Crossing Borders

Marginality and Opportunity in Contemporary British Urban Youth Culture

Dr Joy White
Independent Scholar
Dr Jonathan Ilan
City, University of London


Marginalised urban youth in contemporary Britain struggle to square their own aspirations, society’s expectations and the disadvantages they face in the course of their lives. As a consequence, their lived experiences often consist of competing narratives around entrepreneurialism, education and criminality. At different times, each of these different approaches to life will exert a greater pull; they can be practised simultaneously and jostle for attention. Mediating and articulating these concerns are grassroots music scenes: predominantly grime and rap. All too often, however, these diverse issues are studied in silos even where they fuse together at the level of lived experience and everyday lives. This research brings together experts in all of these fields to better conceptualise the lifeworlds and choices of marginalised youth.

The residential research workshop is an inherently multi-disciplinary project. It will involve presentations from academics who specialise in the intersection of street music forms and variously: entrepreneurialism, criminality and education/youth work. We will identify the most useful and salient contributions their specialisms have generated – synthesise them – and develop an approach to knowing about such issues that is more than the sum of its parts. The programme will further involve contributions from practitioners, ensuring that a policy development agenda that reflects ‘real world’ matters. The workshop builds on research undertaken by former ISRF Fellow Joy White.

The outcomes of the residential workshop will go beyond an evolved and reinvigorated theoretical understanding of marginalised youth and competing opportunities (legitimate and otherwise). Through the development of an empirical research agenda we will advance practical solutions to social problems that have for too long seemed intractable. By grounding solutions in life as actually experienced rather than the assumptions of policy-makers, this research provides the opportunity for game-changing thinking to have a greater impact on practise at street level.

The Research Idea

How do youth culture, crime, commerce and education come together in the everyday lives of young people in inner city areas? We contend that it is both provocative and controversial to think about crime and education together, as well as in relation to jobs and enterprise.

We will examine how the content of this culture overlaps with its mediums and platforms: mobile and online digital technologies and social media, face-to-face scenes, affective spaces, collective, sensuous and convivial encounters. Can the small-time entrepreneurship of rap and grime culture be understood as a kind of sociocultural space of informal learning, an alternative education?

Following from this, then, how is the small-time entrepreneurship of rap and grime culture (1) a site of informal knowledge and skills exchange, curating and broadcasting; (2) a site of ‘small acts of citizenship and organic intellect in terms of self-activity and peer-education? How is it a locus of public deliberation and critical dialogue over the everyday conditions, challenges and global issues that impact on the young makers and sellers of this content?

Does the small-time entrepreneurship of rap and grime culture engender a sense of worth and value in those to whom these things are routinely denied? Does it serve at once, ambiguously, as a site of competition, individual prestige and acquisition, and community, solidarity and mutual aid? Consideration will be given to how grime and rap figure within crime and justice and how they might best be applied to crime prevention and formal learning.


One of the enduring effects of the dismantling of the welfare state in the UK is that neoliberalism has become common sense (Bauman 2007). When young people experience under/unemployment or come up against the criminal justice system the assumption is that this is due to an individual lack or deficiency. It is evident that the drive towards entrepreneurialism has become common sense among the young and that becoming a brand is a desirable outcome. Although increasing numbers of young people are going to university, in the UK social mobility is at its lowest for two decades. There are approximately 840,000 people considered NEET (not in education, employment or training) (Davies & Brown 2016).

In many inner city areas in the UK, grime and rap music is the everyday soundscape. Grime music is a black Atlantic creative expression (Gilroy 1996) produced through the convivial endeavours of young people of Caribbean, African and English heritage (White 2016). Grime draws its influences from the sound systems of Jamaica, filtered through contemporary genres. UK rap translates the US genre into a British context, with British rappers using their own accents. Throughout the UK, the creation and consumption of grime and rap is a socially and culturally significant activity among the young. Both genres have been subject to rigorous and sometimes draconian policing. These genres also serve as an interstice where creative practice and commerce come together and enable the sale of black creative expression in a national and global market place (Hill Collins 2006).

The Focus

By gathering together scholars who work around contemporary grime/rap music, entrepreneurialism, youth crime and education, our proposal offers a holistic approach to the quotidian experiences of young lives in the inner city. We contend that too often all of these issues are studied separately, but for young people in the ‘inner-city’ they often fuse together as part of their lived experiences / everyday lives. As a group our goal would be to work on mapping an agenda to better conceptualise this and to draw up an empirical and policy agenda that would reflect our findings.

Offering a corrective to the post 2011 riots demonization of British street culture, ours will be a study of how politics, identity and citizenship are enacted through a form of small-time entrepreneurship that sometimes hover on the borders of criminality and that as ‘edutainment’ conjugates visceral pleasure with education.

Ours will be a study that attends at once to the performative and denotative (constructed and correspondent) aspects of this everyday culture. That is, its discursive, situated and positive content. British rappers and grime artists are ‘feeling’ their ‘whole life in certain ways differently, and shaping [their] creative response into a new structure of feeling’ (Williams, 1977: 49). We will harness the vernacular consciousness of this culture, an organic element of the everyday lives of marginalised British youth, and reflect on how it might be channelled to improve the life circumstances of its practitioners and fans.

Theoretical Novelty

The social sciences are dominated by a particular theoretical understanding of the neoliberal socioeconomic order. It is implicated in the gulf between rich and poor, ‘winners and losers’: where the aspirational and successful are deemed worthy of high standards of living but for the marginalised, poverty and lack of status are read as individual failures (see e.g. Bauman, 2007). Those judged deficient in their educational, working and moral lives are left to a criminal justice system that further excludes (Young, 2007). This project develops an innovative theoretical perspective that explains the lives of marginalised British young people in a more nuanced, less fatalistic manner.

Street music genres explore the tensions between the neoliberal values of self-improvement and entrepreneurialism and the marginalising forces of poverty, lack of decently-paid employment, criminality and over-policing. These possibilities are not experienced as mutually exclusive, rather they compete for influence and outcomes over the life-course. Grime and hip-hop go beyond articulating this, actively representing an opportunity to develop creative skills valued in the post-industrial economy in an organic and familiar context. The experience of scene fellowship, moreover, demonstrates how pleasurable experiences and shared endeavour are part of an affective (feeling-related) reaction to marginality – containing within it – the seeds of personal development and advancement. This theoretical novelty transcends the economic-determinism of existing models, and ultimately seeks to understand the everyday lives of marginalised British youth in a manner that opens greater opportunities for their inclusion.


The residential programme will achieve its theoretical and output-oriented goals by means of iterative, collaborative workshops as set out in detail in the work plan below. This is a method that is cognisant of the fact that the various individuals involved in the programme bring different but complementary sets of expertise. It recognises that these systems of knowledge commit their focus to differing aspects of the empirical issues studied, but is committed to seeking theoretical innovations that reach beyond a ‘sum of its parts’ result. This will be achieved through privileging the lived experience of marginalised British youth as the ultimate touchstone for discussion and output. The programme participants all share an ethnographic sensibility highly attuned to the unfolding of issues ‘on the ground’ and a commitment to ‘progressively focus’ (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007) so that the workshop activity is well placed to reach conclusions that were not knowable at the beginning of the process (Baszanger & Dodier, 1997).

This commitment to openness and reality as differently experienced is a distinctive element of the programme, where participants are encouraged to transcend the key concerns of their disciplines and instead to focus on the ‘problems’ their disciplines seek to address from the perspective of the people the solutions are targeted at. From this epistemological position, a new research, policy and practice agenda will be developed with the input of the invited practitioners and this in turn will begin a next iterative process of expertise generation.

Work Plan

The programme will be organised over five days, four of which will have a specific theme, with the fifth day a practitioner workshop to ensure that the outputs produced (an agenda for future empirical research and a policy briefing document) best reflect concerns at ground level. Each day a different member of the group will act as facilitator. The days will begin with formal presentations where key academics will deliver pre-prepared interventions that will be discussed by the wider group. This will be followed by smaller group workshops that will draft material for outputs. The themes and texts that emerge from this process will be fed back to the larger group, discussed and collated by the facilitator. As the programme advances, each day’s outputs will be integrated with and into that of the preceding days.

The daily themes, together with indicative/potential facilitators include:

  1. Music and Industry (Eithne Quinn)
  2. Crime and Everyday Life (Jonathan Ilan)
  3. Entrepreneurship and Creativity (Joy White)
  4. Pedagogy, Education and Intervention (Patrick Turner)
  5. Solutions that will Work (Joy White and Jonathan Ilan)

The empirical agenda output will be based on frank assessments of what is known in the academic literature and what is missing. This will be developed correspondingly with a policy advancement document that will look to how the state, local authorities and various other bodies have attempted to intervene in the lives of marginalised youth. Our policy document will be widely disseminated to relevant agencies.


The workshop will provide a meaningful set of ideas that will be further communicated to form the basis for a holistic policy/practice agenda. A document will be produced summarising the key ideas to emerge from the programme, in conversation with practitioners that can be offered forward as the basis for policy reform. At the least, this document will represent a clear statement of ‘what works’ in practice.

We will establish a national network of scholars, policy makers, research participants and practitioners gathering people who work around contemporary urban music (grime, rap, drill and trap), entrepreneurialism, youth culture, youth justice and education.

The creation of an interactive website that will be actively promoted to practitioners thus engaging with the wider music economy and bringing this artistic practice into the academy.

As part of drawing up an empirical research agenda, that will be carried forward by programme participants, as further grant applications and projects, we will develop new conceptual tools to understand the lives and challenges of young people growing up in marginalised urban spaces.

  • Dr Joy White, Independent Scholar
  • Dr Jonathan Ilan, City, University of London
  • Dr Eithne Quinn, University of Manchester
  • Dr Patrick Turner, Bath Spa University