Too Many Man: Where are the Women of Grime?

Since emerging from London in the early 2000’s, grime has been on a winding road to fame and success. However, it’s not been an easy journey and there’s been many bumps along the way. When thinking about the genre, the more recent achievements would probably spring to mind, such as Stormzy’s performance at the Brit Awards in 2018, or D Double E’s appearance on the IKEA Christmas advert in 2020. But where has grime come from, what’s it all about, and where is it going?

Rewind two decades. Imagine the towering council flats of East London, pirate radio stations, MCs spitting over experimental beats. Grime was inspired by inner city living and the sounds of London, blending a range of genres including Garage, D&B, Gub, Jungle, Dancehall and Hip-Hop, in particular taking influence from Jamaican sound system culture. MCs told us about the harsh realities of city life and the social injustices they faced, the intimacies of relationships and family life, and often they just cussed each other out. We heard raw, personal and sometimes humorous commentaries, unfiltered and unapologetic. It felt special because it felt like ours, it wasn’t America’s hip-hop, or Jamaica’s dancehall – it was Britain’s grime.

Grime is about community, self-expression and innovation. Those integrated in the scene would tell you that it’s more than a genre, it’s a culture. Grime has brought social and historical change, from MCs headlining major festivals, to artists forming the political movement Grime4Corbyn ahead of the 2017 election, which encouraged young people to vote. Now, the genre is celebrated and enjoyed all over the world, with events such as Side Grime taking place in Brazil and live radio sets popping up in Australia, Japan and Korea. Now, it’s difficult to imagine the genre faced such harsh criticism from the mainstream media, and hostility from the British government. It was only in November 2017 that Form 696 was scrapped. Form 696 was a ‘risk assessment form’ which was inherently racist and stopped many grime events from going ahead. But why am I telling you all of this, and where do the women feature?

Madders & Shan, MC & videographer

During my early teenage years, I was really into grime. It wasn’t until I started going to live events a few years later that I started realising how male-dominated the scene really was, both on and off stage. In 2017, I set myself a mission to find the women of grime. Searching online and offline for female MCs, DJs, producers, radio presenters, journalists, videographers – I was looking for those who helped shape the genre over the last twenty years. I knew of MCs such as Lady Leshurr, Ms Dynamite, Shystie and Lioness, and journalists Chantelle Fiddy and Hattie Collins, but there had to be more than just a handful of women. The more I looked, the more I found. In 2019, I released a photo-book titled Too Many Man: Women of Grime, named after the 2009 song ‘Too Many Man’ by grime MC, Skepta. Two years later, I updated the project with a second edition, including 50 women involved in the UK grime scene. Here in 2021, I still ask the question of why did I have to dig to find these women? Moreover, why were they not getting the recognition they deserved, and why were they not being given the same platforms as their male counterparts? Let’s hear it from the women themselves.

“I think for women in music, it’s not just how good you are, it’s what do you look like? Are you pretty? Would anyone want to fuck you? Are you swagged out? … A lot of the female MCs I started out with have dropped off because they didn’t get the recognition or support they deserved, and they felt they had to be someone other than themselves.” – Roxxxan

Roxxxan, MC

“Give me a music scene that isn’t male dominated… I think [grime] is rage, it’s anger, it’s pent-up aggression, and I’m not saying these aren’t things that females feel, but I think those are things that where we grew up they were largely an issue for men and it was like finding an alternative outlet for that rage that wasn’t violence… I think it’s a way of finding comradery and stuff, that maybe women could find elsewhere.” – Debris

Debris, writer and grime poet

“A lot of people try to put women against each other, which is the most annoying thing. There’s about 50 female MCs and rappers I can think of right now, and there’s space for us all. Look at how many males there are and they’re all doing their thing, so why can we not coexist?” – Lioness

Lioness, MC

“Although there have never been that many females in front of the mic, there’s always been a lot of really important figures behind the mic. Not just the Chantelle’s and the Sarah Lockhart’s, but also the mums, the sisters, the girlfriends, the best friends… A lot of women have played a huge part in grime, it’s just not in the ways people necessarily expect, or in the most visible ways. Without women, grime would be very, very different. I think women have been really key, and a lot of the time have steered the culture with very little or no recognition. Without women I think grime would be less developed and less interesting, I think we’ve broadened the idea of grime and given it more of an identity.” – Hattie Collins, journalist

Since starting the project in 2017, I’ve seen a huge shift in recognition and respect for women in the scene. Boxpark Wembley curated an event called Grime Ballet in 2019, which saw a panel of mainly women, and performances by Lioness and The Grime Violinist. Poet In Da Corner, a coming of age play inspired by Dizzee Rascal’s debut album written by Debris Stevenson, toured across the UK in 2020. Female DJs spinning grime are being booked for shows and festivals around and outside of the UK, and successful male MCs are actively making music with female MCs and producers. The women in the scene are also backing each other and working together on a variety of projects. Seeing this shift and unity over the past couple of years has been heartwarming, and shows that grime is learning and growing. Despite the popular saying, grime is not dead. It’s evolved past its infancy, and will too continue to develop for the next generation.

Text and photos by Ellie Ramsden

All photos and interviews from Too Many Man: Women of Grime V2