Grime Opera: A Musical Synthesis

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A False Binary 

Grime is a style of British rap music that emerged from the UK Garage scene during the early 2000s. The genre is defined by complex syncopated raps over fast beats, initially made famous by a generation of East London artists such as Wiley and Dizzie Rascal, and more recently, revived by the likes of Stormzy, who became the first British black solo artist to headline Glastonbury in 2019. On paper, Grime is perhaps not the natural bedfellow of Classical music. Grime Opera strives to challenge this assumption, uniting young people from a diverse range of backgrounds in pursuit of an authentic musical experience.  

The idea for a Grime Opera came from an observation that Grime and Classical Music shared fundamental characteristics. Max Wheeler, the composer and producer who created the work, suggests ‘there’s more commonality between the styles than people realise’. Max explained that the sparsity and repetition associated with Grime can be found evoking equally emotional responses in 20th century Classical Music styles such as Minimalism.  

Grime Opera was funded by Arts Council England (ACE) and produced by Pedestrian, a leading arts organisation and charity based in Leicester, specialising in music and arts education, as part of their 25th anniversary year. They provide education, training and outreach projects for young people who are often socially excluded, not in education, employment or training (NEET), or experiencing challenges and disadvantage. They explained that the event was about giving Grime the same standing as Classical Music. According to Debbie Longley-Brown, Project Development Manager at Pedestrian, having artists rapping in front of an orchestra ‘elevated it to a different place’. Grime Opera is about challenging the false binary that exists between Popular and Classical styles. According to Max we should be talking about the two styles in ‘the same breath’, and presenting Grime side-by-side with opera was important for showing Grime the ‘respect’ it deserves. 

A Musical Synthesis 

At the heart of Grime Opera is collaboration. The original Grime Opera was a collaboration between composer Max Wheeler, Derby-based rapper Eyez and Essex Music Hub, in 2018. In November 2023, Pedestrian initiated a new version of the project, working alongside Max, rapper Tian ‘TM’ Mhende, Drum & Brass, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) and LeicesterShire Music. LeicesterShire Music, the local music service, were supportive from the start of the project and keen to get young people learning about different musical styles. They promote the use of music technology in schools and were used as a case study for the National Plan for Music, published in 2022. For Pedestrian’s director, Hema Badger-Mistry, it was about making the project as inclusive as possible – the music included performers with a range of musical experiences, and ‘lots of different entry points made the project accessible’. A significant difference between the two Grime Opera productions was the lyrical content. The words in the second version were re-written to reflect important issues for young people in Leicester, making the work more relevant and meaningful to those involved. According to Hema, they were ‘passing [Grime Opera] over to Leicester and giving it a local focus’. 

The fusion of contrasting styles in the pursuit of meaningful musical experiences was a significant challenge during the project. For Pedestrian, one of the most important starting points was finding a neutral location in which the performance could take place. They wanted a ‘safe space’ for both sets of musicians involved, which avoided imposing a stylistic bias towards either Grime or Classical Music, challenging all the performers equally by taking them out of their comfort zone. The final agreed location was Highcross Leicester, the city’s main shopping centre. 

The process of bringing rappers and orchestral music into the same musical sphere was something that took careful management. The orchestra and rappers practised separately before the two musical elements were combined, with a limited number of rehearsals to refine the final performance. Debbie explains how both sets of musicians were required to make significant adjustments to their normal creative process: 

‘As a rapper, you have always just performed on your own, maybe with one other person… an orchestra is used to playing together, but suddenly they have to play to a click track in time with beats.’ 

Grime Opera was more than just a single performance; it was the culmination and synthesis of numerous musical contributions from young people in Leicester throughout the year. A key component of the project was having young people from the local community compose their own beats during sessions facilitated by Pedestrian, which were incorporated into the final performance. Music technology was an important part of the creative process, and giving young people access to a cloud-based digital audio workspace (DAW) outside the sessions enabled them to fully develop their ideas. Max stresses the value of young people having access to DAW software when honing their composition skills: 

‘If you want to play first violin for the London Symphony Orchestra, you're going to need to borrow a violin and practise every day – we accept that is true. It's an equally skilful thing to try and achieve a high level in composition, and if you want to learn to produce, if you want to make beats… you need to put hours and hours of practice in.’

Despite some initial trepidation at the beginning of the project, the buzz on the day of the performance and subsequent theatre screening, was clear for all to see. Hema recalls how ‘families and parents came up to us at the end with a real appreciation of what Grime is and how it is relevant’. Through this new-found appreciation – and more importantly, respect – the project succeeded in synthesising the contrasting worlds of Grime and Classical Music whilst bringing together the local community. 

Confidence to create

When asked about what advice Max would give to young composers, his message was simple: ‘listen to what you get obsessed with and follow that path’. Projects like Grime Opera are helping to pave a clearer path for young people to follow, enabling them to embrace their own musical interests whilst dispelling stigmas around musical value and ultimately making music more accessible.

Whilst the breadth of Music as a subject is exciting and empowering, it can also be daunting; teachers don’t have time to be experts in every genre, particularly as music evolves so quickly in popular culture. We want to give our teachers and students confidence to pursue authentic creative journeys across a wide range of musical styles in our music qualifications. Having the confidence to create was the motivating factor behind some of our recent GCSE Music resources, intended to support a wide range of musical experiences and perspectives. Our library of instrumental performances exemplars provides teachers with access to GCSE performance materials to support them making assessment decisions across a wide range of styles and genres. We have also just published a new set of composition exemplars, illustrating how compositions from genres such as rap, EDM and fusion styles are assessed within our GCSE Music specification. For further support delivering our Music qualifications, please contact us at

You can watch a full performance of Grime Opera here, including a short documentary exploring the development of the project. Beats for the project were created using YuStudio, a cloud-based DAW from Charanga, specifically designed with music educators to make it accessible for students. For further information about how to access YuStudio and Grime Opera remix parts for free through Youth Music funded projects, click here. For more information about Pedestrian and their community music projects, visit the Pedestrian website.

Any views and opinions expressed by individuals cited in this article do not necessarily represent those of Pearson.