No National Anthem

Alex Astruc examines the contemporary artists subverting the nationalist undertones of the pastoral tradition

“Nationalism is, in the final instance, primarily about its own exclusionary racisms”
Sivamohan Valluvan, The Clamour of Nationalism, 2019

“And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!”
William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’, 1810.

If you grew up in the UK, you most likely were asked to sing ‘Jerusalem’ at some point. Seeing as most of Britain’s youth now grow up in urban centres, it’s also likely you sang it far removed from the utopian pastures William Blake wrote about more than 200 years ago. The composer who set Blake’s words to song, Hubert Parry, was associated with a group of composers known as the ‘English National School’. Their collective ‘pastoral’ compositions aimed to depict the nation in terms of the unadulterated beauty of its countryside, and ‘Jerusalem’ has since become a kind of secondary national anthem.

You don’t have to look hard to see the destructive effects of nationalism and state-led nationalist projects, and the inherent racism within them. It’s maybe surprising then to find contemporary British musicians from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds reappropriating pastoral music’s sonic palette in the context of grime, pop and more. The question is, why are they doing it? Is it flippant sampling of familiar music bedded deep in the national psyche, or a subversive move to rebuke nationalism and its divisive agendas?

Ghetts’ ‘Little Bo Peep’, from his most recent album Conflict of Interest, is a prime example of this reappropriation. The heayweight cast of Black British MCs on the track includes Dave and Wretch 32, but the track is more than a straight-up grime track as it dips seamlessly into the pastoral sonic palette. The lush, vibrato cello in the foreground explicitly nods to the compositional choices of pastoral stalwarts such as Elgar and Parry, while the sampled kicks and snare drums ground the track in grime. Swooning strings once portrayed the serene beauty of the English Countryside, but now they’re soundtracking tales of urban experiences for young Black Britons. If we’re going to understand where Ghetts was coming from with this sonic reappraisal, we need to examine the exclusionary racisms which shaped the pastoral tradition.

It’s fair to say Hubert Parry represents the pastoral music tradition more than most composers thanks to ‘Jerusalem’s omnipresence in British life. Parry displayed his own prejudices when criticising the work of his contemporary, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – a mixed-race, British-born composer. Despite being born in Holborn, London, Coleridge-Taylor’s music was excluded from the canon of English classical music, with Parry commenting;

“He did not thirst for intellectual analysis […] Like his half-brothers of primitive race he loved plenty of sound, plenty of colour and definite rhythms.”

Parry’s remarks betray just a hint of the racist views which marked the pastoral tradition. The idea of nation these composers were inspired by was inherently linked to whiteness. Parry used race as an instrument of exclusion in his criticism of Coleridge-Taylor, but as musicologist George Revill notes, “In national music, cultural geographies of exclusion and inclusion are performed in sound.” These geographies of exclusion were predicated on race by Parry, but fast forward to today and Ghetts’ is making a pointed move to challenge that exclusion.

The symbolism of the act is strengthened when you think about the context of grime within contemporary culture. Along with hip-hop, R&B and soul, grime is often segregated under the catch-all term of ‘urban music’ – a divisive non-genre which neatly excludes Black art from a white-dominated mainstream, echoing classical music’s exclusionary racism well into the 21st Century. But more provocative still is the consideration of the term ‘urban’ against the rural imagery of the pastoral mode. Ghetts’ use of pastoral sonics challenges the continuing geographies of exclusion by which  ‘rural’ music might be considered white, and ‘urban’ not.

In the media, terms like ‘gang crime’ and ‘knife crime’ are often wielded with racial connotations, and as was noted in the co-authored Empire’s Endgame these categories of crime rely on aligning popular fears with racist images. At the mercy of disproportionate policing, Black men and boys living in urban areas are disrupted the most by this terminology and imagery. But ‘Little Bo Peep’ challenges this imagery, as Dave and Ghetts rail on the impacts of police brutality in their communities during their verses. The image of ‘Little Bo Peep’ evoked on this track also has a part to play, conjuring up the pastoral English shepherd, but also reflecting the gendered figure of Britannia, an icon of UK nationalism if ever there was one. Ghetts vocally rejects these nationalist ideals, stating, “I’m no sheep, Bo Peep she must die.” 

Ghetts and his collaborators present a distinctly Black and British identity. By merging the strings of the pastoral tradition with the beats of grime as a backdrop to lyrics depicting inner-city realities, the geographies of exclusion crucial to nationalist music are disrupted. Instead we’re left with a more honest depiction of the British cultural landscape which brings non-white communities into the notion of nationhood. After all, what could provide a more distinct example of the richness of British music than grime – a sound birthed in British cities, which has now shaped the global musical consciousness of a generation?

Our cities are now home to increasingly diverse ethnicities and cultural identities, and there’s a great strength to be found in communities which embrace each others’ differences rather than using them to fuel exclusion. It’s an idea referred to as ‘conviviality’, and it points to an  optimistic outcome from this cultural melting pot. Paul Gilroy defines conviviality as:

 “The evasive, multicultural future prefigured everywhere in the ordinary experiences of contact, cooperation, and conflict across the supposedly impermeable boundaries of race, culture, identity and ethnicity.”

Realising Gilroy’s prediction through creativity, it’s possible to see musicians from different racial, religious or cultural backgrounds challenging issues which do not necessarily apply to them, purely because they feel strongly about the matter in hand. Kae Tempest’s track “Brown Eyed Man” is a clear example of conviviality at play. The track tells a story of police brutality against a man who is referred to by the racially nonspecific signifier of ‘brown eyes’. Tempest’s words have been used to reflect the injustices of police violence against Black men, especially when it was printed in Frank Ocean’s magazine, Blonded, alongside images of Black victims of American police brutality. But by refusing to describe the subject of their story as Black, or indeed any other race, they reject the signifiers central to the exclusionary politics of nationalist projects. Tempest is not Black themselves, yet they communicate the experiences of Black men at the hands of police, and how this injustice is felt across the supposedly impermeable barriers of race. Yet whilst Tempest challenges these racist agendas with their words, their use of the pastoral sonic mode is also important in challenging the nationalist politics at the heart of these racist agendas.

On a surface level you can understand the allure of pastoral music – the beauteous passages of emotive harmony, the swooning romanticism of it all. But in the context of ‘Brown Eyed Man’, Tempest takes traditional pastoral instrumentation – the sound of a full orchestral ensemble – and uses it to craft dissonant harmonies which starkly contrast pastoral music’s typical romanticism. It’s worth thinking here about the idea of a romanticised past – it’s a central tenet to modern nationalist ideology as seen in ‘making America great again’ or ‘taking back control’, but it was also at the heart of the pastoral tradition as well. As Rivell notes, pastoral composers looked to, “particular moments in English history, its music and literature in order to inscribe the nation in sound.” In particular, pastoral composers looked to a period in the Victorian era, referred to as a time of ‘Merrie England’, when Britain was also experiencing the height of imperial dominance. This selective memory led to a musical tradition which indirectly celebrated the violent injustices of British imperialism.

In that sense, it’s interesting Tempest’s work recasts the pastoral tradition through a lens of disillusionment and discontent, rather than the romanticised vision of the past employed by pastoral composers. Tempest doesn’t describe their ‘Brown Eyed Man’ in terms of a specific ethnicity, but their message is clearly loaded against disproportionate, racist policing. You can hear Tempest’s empathy and fury for the situation, and the discord of the orchestral arrangement strengthens the angst-ridden mood, but perhaps more profound is the resolution of the dissonant harmonies on the line, ‘You’re lying if you think/That my pain isn’t your pain.’ This central theme of shared experience and unity, boiled down into one sharply focused line, brings the harmonic content of the track together, crystalising this idea of ‘conviviality’. Where once this celebratory harmonic tone stood for pastoral music and its nationalist white pride, now it’s being used to celebrate cross-cultural empathy and the rejection of racial inequality.

You could think of the reappraisal and reappropriation of the pastoral sonic mode as merely a trend – a fleeting moment in an increasingly varied and complex British sound culture. But what is underlined in these specific examples is the unwillingness of these contemporary British musicians to accept the divisiveness promoted by nationalist projects. Whilst similar sentiments can be felt across contemporary British music, especially lyrically, there’s something especially artful about the use of the pastoral to challenge musical and political history. At a time when the threat of nationalism looms large, subverting something as perceivably ‘British’ as pastoral music has a symbolism and strength which feels necessary. These artists are redefining the very nationhood these sounds are supposed to represent, challenging archaic, racialised ideas of nation. They’re projecting the ideal of conviviality Gilroy described – an optimistic outlook for a society which relies on allyship and solidarity to thrive.