Dave May Be One Of The Most Important Voices Of Our Time. And He’s 21
The youngest musicians often have the most compelling things to say. This is the kind of fact that tends to surprise every generation, right from when four lads from Liverpool managed to tap into the zeitgeist and changed pop music forever.
David Orobosa Omoregie is 21. The youngest son of Nigerian immigrants, born and raised in South London, he is also one of the most powerful voices in hip-hop today. To understand why takes a mere seven minutes on YouTube. I nudge you, gently, towards the video for Question Time, off his second EP from October 2017 called Game Over. It starts off as a series of questions for Britain’s new and former Prime Ministers. It ends up being an eviscerating indictment of a country’s policies that make it hard for a commoner to differentiate between the government and the enemy it claims to be fighting against. “How’d you have a heart so sinister?” he asks Theresa May, “…what’s the difference between us and them? When you got drones killing kids just touching ten.” It then veers into personal territory involving his mother, who has been working in and out of nursing, struggling, hurting. “I just find it fucked that the government is struggling/To care for a person that cares for a person…”
Question Time ended up winning Dave an award for Best Contemporary Song at the 2018 Ivor Novellos, giving him the impetus to work towards his debut album. Psychodrama dropped in March this year, and the first hint of its now undeniable greatness arrived with a video for its third track, Black. The video is a stunning celebratory collage of cameos from a host of famous black celebrities, including England footballer Raheem Sterling, British rapper Stormzy, designer Ozwald Boateng, and athlete Dina Asher-Smith. It’s discomfiting to watch, and prompted a host of negative comments from YouTube viewers and radio listeners.
It is important to recognise that a sense of discomfort lies at the heart of what makes any genuine work of art powerful. What Dave does with Black is discuss pertinent issues that continue to be swept under the proverbial carpet far beyond the shores of his native country. It is a polemical debate and contentious history lesson rolled into one, dragging not just England’s colonial past kicking and screaming into the present, but also pointing out that the present continues to evade the reality of a social fabric that has long been tattered and torn.
Black works on multiple levels, layering the focus of contemporary movements such as #BlackLivesMatter across historical narratives that have long marginalized non-Caucasian voices. “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice,” he raps, “a kid dies, the blacker the killer, the sweeter the news.” It makes for uncomfortable listening, especially when heard against a backdrop of discriminatory government and policing policies.
Consider that in September 2017, David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham and former minister for higher education, was asked by former British PM David Cameron to conduct a review into the over-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals in the UK’s criminal justice system. What he found was a bias that he referred to as a “social time bomb”. His report mentioned 41% of under-18s in custody from minority backgrounds, compared with 25% a decade ago. Young black people were nine times more likely to be in youth custody than young white people, and black boys more than 10 times as likely as white boys to be arrested for drug offences. Heard against these statistics, Dave’s rap “Loud in our laughter, silent in our sufferin’” takes on a poignancy that belies his age. The negativity sparked off by the track is also an ironic commentary on its relevance.
There are a number of reasons why the 11-track Psychodrama is already regarded as a hip-hop classic. It is structured, rather unusually, as a conversation between Dave and his therapist, allowing the young rapper to segue effortlessly between the personal and political, from his relationship with an older brother currently serving a life sentence for murder to the state of his mental health, to an exploration of his racial identity as a child of immigrants. This isn’t the kind of laid-back album one can listen to while driving, because so much of what Dave has to say sounds almost claustrophobic.
The opener, Psycho, showcases his gift for economy, explaining how depression works with, “Man I think I’m going mad again / It’s like I’m happy for a second then I’m sad again.” At the centre of the album stands Lesley, a complicated 11-minute chronicle of domestic abuse, allegedly based on one of the rapper’s relatives. His message is one of empowerment, urging women to recognize when they are being taken advantage of and seek help. His medium allows him to set up complex internal rhymes: “Bro, she’s four months pregnant, young and neglected / Single but I don’t think she wants to accept it / So she’s still texting exes trying to get this / Back on track but I don’t think that she gets it / It’s emotional obsession, clinical depression / Life is a lesson.” This is not a story that ends well for Lesley, and Dave documents her downward spiral in harrowing detail, closing with the question: “In that train full of people that you’re taking / How many Lesleys are running from their Jasons?”
Not everything Dave has to say is gloomy and doom-laden. He is 21, after all, and has managed to hook a fair share of listeners, who simply want to let their hair down to grime club bangers like Thiago Silva (with AJ Tracey) and the magnificent Funky Friday (featuring Fredo), compelling a lot of Englishmen to scream about “One hand on the girl I’m dating / One hand on the cash I’m making”.
The interesting thing about Dave (or Santan Dave, which he sometimes calls himself as an inside joke involving opening a savings account with Santander Bank) isn’t that he’s young or supremely talented; it’s that he has something valuable to say, in a manner that raises more questions than answers. Maybe artists aren’t meant to offer solutions at all though. Sometimes, asking the right question is the harder thing to do.
— First published in GQ India, October 2019