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Gary Younge
The reawakening of Stormzy
Three years after that album and that Glastonbury performance, Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. – the man you know as Stormzy – is back, and a changed manFor a moment it is difficult to see the stage for all the lights. They strafe the ceiling, pound strobes from the wings, send radiant cones to the ground from on high, propel diagonal rays to the upper corners from below, and pan the stadium with a blinding luminescence. Fireworks lining the runway shoot vertically from each side, cascading towards the audience. The packed crowd at London’s O2 Arena is well and truly lit. The first few bars of “Big Michael” roar. Stormzy, real name Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr., roars back, “It’s big Michael!”His voice fills the stadium; his face fills the jumbotron, but you can barely make him out at the back of the stage. It takes the whole song for him to bound to the front – a tall, kinetic embodiment of melody, energy and muscle clad in black. The crowd, who have been waiting to see him since they bought the tickets more than two long years earlier, before the pandemic, before lockdown, cheers an ecstatic welcome. When the song is finished he pauses. “London, I’m home!"A few months later, Stormzy is perched on his living room sofa in Kingston upon Thames, recalling that night at The O2 in March. It was his first major gig in the UK since the pandemic. “It was crazy,” Stormzy says. “Every night I went out I felt like, You guys are still fucking with me. You’re still there. You still like my music. You’re still rocking with me. It did a lot for my confidence because, two years since my last album, it was a reminder that this art you’ve done, your contribution to music, this offering that you’ve had to the world has lived and people enjoy it and people still fuck with it, man. It was really reassuring.”Stormzy is home. Strewn prominently, but somewhat haphazardly, on the floor under the huge flat screen TV in front of us stands the evidence of his accomplishments: The Heavy Is the Head platinum plaque; The ‘Own It’ double platinum; the Time magazine cover where he is hailed as “The Next Generation Leader”. Behind us his personal chef, Chef Vickz (Victoria Idowu), chops, spices and simmers her way towards a red thai chicken curry.Did he worry that he might have been forgotten? “No,” he says. “I never felt that. It’s just that for the last few years I’ve been living my life, walking my dogs every day, just really treading along in my normal life. So when it’s time to put on the cape I’m like, Oh, shit. I know I still have my superpowers, but I haven’t worn this cape for ages. Then I go into the closet and I put it on and I know I’m going to fly out and use my powers, but naturally on a human one, you’re like, Well, I might feel a bit rusty.”Most superpowers have an exotic origin story: the bite of a radioactive spider, gifts from Greek Gods, talents inherited from another planet. Stormzy came by his ability to hold the attention of a 20,000 capacity crowd for 90 minutes by more relatable means – self-denial and graft. His discipline is his power. So, when the shows were coming, he knew he had to be ready.“I pride myself on having an amazing show,” he says. “I pride myself on being a great performer. So I think, Okay, what do you have to do to do that? I go on the most intense diet and get my nutritionist in. I get my trainer in and we do intense workouts; you’d think I was training for the Olympics. And I stop smoking weed because I know that the best version of myself doesn’t smoke weed. I don’t think of it as discipline. It’s just easy maths in my head. This is what you need to do.”At times, this 29-year-old sounds like a cross between a mystic and a self-help guru, weaving a kind of idiosyncratic wisdom from the depths of his own self-belief. “As insane as it sounds, I feel like anytime I’ve done something like an O2 or a Glasto or some career-defining event, everything was comfortable, because I knew it was going to happen. I feel very prepared and very ready for it. I try not to let the moment swallow me. I stand on top of the moment.”And so there he was at The O2. His torso shimmering with sweat; his knees thrown high to the rhyme; bathed in his own light, not so much standing on top of the moment as flinging himself into it.I last interviewed Stormzy in November 2019, shortly before the release of his last album, Heavy Is the Head. He was still on a high from headlining Glastonbury that summer, which seemed to have put something to bed. For all the accomplishments he had achieved by that time – the MOBO, Brit and BET awards, the number one albums – none had brought him tranquillity or comfort until then. Afterwards, he finally felt he could relax.“I haven’t had much peace in the past five years and that’s not even necessarily a bad thing, because life can’t always be peaceful,” he told me back then. “But it was the first time I could sit on this sofa and feel like, You’re good, with no lingering thought of, I’ve got to do this.”Now we are back on the same sofa. It may have been less than three years ago, but it seems like a different era entirely. Inflation was 1.5 per cent; Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the Labour party; Liz Truss was international trade secretary; the pound was worth $1.28; George Floyd was still living; and the first confirmed case of coronavirus had not even appeared in Wuhan.Though neither of us knew it at the time, that was the calm before the new Stormzy. When the pandemic brought the first lockdown in the UK, Stormzy had to stay at home. It was the law. And because the law applied to everyone, he didn’t have to feel guilty about it. “I always had difficulty taking a break, going on holiday, taking a vacation, anything like that. I was a hungry MC, I always felt like I had shit to do. So when lockdown actually came, it was a big relief for me. Because usually if I take a break, I always feel like the world is still moving. But this time everyone stopped. The world stopped.”So for once, Stormzy just chilled. He played PlayStation with his brothers for the first time in years. Even though the tour was cancelled, he stayed off weed. “I could see pretty quickly that if I smoked weed during lockdown that would be a recipe for disaster. Just the way my mind is set up, if I’m sat in this house smoking weed, that is not going to bring anything good into my life.”The detox extended to social media, where the cacophony of random critics had got into his head and from there seeped into his music. On New Year’s Day 2020, he had become engaged in a public Twitter spat with fellow rapper Wiley, with Wiley slamming Stormzy for his collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Stormzy branding Wiley a “weirdo” and a “dinosaur”. (This argument formed the basis for the track ‘Disappointed’ in which Stormzy calls Wiley a “prick” and a “crackhead cunt”: “It’s all jokes on Twitter, ’til you say the wrong thing/Now it’s smoke from Twitter.”) “You do sometimes wonder,” wrote the Guardian reviewer of Heavy Is the Head, “if he wouldn’t be better off leaving Twitter and ignoring the comments sections rather than scanning them for slights.”At a certain point the link between social media and his behaviour became difficult to deny. “I just don’t think the best version of myself is scrolling on my phone,” he says. “It can’t be good for anyone’s mental health. I’ve got a lot of theories about how it distracts and manipulates. Especially for someone like me. I have a lot of energy. I have a lot of traffic. And I felt like that for a long time. God didn’t design us to consume that much traffic, that much information. That much content. I don’t want it to seem like I’m on a high horse. I just don’t think it’s that healthy.”“I always had difficulty taking a break, going on holiday, taking a vacation, anything like that… usually if I take a break, I always feel like the world is still moving. But this time everyone stopped. The world stopped.”Towards the summer of 2020, during the first lockdown, Adele, with whom Stormzy had been close for some time, persuaded him to take a break with her and a group of friends. A group of them flew to Jamaica for what sounds like a cross between a Buddhist retreat and group therapy. “It was deeply spiritual,” says Stormzy. “We would sit by the pool all day and by the water and just talk and just have time with our feelings. If you’re with the right group of people, people who encourage honesty and truth, then talking is so therapeutic. I’d go to the water every day and I’d pray.”It was as though he stepped off the merry-go-round, looked up from his phone and once everything stopped spinning he felt he saw things more clearly. “It just really dawned on me that I had a lot of growing to do,” he says. “I feel like that’s when my life really changed forever.”This realisation, he says, was driven by self-accountability, not self-pity; he does not lament the childhood he had, but simply recognises its limitations.“I realised, especially growing up in South London in the environment I grew up in, there’s never going to be a time anyone encourages man to go deal with his feelings.” Stormzy says. “That’s a very adult thing to think, I’m gonna go deal with my life and my character with who I am and who I want to grow to be,” he says. “There is power in vulnerability.”His desire to change was in no small part driven by unresolved emotions he held about his painful split with the radio and TV presenter Maya Jama, whom he dated for four years before they broke up in 2019. “I think my break up with Maya was still really heavy on my heart. I’d never experienced a breakup and the feelings that come with a breakup. And I never wanted to ever be in a position again where I felt what I was feeling. Because it showed me that I was a boy. And I do not want to go any further as a boy. I’ve seen how that manifests in other people. And I don’t want to be like that.“So what is the necessary work I have to do to make sure I’m not in this position again? That means growth, accountability, changing my character, changing my routines, my habits, my tradition, my values, my morals. Because how I feel right now and how I’ve made someone else feel and how I’ve devastated a world that I was living in – I just never want to be in this position again. So what do I need to do?”Wealth and fame, for all their perks, can make changing your life more difficult. For Stormzy, success felt like something that was shielding him from making the changes he felt were necessary.“I came to understand that everything I’d achieved for myself did nothing for how I was feeling in real time. Nothing,” he says. “There was no plaque, there was no cheque that was going to come that was going to make me feel any better about how I felt.”Not long after returning from Jamaica, Stormzy flew to Accra, Ghana, with a rolling brotherhood of friends and family. Ghana, where his parents are from, feels like home. He’s recognised but people aren’t as manic when they see him; they’re proud. “I’ve been to Ghana loads but this time was different. I wasn’t going out and to the clubs and thinking, Yo, where are the girls at? I went with my big sister and her friends and the man dem. So we went to clubs, but I was skanking with my sister and the man dem, and it was lit. But it was much more rooted in family.”When he returned to a cold and overcast London, he got some of his male friends together and left again, for what he describes as “a spiritual and health retreat” in Dubai. There was a 7am roll call each morning with jovial hazing for those who slept in, followed by gym and a run after breakfast and plenty of talking. “It was like therapy. We didn’t call it that; we were just talking. But that’s what it was. I guess that’s been the biggest headline for me over these last few years with my friendship groups and my brothers: growth. How are we growing?”For all the ways he may have grown during that time, his politics remain much as they were. He’s still a big fan of Jeremy Corbyn, even after Labour’s 2019 trouncing at the polls under its former leader. When I ask him how he felt about the election, a long sigh fades into short silence as he seeks to conjure the appropriate metaphor. “It’s like when you encourage children to make the right decision and they make the wrong one even after you’ve explained everything. And you think, A’ight, that’s your decision… you try have your cake and eat it then.” He shrugs and then lets out a big laugh. “Even the way things have panned out… I’m not gonna say I told you so, but…”Resigned as he is to seeing Britain live with the consequences of its electoral choice, the manner in which Corbyn was vilified still troubles him. “It was really disheartening. I just thought so highly of him and I still think so highly of him and I think, Well if they can make him out to be a pagan then things are worse than I thought. I mean if he’s the villain in the grand scheme of things, then shit’s madder than I ever thought because whatever your politics or your policies, that’s one thing. But in terms of his intentions they were 100 per cent for good. I mean, if we’re talking about superheroes against evil villains, I know he was for good. And the way people spun it, I just thought, Wow, this is scary.”Six months later, his faith in the political possibilities were restored by the Black Lives Matter protests. Having deleted his social media, he found out about George Floyd’s killing through a group chat and then went online to find out more. “At first it seemed like every other Trayvon [Martin]; I felt like, We’ve been here before. But slowly you felt the ripples and you sensed that this time was going to be a lot different. It was like everyone was saying,” and here each word is enunciated clearly and forcefully, “We. Have. Had. Enough.”Did it change anything?“Yeah, I think something changed in the sense that the calls were universal. ‘We’ve had enough… everyone’s had enough.’ And people weren’t saying it in a timid way.” And here his voice, usually deep and sombre became more animated and determined. “There was like a bass in the voice, ‘We have had enough. You’re fucking taking the piss.’ So I think the tone in everyone’s voice switched… there was a bit more bass which I always love. I’ll be real with you. That is always my favourite tone when it comes to pagans and injustice. Because some people don’t recognise nothing, don’t respect nothing and don’t take nothing seriously until they hear that bass in the voice saying, ‘You need to stop doing that.’” Amid the demonstrations, Stormzy vowed to give £10 million to Black causes over the next 10 years, the progress of which he would not be drawn on but said is going well.His responses, in these moments, are less personal and pensive than collective and reflexive. “I’ll go on a march and then someone will write an elaborate think piece on why I’ve done this or that. But when it comes to my journey with my people and that side of things I just think, What are we on? What do we need to do? Do we need to grab the mic? What are we on? And of course it’s great to be someone who can use their platform and their voice so I never take that for granted because my involvement might get more coverage. But at the same time I’m just a musician and I’m not really in it.”So he was there at some of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and at the Central London march for Chris Kaba, the 24-year-old unarmed black man shot dead by police in South London on 5 September – a march which Sky News mistook for a mass mourning for the Queen. Addressing the crowd he appealed to them to stay the course and have the stamina to continue, even when the media had lost interest.People can forget, he tells me a week after the march, that at the heart of it isn’t just an issue or a cause, but a life that has been taken and a community in grief. “Away from all the coverage there’s a reality, an unbearable pain that his mother and his family have to live that gets lost quite often. You can feel it.”A couple of weeks later, Stormzy is hanging out with his musical entourage at the King’s Cross office of 0207 Def Jam. There are cans of ginger beer and diet Fanta, crisps and a bowl full of fizzy cola sweets laid out, as half a dozen engineers, executive producers and label executives stream into the room. Most have known Stormzy for some time. Among them is Jermaine Agyako, A&R manager at Merky Records and his cousin: “I always had the dream of a Black artist doing Glastonbury and our culture going mainstream. I always knew we could do it. I just didn’t know that the person who would do it would be my cousin,” Agyako laughs.There’s Alec Boateng, known as Twin, co-president of 0207 Def Jam records, who has been collaborating with Stormzy for years. “I would not feel comfortable being on this musical journey without him,” says Stormzy, who was one of 0207’s first signings. “I know it sounds cringe, but if I’m a Jedi Knight, he’s Yoda. I’m great without Yoda; Yoda is great without me, but his guidance makes me better.”Stormzy sits at one end, commanding the room but not dominating the conversation. The conversation flows easily, never straying far from music and occasionally descending into banter and laughter. A few days earlier Stormzy dropped the video for “Mel Made Me Do It”, his first single in almost three years. Among the video’s star-studded cameos, which include Usain Bolt, José Mourinho, Jonathan Ross and Louis Theroux, are a roll call of Black British excellence: Ian Wright, Dina Asher-Smith, Malorie Blackman and Jazzie B to name but a few, all clad in white, striding through the garden of a stately home, gliding on the monologue-manifesto written by Wretch 32, voiced by Michaela Coel. “This is not a phase. This is phase one… You see what we put together when we come together.”Stormzy’s ability to draw that range of stars together speaks to both the breadth and magnitude of his appeal. It is difficult to countenance another figure in British culture who could read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ on Radio 1, address a Chris Kaba rally, have a publishing label and Cambridge scholarship in their name, rock a Corbyn T-shirt and still have a hit album with two “suck your mums” and one “suck my dick” on it.He is now at the stage of his career where he has transcended his music; he is his own brand. And while he works on both tirelessly, and one could not exist without the other, they are not the same thing. Much of the personal reckoning of the last few years seems to be with where the man starts and the brand stops; when he’s Stormzy in his cape and when he’s just Michael walking his dogs.Some of this plays out in his new album, This Is What I Mean, which is more soulful, doleful and less combative both in lyric and melody than previous albums. He sings about turning 30, forgiving his absent father for his flaws and his previous struggles with paranoia and suicidal thoughts. One track is called “I Got My Smile Back”. It sounds like Stormzy; but it doesn’t sound like a Stormzy album.And while this was never the intention, it was an almost inevitable result of the journey he has been on. He now looks at success differently. “My version of success now requires a man: not just more music and more money. Now it means taking care of my family, having children, having a wife, even understanding marriage and raising kids, and that requires a man,” he says.The album is a step towards that. “More than anything,” he says, “I know that this album gives me freedom, which is all I want. Whether you hate me or love me, at least we can all have a joint consensus that this guy is going to do what he wants.”
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