Well, it may be overselling ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ a bit to call it a film, given that its length is just over 15 minutes. But the short-form project is interesting in its provenance.
With a mixture of ‘dramatic narrative’ and live footage, the film is backed by YouTube and received its premiere at the company’s YouTube Space London studio last night, firmly aligning Stormzy with the service.
It’s also YouTube firmly aligning itself with grime, of course, although it’s certainly not alone in that ambition. Deezer got in early with its grassroots grime initiative; Spotify has built a big audience for its Grime Shutdown playlist and is putting on a high-profile concert at Alexandra Palace later this year branded with its Who We Be playlist; Apple Music commissioned its own mini-doc on Skepta, and so on.
YouTube can argue that it was a key platform for grime artists even before it started commissioning short films about them. In the blog post announcing the Stormzy project, it cites other stars including Skepta, Kano, Wiley, Little Simz, Lady Leshurr, Dave and J Hus as having “found an audience on YouTube” as well as grime-infused brands like SB.TV, GRM Daily and Link Up TV with their two million combined subscribers.
Unsurprisingly, YouTube’s music boss Lyor Cohen – whose involvement in the big commercial breakthroughs for hip-hop in the US is well-known – has a view on all this. “The rise of grime is a perfect example of how YouTube is a place for artists to express themselves creatively and a democratic platform to access a global fanbase,” he said.
The ‘value gap’ debate rages on, of course, but YouTube’s decision to throw some dollars at the grime scene – many of whose artists operate as independents through distributors rather than sign to a label – seems logical.
That said, many of those stars are also shrewd when it comes to navigating the streaming ecosystem: they’ll gladly work with YouTube, but won’t neglect the potential of partnerships with Spotify, Apple, Deezer and others in the space.