It’s not, let’s be frank, Fight the Power, Sound of Da Police, or The Message. But MC NxtGen’s Andrew Lansley rap is surely the first hip hop track to make it into Hansard. While I was writing the book, Crass’s How Does It Feel? was the only protest song I could find that had been mentioned in Parliament – to the target of the song, no less. Now that honour is shared, thanks to John Healey MP, the Shadow Health Secretary, who taunted his opposite number: “It takes a special talent to unite opposition from Norman Tebbit and MC NxtGen.” Making it even sweeter, the context was the Health Secretary’s announcement that he was slowing down the contentious NHS reforms that inspired the song in the first place.
According to the Observer, MC NxtGen is 22-year-old Loughborough bin man Sean Donnelly, who wrote the lyrics three weeks ago and then (via his girlfriend, an occupational therapist) approached Unison, the health workers’ union for help. Unison funded the video, shot in a special school in Leicester, which gave the song its YouTube momentum – 223,754 views at the time of writing. Thanks to social networking, it travelled so far so quickly that even Lansley felt obliged to seem a good sport about it. “We will never privatise the National Health Service,” he said. “But I’m impressed that he’s managed to get lyrics about GP commissioning into a rap.” Conversely, one Westminster correspondent reported that there had been Conservative plans to troll the video’s YouTube comments and smear NxtGen as a union shill. When a clip can’t even inspire an organic backlash on YouTube, the home of the troll army, then you know it’s hit the mark.
The first time I heard the rap, I tagged it as a novelty because it’s funny — “grey-haired manky codger” owes more to Ronnie Barker than KRS-One — but I underrated its craft. As demonstrated by his other YouTube clips, NxtGen has a slippery, agile flow. The choice of an old Animals sample rather than his usual grime-influenced beats gives it canny cross-generational appeal. And the lyric conveys an impressive amount of information, even if some of it seems to have travelled a little too quickly from Google to the microphone. The verse about Lansley’s white paper lucidly condenses the case against his reforms into just six lines. And the preceding verse about “broke folk” gives the song an unexpectedly potent shot of moral indignation. I like Donnelly’s description of the writing process — its unfussy, internet-enabled immediacy:
I did the lyrics myself, went on the internet, did some research and put it together like a jigsaw and made it funny. And it has just spread.
And what he told the Right to Work website about the role of protest music…
I think music can get the message out there to the whole population including the younger generation who will be able to understand it more rather than what they hear on the news.
…isn’t a million miles from what Joe Hill said about protest singing a hundred years earlier:
If a person can put a few cold, common-sense facts into a song and dress them (the facts) up in a cloak of humour to take the dryness out of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science.
Is there a lesson to be drawn from this? Will other protest songs make their mark by travelling the same social-networking pathways as Rebecca Black or Dancing Thom rather than the traditional route of recording studio to radio? Can humour and spontaneity, those factors which the internet cherishes above pretty much anything else, be pressed into the service of particular messages, making protest songs part of the general Twitter/Facebook hubbub rather than specialist curios that you only find if (like me) you’re really looking for them? Or will there be lots of bad sequels which drive this idea into the ground until everyone loses interest and gets distracted by a video of a sneezing meerkat? Let’s find out.
The song is now available on iTunes.