Last summer, Glastonbury gave music’s greatest platform to one man and he, in turn, gave it to the community who led him there. From faith and South London to scholarships, left-wing leadership and a 58-date global arena tour starting this month, Stormzy’s voice sells millions, but it belongs to millions more
Stormzy is 25 minutes into his headlining Glastonbury set when he feels something go “boom” in his in-ear. The pack that pumps studio-quality sound to the singer while he’s on stage had gone haywire. “It was just going, ‘Eeeeeeee!’ I’m talking deafening. Then it blew and I couldn’t hear shit.”
He’d just finished “Sweet Like Chocolate”. The stage lights had gone down. Stormzy stands there, eyes intense, back straight, standing tall, very tall, black, lean, buff, clad top to toe in lily white. Sweat cascades from his face. He lifts his fingers to his earpiece and stares ahead. Back-up soul singers gather around to cover Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”: “This is a God dream / This is everything.” Fireworks erupt; jets of sparks shoot out beside the stage; search lights strafe the night. “That was one of the most powerful moments in the show,” he says. “And I can’t hear shit. All I can hear is the festival speakers. And I’m just rapping and just praying to God that I’m on time. And the song just finishes and I’m thinking, ‘Bruv, you can’t hear shit. You’re at Glastonbury. And you can’t hear shit. This is a shit show.’”
He makes it through “Ultralight Beam”. The stage goes dark again. Chris Martin comes on with a piano; Stormzy runs off to the wings. “I take my pack off and I’m close to tears and I’m screaming, ‘I can’t fucking hear nothing!’ They’re switching my pack and I’m thinking, ‘Glastonbury. Chris Martin. What the fuck?’”
‘Being this black and this dark and from South London, my people have always championed me’
Martin stalls, looking over his shoulder, wondering where Stormzy is. Stormzy returns, his pack fixed, and takes his seat next to Martin. He does one more song. Then the pack blows again and remains out for the rest of the set. “I’m listening to the festival speakers, which are delayed, so if I go with that I’m going to be off beat. So then I’m just listening to the drums and performing with muscle memory. I’m like, ‘You’re fucked, but just do it.’ And I’m thinking the whole time I’m off beat. I know it’s delayed, but I’m thinking just spit, just spit, just spit. All that was going through my head was, ‘Bruv, you have absolutely fucked it.’ I was thinking of all the people who wanted me to fuck it – ‘Stormzy? Glasto? That small-timer?’ – just watching and thinking, ‘Look at him. He can’t even spit on beat. He’s all over the place.’
When he came off stage he smashed his pack, flew into a rage for five minutes and then collapsed into tears. “I was just bawling my eyes out. I thought, ‘You have just absolutely fucked that.’ I haven’t cried like that since primary school. I just broke down.” It was only later, when someone handed him a memory stick so he could see the performance for himself, that he came around to the notion that it had, in fact, gone rather well.
Stormzy, real name Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr, is sitting on the edge of his sofa at his home in South London in an all-black tracksuit with the television on mute. His height is not obvious when we’re both sitting down (I’m 5ft 6in, he’s 6ft 5in; when we take selfies later he has to stoop low just to get in the shot, as he does when dancing with his mother in the video for “Know Me From”), but his scale is. He talks like he raps, with his hands, and, at times, when he has a point to make, he flings them out wide. The sheer span is impressive. Stormzy has reach.
Hearing about his brush with calamity at Glastonbury, contrasting the confidence and physical energy he exhibited on stage with the frailty of the inner monologue torturing him simultaneously, I’m reminded of Ice-T’s explanation of why young rappers are so vulnerable to scandal. “When you’re rolling at the speed these cats are rolling at,” Ice-T told me in 2001, “it’s hard to keep things straight.”
Stormzy identifies immediately. “You’re going from one extreme to another extreme,” he says. “From poverty, not having anything, violence and street life to glitz and glam and finally having resources and money at your disposal. And that’s a rapid gear-six change.”
Stormzy has been rolling at quite a speed ever since he came on the scene. It is a steep climb to go from Best Grime Act at the 2014 Mobo Awards to headlining Glastonbury in just five years. Yet despite being a good-looking, outspoken, famous, wealthy guy at the gritty, combative end of his industry, he has managed to keep it straight.
‘The shock on their faces… I was thinking, “Brother, I’ve been stabbed a few times.” They were horrified’
If he appears in the tabloids it’s generally for his music or his politics, not for the women he’s sleeping with, the men he’s feuding with, the scenes he’s caused or the cases he’s caught. Even after his split from long-term girlfriend, the TV and radio presenter Maya Jama, last August, the break-up made headlines because a telegenic celebrity couple were no more. As a 26-year-old grime artist he has provided less copy for the gossip columns than the Conservative prime minister, who is twice his age.
I assumed this might be due to his belief in God. In the time we talk he is never more than five minutes away from saying he’s been “blessed”, “God willing” or “Thank God”. He refers to his on-stage challenges at Glastonbury as his “God-ordained story” and his journey as a “blessing from God”. It is rare to hear British artists draw on their faith so openly or often.
“God gets all the glory for everything,” he says. “I know I’m capable of being a success. But more than all of that, God engineers my whole shit. He’s the reason for everything. Even coming from where man comes from. I got so many bredrens who are just as smart as me, or smarter than me, or can make music just as well, and still didn’t have that opportunity. So there’s something deeper here to it.”
But he says he owes his relative sobriety and self-control to a more earthly experience – the two-year engineering apprenticeship he undertook in Leamington Spa after he was excluded from school. “Lucky for me I moved out of London when I did,” he says, “because at that time I was probably going to end up fully submerged with all the street stuff. I left my little place in South London and I was with 17 white kids from Yorkshire, Newcastle, Scotland and all over. My bredrens would never know anyone from Scotland. Thank God for me I had an insight into not being a little bad boy Michael. I had to become a project engineer. On those five days of the week there was no street. Nothing. I just had my headphones on, going to college.”
The moment when he realised things to which he had been accustomed were not necessarily normal came when he took his hat off during a welding course and one of his fellow apprentices asked him how he got the scar on his head. “I got stabbed,” Stormzy told him.
“And the shock and the looks of horror on their faces was like, ‘What?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Brother, I’ve been stabbed a few times.’ And I’m telling this story and they’re just horrified. And I’m thinking if one of my bredren phoned me now and said they’d got stabbed I would be upset, but it wouldn’t rock my world. It’d be like, “Ahh, fucking hell. I hope you’re cool.’ And that’s when I started to realise there was a whole world outside South London.”
‘So much of me is South London, the heart, my strength and my wits’
For all that, South London and his “ends” remained, and indeed remains, his central point of reference and his lodestar. From “Shut Up”: “I might sing but I ain’t sold out / Nowadays all of my shows sold out / Headline tour, yeah blud, sold out / When we roll in, they roll out / I’m so London, I’m so South.”
“There are so many things about me that are so South London, which I wouldn’t have learnt anywhere else. I wouldn’t have had the heart or the character or my strength and my wits.”
He talks of returning home at the weekends from Leamington Spa as though he’s Morpheus coming back to Zion from The Matrix. “When the train started getting to Norbury I would feel it in my stride. Like, ‘I’m back.’ I’d go and see the mandem. It was me learning how to keep one foot in and one foot out.”
In Prison Notebooks, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci coined the term “organic intellectual”. Unlike “traditional intellectuals” who come through academia or think tanks, an organic intellectual emerges from their social class without formal, bookish training but an ability to articulate the interests and influence the consciousness of that class. They have lived its experiences, are embedded in its culture and speak in its vernacular.
Stormzy’s is the voice of a generation raised through war, austerity, capitalist collapse, left realignment and racist revival: socially libertarian and economically statist; idealistic about what is possible, resigned to what is likely, contemptuous of what is happening; the tone of defiance and disdain in his work cuts through.
He doesn’t know where he got his politics from. “I remember when I was [a kid] seeing Tony Blair and thinking, ‘He’s the guy,’ because he was Labour. Turns out he was one of the worst.”
His first political memory was the terrorist attacks on 11 September. He was eight. “At the time I didn’t understand. But I remember feeling the weight of it because of teachers crying.”
Was his mother, who raised him and his three siblings alone, a big influence? “I don’t think so,” he says, then, after a pause, ”but maybe. Seeing how she had to work, what she had to go through. That’s obviously going to give me a certain heart and empathy. It was super tough. My mum worked super hard. She had to graft her arse off to keep a roof over our head.”
There was no single moment, person, book or event that shaped his world-view. He imbibed it less through his mother’s milk than her sweat. Stormzy is a child of crises. He was nine when the Iraq war started; 15 when the financial crash hit; 17 when austerity started; 18 when riots spread through Britain like a bushfire, with young people looting and confronting the police in several English towns. He could not avoid it. His intervention is authentic. This is not the story of a musician who is getting into politics but of politics coming out of a musician.
His political voice is central to his meaning both as a public figure and a performer. He came on stage in Glastonbury wearing a stab vest emblazoned with the Union Jack, designed by Banksy, which Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones described as “the banner of a divided and frightened nation”. Early in his Glastonbury set we heard the voice of David Lammy talking about the criminal justice system: “The system isn’t working. If recidivism rates are 46 per cent for black men then something isn’t working.”
‘[Boris Johnson] is literally not for man. He has made it clear in his vocabulary’
It’s in his lyrics too. From “First Things First”: “And fuck giving money to people that don’t like us / There’s riots in the city just tell me where I sign up.” Later in the set, the crowd chanted along to the line in “Vossi Bop”: “Fuck the government and fuck Boris.” When he sang at Glastonbury in 2017, just a couple of weeks after that year’s election, he engaged in a call-and-response with the crowd chanting, “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.”
But it isn’t central to his music. He’s not Billy Bragg or Chuck D. We didn’t get to politics until a third of the way through the interview and I don’t know if it would have come up had I not mentioned it. It would be possible to like his music and not even know his politics.
“It was obviously very disappointing,” he says of December’s election result. What does he feel this result says about Britain? “We’re living in a time where people are scared, anxious or worried about their future and the future of the country, so those higher up are clearly manipulating that and playing on it, and playing on people’s fears and insecurities. It’s sadly a very divisive time and there’s evidently a long way to go.” That’s not to say, of course, Stormzy’s influence was not felt. A few weeks before the election, he signed an open letter, published in the Guardian, for Grime4Corbyn, calling for an end to austerity. The day before the voter registration deadline he posted on Instagram, encouraging his 2.7 million followers to register. “There were millions of people who thought their one little vote didn’t mean shit and now Trump is the president of America and we are leaving the EU,” he wrote. Explaining why he was voting Labour he described Corbyn as “the first man in a position of power who is committed to helping those who need a helping hand from the government most”. After that, voter registration spiked 236 per cent compared to the day before. Ultimately, of course, Corbyn failed to harness enough of Stormzy’s audience. Nevertheless, the Conservatives were anxious to belittle Stormzy. Michael Gove dismissed him, telling Talk Radio, “He’s a far, far better rapper than he is a political analyst.”
Stormzy’s political analysis is sophisticated enough to have seen this coming. “It’s easy to target myself and young people,” he tells me, “and say, ‘You young people don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know about politics. You’re just going with the Robin Hood fairy tale story. That’s not real politics.’”
The problem, he says, isn’t that he’s oversimplifying the politics, but that his critics are overcomplicating it. “Maybe man just wants a good person to do the job. People will act like that’s such a stupid opinion. Someone who man thinks makes just decisions and is trying to help people and bring people out of poverty, that is a just enough reason for man to support someone. People try to make you feel proper stupid for saying that. But I say, ‘Bruv, cool. Man doesn’t know the fucking economy or whatever. But man knows righteousness. You can’t deny righteousness over evil. That’s point-blank.’ And people try to make people feel dumb for that. But that is a fair enough political reason to support someone.” Having a bit of common decency? “Even further than decency,” he insists. “Every government has let black people down, let working-class people down. Since when I’ve been young, whether it’s been a Labour government or a Tory government, not much has changed for the people who need it the most.” He shakes his head. “It might just be how man has grown up, and my heart and my character and all that, but you don’t fool man. Man will always rather someone with clean intention to do that job.”
A month before the election, some grime artists had expressed regret for supporting Labour in 2017. Skepta said acts sold “themselves for bullshit” and that four months after the campaign politicians didn’t “give a fuck about us again”.
‘Black British is part of British culture. And they take one of us, one black guy, per mainstream media per two years’
“I see it more black and white,” says Stormzy. “[Boris Johnson] is literally not for man. He has made it clear in his vocabulary and in the stances he takes. I always feel, as a country, as a people, that we should always be trying to uplift one another. Give it a chance.”
There are moments when, were it not for the cussing, Stormzy could sound pious. He wants to share, raise up, support and provide. He will talk of God, humility, self-effacement, destiny and how it’s really not about him. He means it. In the past couple of years he has set up #Merky Books, a publishing imprint at Penguin Random House, and launched the Stormzy Scholarship, funding the tuition fees and living costs of four black students studying at the University Of Cambridge.
I assume these are part of a grander plan, but they owe more to a series of impulsive acts of generosity that are neither entirely random nor remotely strategic. He is casting seeds, quite haphazardly, on the soil of Black British culture to see what will grow. “I’m just trying to do anything and everything and whatever I can that is sick,” he says. “Whatever it is, I think, ‘How fucking brilliant would that be? How powerful would that be? Or how funny would that be?’ Thank God I’ve been blessed so why wouldn’t man do sick shit with other people? I want to live out my wildest dreams and realise other people’s wildest dreams.” But he’s wary of sounding worthy: “I hate the shine, because it’s not hard. There are people who have way less resources than me who dedicate their whole lives to helping other people. For me it’s quite easy. I can just make a phone call.”
He says it’s a trait he got from his older sister Rachael, whom he calls his OG. “She used to proper appreciate when I did something nice to people. It’s almost like I’ve been trained. That’s what I used to get ratings for. So now that’s what I relate to being a sick thing to do.”
All of these “sick things” add up to a reputation. Philanthropist, activist, organic intellectual, headlining Glastonbury, guest editing the Observer Magazine, gracing the covers of GQ and Time, above the headline “Next Generation Leaders”. The Archbishop Of Canterbury listens to “Blinded By Your Grace” while preparing to officiate for major events. A picture of him hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. “Stormzy has undoubtedly had a significant influence on British culture today,” the gallery director Nicholas Cullinan said.
Stormzy is clearly aware he risks graduating from left-wing firebrand of a criminalised art form (the grime scene almost collapsed under intense police scrutiny following a high-profile shooting) to the ultimate corruption of cooption: a national treasure. You can hear him play with that tension in his music, as in “Crown”: “If it’s for my people I’ll do anything to help / If I do it out of love it’s not to benefit myself / Gotta stay around but make a comeback too / I know my only mother wants her son back too / They sayin’ I’m the voice of the young black youth / And then I say, ‘Yeah, cool’ and then I bun my zoot.”
‘There’s no award that’s going to beat my first Mobo. But, God willing, one day I’ll get a Grammy… One day maybe I’ll headline Coachella’
He wears his public persona lightly, but it stalks him constantly, taunting him to play a role he did not seek but does not want to disown entirely. “I’m a human being and I don’t always move correct,” he says. “So I always think someone might see me in traffic – I get bad road rage – and I’m saying, ‘You’re a fucking idiot, bruv! Fucking manner your driving!’ And they’ll think, ‘Oh, God. That’s a Next Generation Leader.’ And I don’t want to be judged. I still get angry and chat shit sometimes. I want to say, ‘Yo, don’t be thinking I’m the one. I’m a fucking dumb-ass.’”
He doesn’t want to sound noble because he doesn’t feel noble. “I’m not fucking Gandhi,” he says. He wants to maintain the right to be the flawed 26-year-old he is. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy the limelight, it’s just that he attracts more of it than he can meaningfully occupy and he’d rather not be blinded by it. “What am I going to do with this platform? That’s not all for one man. It can’t be. I’m good. My family’s good. Now maybe other people can be good.”
This was the mind-set that framed his Glastonbury show, which included a gospel choir, black ballet dancers and two other rappers. He wanted to showcase “Black British excellence” – those achievements and achievers too often eclipsed or submerged by the more powerful cultural economies of White Britain and Black America. Stormzy is passionate about Black Britain. When he talks about the South, he means Croydon, not Mississippi. “It’s super deliberate,” he says, “in my pronunciation, in my diction, in my stance, in my dressing, in my attitude. This is Black British. I wear it with pride and honour. Man grew up on Skepta, Wiley, Ghetts, Wretch . I didn’t grow up listening to Nas and Rakim. I knew about tracksuits and Channel U and Krept & Konan and Roadside Gs. So I’m super Black British.
“We should never be under the water. Black British is part of British culture. But they don’t always get thrown to the forefront. We’re a part of it, but we’ve been getting left out of the conversation. I make a point of it. There’s this whole spectrum. There’s me, Malorie Blackman, Dina Asher-Smith, Raheem Sterling, Derek Owusu, there’s Ballet Black. And they take one of us, like Idris Elba or Stormzy or Sterling: the one black guy per mainstream media per two years.”
He saw Glastonbury as an opportunity to widen the public imagination of the breadth, depth, scale and range of Black British culture.
“It was my time to say, ‘Yes, there’s man. But there’s bare of us, in bare different ways. You can’t keep doing this. Yes, Stormzy’s great and that person’s great. But it’s not an exception. There’s bare of us.’ And I can’t just come here and be like, ‘It’s just me.’ I can’t do it.
“That’s not trying to be, like, ‘Kumbaya’. It was my truth in every way shape and form, musically, set design. That was the most genuine, honest moment of us. Because in a way, me doing it is jokes. There are so many people who came before me that had to go through whatever for me to be there, for me to be the first black British male to headline.”
Watch as the camera pans out to the crowd at his Glastonbury performance and it becomes painfully clear how few black people were present for this presentation in their name. For Stormzy that made it even more important to do it right. “Loads of black people tuned in, but I knew this would be a lot of white British people’s first proper one-on-one experience with the art we do, our culture, our style. So it can’t be the Stormzy show. It’s like a whole lesson and presentation and display of everything Black British, South London, grime, rap, soul, R&B, garage. That’s what it was: ‘Hey, England. This is our art. This is it.’ I knew a lot was riding on it.”
For an older artist to decide to share the spotlight with up-and-coming acts – Dave and Fredo – would be generous. To have only just made it and already be ceding the stage seems eccentric. But to Stormzy it was necessary. “It’s the easiest shit for me to do. Thank God. I’m blessed. I’m good. I’m doing Glasto. At the end of the day, it’s my headline slot. I’m good. I have this sick purpose. God said, ‘Yo, I’m going to bless you. I’m going to anoint you. And with that just fucking lift and shine and elevate. Because man can and man should.’ And also, in a weird way, I’d feel guilty about going up there and going, ‘It’s all about man,’ because it’s not. Being this black and this dark and from South London, my people have always championed me. So it can never be just about man.”
Something got put to bed with Glastonbury. In the vertiginous climb of Stormzy’s brief career, here was a milestone where he could stop and survey the view. “For the first time in my whole career, and maybe in my life, I was at peace. ‘Bruv, you done the job, bruv. It was your biggest test and you’ve done something way bigger than yourself.’ I patted myself on my back and I spoke to myself nicely about it.” He breaks off to sing a few lines from “Audacity”, a song on his new album, Heavy Is The Head, “I changed the game drastically / Big Mike I done Glastonbury / Flashbacks from Glastonbury / Love it when it all comes back to me.”
As the title suggests, Heavy Is The Head is dominated by themes of uncertainty, defiance, frailty, suspicion, isolation and responsibility that all come with fame, shuttling between self-assertion and self-doubt. In “Lessons” he mourns the end of his relationship with Jama; in “One Second” he lambasts NME for putting him on the cover of a mental health special without permission. “I am not the poster boy for mental health / I need peace of mind / I need to centre self / The cover of the NME, that shit made me resent myself / There’s people trying to spread the word and people that pretend to help.”
Pushing himself to this point, at this pace, has evidently taken its toll. “I’m usually quite hard on myself,” he says. “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. 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.’”
I tell him about a conversation I had more than 20 years ago with Franklin McCain, who, in 1960, as a 19-year-old African American, went with three black friends to the whites-only counter at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina and took a seat. “The day I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration,” McCain told me. “I felt that in this life nothing else mattered. If there’s a heaven, I got there for a few minutes.” McCain said nothing had ever come close to that feeling and that he wondered if it was cruel of the universe to offer such an intense state of serenity so early in life. I told him I thought it was kind of the universe to offer it at all, at any stage.
The story seems to chime with Stormzy, who continues enthusiastically. “Exactly. There’s no award that’s going to beat my first Mobo. But, of course, God willing, one day I’ll get a Grammy. I’m never going to feel like Glasto again. But one day maybe I’ll headline Coachella and then I’ll have that. That’s the blessing from God. He gave you an indescribable feeling that’s so personal to you. And only you can hold it.”
So what does he do now? He can’t hold it forever. “Now I want to do it all over again,” he says, laughing. “I was standing at the pinnacle of music at 25. It’s like winning the World Cup. I wonder how Mbappé feels. You won the World Cup. And it’s like, ‘Wow. I’ve done it... I guess there’ll be more World Cups.’”