God’s Airwavesby Samora Chapman / 02.08.2010
On summery Monday morning in London a pair of buskers set up outside Camden Station. An amp on a trolly, a car battery and a dirty yellow saxophone. It’s a common occurrence in the London scene, but I’ve still got the fresh eyes so I’m drawn in like a junky to the good stuff. The raggedy pair of hip hoppers begin with a tentative beat box and a few colourful Camden drifters gather round. I quickly realise that this wasn’t just another impromptu jam. These were tight musicians. The one fellow recorded the beat using a loop machine controlled by a foot pedal. Once the beat was established, he picked up the sax and delivered a melodic little riff, which he recorded and looped again. He then threw in a bit of flute and some spooky vocal snatches. Soon there was a delicious instrumental backing track, recorded live and intuitively on the spot.
The MC stepped up, head bobbing to the beat and set his tongue loose on the haphazard gathering of low life, travelers and posh aunties. I smiled on the inside cos rap is my religion; it’s my faith and it tickles my joy like the holy-spirit grips the pastor. The crowd swelled and cheered with appreciation. An elderly woman bleated above the music “you’re really good you know, you should be on the radio.”
As the music dissolved into the atmosphere and the Camden punks danced in circles like lunatics, I reflected on how the scene epitomized London. It’s a refreshing scene for the South African economic refugee. A place where you can be whatever you want to be. The loudmouths, the extroverts and the madmen are as much a part of society as the straight edge businessman and the Hasidic Jew fundamentalist with his 18th century attire and dangly side-curls. No matter how strange you look, the Londoner will stroll by oblivious. Or stop for a minute to observe the scene then continue along their path.
As I sat and pondered in a state of absent-minded social voyeurism, the vibe suddenly changed. A bobby cop arrived on the scene (representative of the proverbial beast), and sauntered through the crowd wearing a smirk and a bulletproof vest. Some things are the same no matter where you are in the world. He had a swollen belly, a badge and a pair of shiny handcuffs. He raised his fleshy hand into the sky and stepped in front of the performers.
His gesture was intended to bring the music to a sudden halt, but instead the crowd jeered and the buskers played on. The cop stood motionless with his hand in the sky looking like he was performing a “Heil Hitler”. After some time he snapped out of his Nazi trance and gave the saxophone case an almighty boot. A few golden bullion’s scattered across the concrete. He was like the Sheriff of Nottingham reincarnate! The music played on. The desperate Bobby then grabbed the mic stand in a final effort to put an end to proceedings and demolish the insolent creativity.
The duo played out the song then hastily gathered their belongings. I spoke to the MC as he scooped hand fulls of golden one pound coins into his back pack like a bandit. The two-man crew introduced themselves as Mr. Woodnote and Little Rhyse.
Little Rhyse was babbling with excitement: “Ah man that was awesome! It’s the first time we’ve busked in London! What a rush.”
“Why did that copper shut you down?” I asked.
“You’re supposed to get a permit to busk in London. You gotta audition and all that jazz. Fuckit man, we’ll keep making music, whatever happens.”
The other muso (Mr. Woodnote) was having a standoff with the humiliated cop.
“Calm down and get out of my breathing space please,” he was saying. “Just give us a minute and we’ll be outa here.”
You need a permit to busk in London? So much for the utopian vision! Down the road at HMV, billions of pounds are turned over annually, most of it going to record execs and businessmen. It’s a massive corporate industry that makes a killing out of music on a world-wide scale. And here on the street, a pair of talented independent artists are playing their music Mahala on god’s airwaves and they get harassed, bullied and treated like criminals. Yes it is a public space, but if you don’t like the music you can surely just keep stepping down the street. The only reason this type of performance art is oppressed is because it offers no commercial gain to the powers that be. But hey, the bigger the barriers the more interesting and subversive the art becomes. Let’s call for a world-wide revolution of busking and performance art. In fact, I’m broke as fuck so I reckon I should go outside, turn my beanie upside down and shake my booty to a rap beat. Maybe I’ll make a few quid so I can eat tonight. And as ol’ NWA said: “Fuck da police!”
All images © Samora Chapman.