In Everyone Can Rap (ITV), a lovely, too-short film by Daniel Dempster, the south London rapper Youngs Teflon takes three everyday people who have never rapped before and sets about turning them into pros over the course of a single week. “Everyone can rap” is the theory but, at the start of it, Youngs Teflon – Tef to his mates – is not sure whether that theory will hold. Perhaps it’s more of a question. Can everyone rap? We’re about to find out.
Tef is working with three complete newcomers, all of whom have their own reasons for wanting to try something new. Nicole is 38, a London mum; she points out that usually, when Black mothers are seen on British television, it’s because they are suffering or in pain. She wants to put something different across. Also, she says, “I want to be vocal. I want to be loud for a day.”
Daniel is 34 and from Brighton. He is autistic – viewers may recognise him as a regular on the horribly titled yet very touching Channel 4 show The Undateables – and as a result often muddles his words. His parents explain that until he discovered music, he was so shy and withdrawn that he would wear sunglasses at all times. Now, he gives the impression of a man who will try anything that has the potential to excite him.
And then there’s Karen, 52, from Birmingham, who has a long history of anxiety and panic attacks. She never really listened to rap music before she decided to give it a go.
It’s a solid group with a range of abilities and motivations, though they share a desire to improve themselves and their confidence in some intangible way. Part of the point of this programme, I suspect, is to reframe rap and hip-hop for a television audience who, like Karen, may not be entirely familiar with it, or may have picked up on more negative associations. Early on, two Cambridge academics, Dr Akeem Sule and Dr Becky Inkster, are brought out to explain the artistic and social merits of the form. They play the group Maino’s All the Above, and give a presentation on its use of cognitive reframing.
This establishes that the programme is not really for rap fans. It spends more time defending rap than a show such as the BBC’s Rap Game UK, which assumes its audience has an inherent knowledge of the genre. It has an eye on rap’s critics, reaching out to those who deride it as tuneless, artless or without merit. While the academics are interesting, the programme’s arguments about the power of rap are more convincing when they come from Tef, who explains its function as a therapeutic device, and as “a voice for the voiceless”.
The programme is framed as a talent show. There is a brief nod to Love Island-style tricks with a “text from Tef” moment (just the one), but in general it looks more like old-school Pop Idol than modern-day primetime pomp such as The Voice. It made me nostalgic. I liked the meeting room aesthetic and the low-stakes, anti-hysterical feel of it all. It’s all incredibly sweet and heartwarming. It lives in the same territory as Gareth Malone and his choirs, and is uplifting wherever it can find an opportunity to be.
Youngs Teflon takes the mentor role and teases confidence out of his proteges. He asks them to riff on their greatest challenges and to use that as inspiration. Nicole raps about her experience of an ectopic pregnancy. Daniel belts out his favourite catchphrases. Karen takes on the self-doubt that plagues her. Once the three contenders have been to an open mic night, to see how the professionals do it, they get a makeover, a rap name, and the chance to perform their carefully crafted raps in front of friends and families at their own special show.
This tentative one-off feels like a pilot for a bigger series, one that would allow the participants more time to show how they went from having never rapped to spitting bars, and what it meant for them to get there. To use the language of reality TV, I wanted to see their journey. This only had time to show the start. In the end, all three prove to be decent performers, far better than the early moments suggested they would be but, in many ways, that is beside the point. The point is that they did it. Three unlikely rappers got to be loud for the day.