Yo! Bums rush the show (in the Royal Festival Hall)

The Britain that traditionalists want to hang on to is fast disappearing
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The Independent Online

This week I must have been to the strangest and most confusing gig of the year: the magnificently militant, explosive hip-hop group Public Enemy.

This week I must have been to the strangest and most confusing gig of the year: the magnificently militant, explosive hip-hop group Public Enemy. These are rappers who caused outrage about 15 years ago, getting themselves banned from half of America for urging the world's youth to "fight the power" against an America they called an "errordome". But the weird thing about this gig was the venue - the Royal Festival Hall.

At first I thought there must be another Royal Festival Hall, an ironic hip-hop parody of the main one where you ring up for tickets and the receptionist says, "Would you like to sit on the East Side or the West Side sir?"

But it was the actual Royal Festival Hall, the same one I sat in when I was 10 and saw the BBC orchestra playing Peter and the Wolf. So I wandered past the café that sells stuff like "goat's cheese and sweet red pepper sandwiches", across the implausibly thick carpet on which there's usually an exhibition from Mexico of sculptures made out of barbed wire, up the stairs where an absurdly posh usher smiled, took my ticket and said "Public Enemy, sir? Third floor on the right."

They could at least have changed the announcement that the show was about to start from "Would everyone in the house please take their seats for this evening's performance" to "The main man will begin in five minutes. Yo."

Then, on the door, offering to take you to your seat, was a lovely old woman of about 80. By now it was like being in a dream and I wondered if she'd say, "There you are dear, K32. I hope they do the one about fighting the power of muthafuckin' America. Still, it's a lovely evening for it."

In the hall itself quite a few people were in the boxes. What had they done that for? Did they think "Well it's important to get a good view of Terminator X." Or were they used to the opera and thought a screen would come down with translated lyrics? Maybe this will be the next trend with rap gigs so that the audience can say, "Ah, I see, he's saying 'I don't care about you, you're just my prostitute.' And he doesn't mean the chap he's talking to has literally been doing that with his mother at all. Now the plot makes sense."

Given the confusing layout of the South Bank arts complex, in which the Royal Festival Hall is situated, it must be almost certain that somebody went into the wrong venue, perhaps expecting to see The Duchess of Malfi. And then went home gasping: "How wonderfully innovative to symbolise the Duke's inability to see the obvious, and his compulsion for damaging what is dearest to him, as a man in dark glasses scratching his records." But there must also be someone expecting to see Public Enemy who took a wrong turning, and went away thinking "They really went over the top this time, all murdering each other in the encore. Still, it was bound to happen one day."

And yet despite this, they were utterly inspiringly brilliant, and for reasons way beyond the militant lyrics. Radicals used to sing "We shall overcome", a song bursting with militant lyrics, but sung in such a way that no one could believe anyone singing it will ever overcome anything as much as a sprained ankle. When the police heard demonstrators wailing that, they must have thought, "This is a nice easy one. We'll have this lot rounded up and be back at the station for a game of snooker in half an hour." Whereas with Public Enemy, as with the all the most influential protest music, it sounds dangerous even when you've no idea what they're talking about. With sirens wailing and arms flying in all directions, they ooze threat. If only they were English we could get them to perform in next year's Eurovision and then see who dared gives us no points.

And yet at the end we all marched out back past the ushers, including the 80-year-old, who smiled at us as if they were air stewardesses at the end of a flight. But the weirdness of this situation does make a point about modern Britain. It's similar to the one made when I was on jury service recently, and we retired to consider our verdict on a case involving dope.

One of the oldest and most suburban looking jurors picked up the exhibit from the table and said: "I reckon we should all have a good puff on this before we start." Within seconds it had become clear that everyone was familiar with the language and culture of dope, and no one could be easily horrified by the word "drugs" as people used to be.

The Britain that the traditionalists want to hang on to is disappearing from people's minds, to the point that militant rap can be heard booming out of the Royal Festival Hall. This isn't just because people are becoming unshockable, but because so much that seemed certain even 15 years ago is now called into question, especially the right of the powers that be to stay in power.