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Image: Flickr. ©Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

Dave’s BRITs performance and the politics of his poetry

For a chart-topping lyrical prodigy of his generation, Dave is decidedly humble. Whether using his platform to promote new talent – who could forget the #AlexfromGlasto episode – or publicly pay homage to those who so inspired his success, the Brixton-born rapper has been lauded as a different breed of music artist in prime position to bridge the gaps in a broken Britain.

In a night of wins for Stormzy, Lewis Capaldi and Billie Eilish at this year’s BRIT awards, it was the 21-year old Dave’s scooping of Best British Album for his debut effort, Psychodrama, that seemed to provoke the biggest applause. In doing so, he became only the second-ever artist to win both the BRIT award and Mercury prize for top album of the year (after Arctic Monkeys in 2006) – and it’s not difficult to see why. Psychodrama is a work of maturity far beyond the years of a university dropout given little leg-ups in his pursuit of a successful career in music. In eleven tracks, Dave’s renowned wordplay weaves personal tales of domestic and romantic struggle with impassioned allusions to the social injustices facing black youth in modern Britain. In equal parts letter of gratitude and hostile political statement, the album is a study in the poetic potential of contemporary rap and a reminder of the depths to which music can delve in dealing with issues of the day.

In five minutes, Dave condensed the volatile sentiments of his album into a powerful proclamation of the issues closest to his heart

Dave’s now-viral performance at the BRITs is a testament to the power of his lyricism. Instead of opting for one of the more commercially-successful entries from his album – ‘Streatham’ or ‘Location’ would’ve proven risk-free crowd-pleasers – he used his stage to perform an extended version of ‘Black’, the politically-charged exposé of the racial divides that remain tangible in Britain and beyond. In five minutes, Dave condensed the volatile sentiments of his album into a powerful proclamation of the issues closest to his heart; it was Psychodrama abridged. Rapping with adept composure beside a digitally-enhanced piano, he relayed the track’s most poignant remarks to a hypnotised O2 Arena: “It’s workin’ twice as hard as the people you know you’re better than”, “You don’t know the truth about your race ’cause they erasin’ it”, “Black is people namin’ your countries on what they trade most”.

But the most moving moment of the performance came when Dave stepped away from the keys and the familiarity of his famous lyrics to deliver a stirring, ripped-from-the-headlines attack on the government and the media. He drew awestruck applause when declaring Boris Johnson “a real racist” and further cheers in his criticism of Meghan Markle’s tabloid hounding. He indicted Britain’s colonial history and demanded support for the Windrush generation. He remembered London Bridge victims Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, called for less deforestation, better rehabilitation for prisoners and reparations for those displaced by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. In the final minutes of his allotted time on stage, Dave consolidated his credibility as the voice of his generation. He dropped the mic, departed into the blackness with a dazed swagger, and left his mark.

In the final minutes of his allotted time on stage, Dave consolidated his credibility as a voice of his generation

It was, for all the possibility of self-promotion, a bold and selfless performance intended to boost awareness instead of record sales. The young artist has proven, on perhaps the biggest stage of his career thus far, that there is message to his music. Just as Stormzy has become a warrior of social justice with his less-than-subtle political antagonism, Dave – for now, at least – occupies a space at the forefront of cultural consciousness as a new champion of the people. While Big Mike’s walking of the grime/pop tightrope gives his rapid-fire social criticisms an internet-friendly appeal – “F**k the government and f**k Boris”, and so on – Dave’s sound offers a refined alternative without losing the potency of their shared political leanings. He’s a poet in a world of performers.

In a typically-unselfish awards speech later in the evening, Dave celebrated and legitimised the aspirations of his fellow south Londoners, paid tribute to the “legends” in his company – including Hans Zimmer, no less – and thanked his mum, naturally. Addressing the “young kings and queens that are chasing their dreams”, he said: “I’m no different from you, I’m just a guy”. That may be true, if “just a guy” means generational talent.

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