pressure on me to represent and show the whole world that we as Muslims aren’t all terrorists and rapists. If they banned the hijab or the niqab in this country then quite certainly there would be huge protests that could easily get out of hand. Some of the young people I’ve spoken to about the issue say they’re annoyed at the stereotypical portrayal Islamaphobia created for Muslims. I’d echo that: I’ve just written a short film script which tackles typecasting, stereotypes and racial ignorance through the easily accessible realm of comedy. I think we need more of this kind of work to raise awareness, but to also challenge the status quo put in front of us by our own government and mainstream media – the more young people start talking and having confidence in who they are, the easier it will get for our community as a whole. 

Cherokee Seebalack, editor of Live, a Brixton-based magazine made by young people

The riots aren’t a distant memory. There is a consensus I’ve found when talking to young people that not much has changed. And they’re right. They’re still not being heard, they’re still struggling to find work, they’re still being stopped and searched with mates. The only place that has truly embraced the youth voice is social media. This is where they can get riled up about what is going on with society and debate about political and social issues. Black Twitter has been the prime source for continuing to publicise everything happening in Ferguson using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. It’s where young people can educate themselves on the issues that matter most to them, like race, when older generations and the media won’t. Young people constantly hear that their anger at society is unjust, that they’re 'too young' to understand and they 'don't know what they’re talking about'. It’s patronising. I’ve never met anyone more politically engaged and more clued up than Live’s contributors. They can see the problems with this country and its attitude towards them; they’re living it. More importantly, they want to do something about it.  

“Young working-class people as a whole are certainly demonised, as a social problem to be contained and coerced: portrayed as feckless, workshy, threatening and anti-social” – Owen Jones

Owen Jones, columnist and author of Chavs and The Establishment

Young people face multiple social and economic problems and insecurities. Hundreds of thousands are out of work. Many 'lucky' enough to have work are stuck on zero-hours contracts or other insecure forms of employment, leaving them without pensions or paid sick leave let alone paid maternity leave. A housing crisis leaves many young people lacking secure, affordable homes. Their education maintenance allowance has been stolen away, and they are punished for aspiring to a better education (and left) with decades of debt. 

Young working -lass people as a whole are certainly demonised, as a social problem to be contained and coerced: portrayed as feckless, workshy, threatening and anti-social. The government of course contributes to that, floating proposals to strip them of benefits, for example, fuelling the myth they are lazy and need more sticks to discipline them. The media lacks positive portrayals of young people: when they appear, it is all too often as negative one-dimensional stereotypes. When I go to sixth forms and schools, I meet young people who are savvy, who understand many of the problems facing them. There’s lots of fear, some anger, but a lack of hope, and without hope, people becoming resigned or – even worse – blame their neighbours: immigrants, unemployed people and so on. That anger can of course explode in destructive ways that don’t challenge Britain’s bankrupt social order properly. That anger needs to be channelled constructively, and that means giving people hope in an alternative to society as it is currently run. We need to get our act together, basically. 

“If your generation’s sounds and tastes aren’t represented, you feel alienated” – Elijah

Elijah, DJ and label head of Butterz 

Club culture has definitely felt the force of the London’s major changes. Venues are constantly under threat from property and retail developers as some are now in prime locations. The club we built our night in, Cable, fell victim to the London Bridge regeneration program and has left a dent in London for options in terms of discovering new music. Line-ups and booking policy has shifted accordingly, too. At one time, it was all about pushing new music – now clubs are going for 'safer' options that will bring in crowds, which typically tends to be old-school garage. So new talent has fewer options in terms of places to play and get their music heard. If your generation’s sounds and tastes aren’t represented, you feel alienated.

All imagery taken from Tiane Doan na Champassak’s excellent art book about the 2011 riots, Looters, available via his website