“I just really want to make the greatest art I can,” Stormzy tells Trevor Nelson on A Stormzy Special, set to premiere on BBC One tonight courtesy of BBC Music. “That’s all that success is to me right now. The by-product of that, God willing, is that you sell a couple records, but I can’t focus on that.”
The iconic Abbey Road Studios, hallowed recording base for music legends such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Aretha Franklin in its near century-long history, seem to vibrate with a euphoric energy as Stormzy, with his extended band, sings his heart out with the confidence of a young man comfortable in his own skin. Unafraid to lay himself bare, to be human.
As one of the most visible musicians in the UK, with supreme rapping ability, more than 1 billion streams and boundless social influence, you’d forgive the 29-year-old for resting on his laurels, in the knowledge that through his magnetic personality and philanthropic work with Adidas and Cambridge University (to name just a couple of his achievements) he has transcended music itself. But his desire for personal and musical growth is paramount.
A Stormzy Special, quickly commissioned and recorded just a fortnight ago ahead of the November 25 release of his imminent third studio album, This Is What I Mean, includes an in-depth conversation with radio host Nelson at the legendary studios, supplemented by a live performance of new tracks. It’s part of a series of TV and radio programming made “to celebrate Stormzy, his music and his connection with culture” and in an intimate and often candid chat with Nelson, Stormzy is composed and content while assessing his musical direction.
The special is hot off the heels of his recent BBC interview with Louis Theroux, in which he let the wider public see the personal qualities that have already endeared him to millions of fans.
Born Michael Omari and raised in Croydon, south London, Stormzy has been making music for over a decade. A video dated from 2010 on the SBTV YouTube channel - where the likes of Dave, Skepta and AJ Tracey have showcased their skills - sees a young Stormzy, still in his teens, rapping in a corridor with the hungry energy that comes with wanting to prove your worth.
A much later comment on that same video reads: “From bars in a hallway to headlining Glastonbury.” It’s been quite the journey, but the indications were always there. Working his way up the ranks via online freestyles and radio sets, his 2014 EP, Dreamer’s Disease, was pungent with the promise he would take to the top of British music years later.
His rise came against the backdrop of a shifting Black British music scene. By 2014, thanks to Meridian Dan’s German Whip and Skepta and JME’s That’s Not Me, grime music had resurfaced in the mainstream consciousness after years back in the underground, setting the stage for the proliferation of genres such as Afroswing and Drill that we see today.
Things would change for Stormzy the following year, with his first moment of making history. His 2015 track Shut Up scored over 100 million YouTube views and becoming the first rap freestyle to reach the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart.
An instantly memorable call-and-response cut, the track alerted the wider British public to Stormzy’s immense presence. Suddenly, his fanbase ballooned, from teens and young adults, to mums, dads, aunts and uncles now knowing who he was; the kind of inter-generational appeal that a grime artist seldom attracted.
By the time he announced his debut album, 2017’s Gang Signs & Prayer, the entire country was watching. Enter historic moment number two, as that record became Britain’s first number one album by a grime/rap artist, and the first such to win big at the BRIT Awards, collecting British Album of the Year in 2018.
Indeed, as modern Black British music has become more visible in the charts and the critics’ notebooks, Stormzy has served as a vanguard artist, playing a role in unlocking doors of commercial and critical prosperity.
Since 2016, rap artists have taken home three of the past seven Mercury Prizes, Britain’s most prestigious music award, in comparison to just two winning in the award’s first 24 years. In 2019, Stormzy’s history-making continued, as he became the first British rapper (and the first Black British solo artist) to headline the Glastonbury Festival. It was a blistering performance, for which he wore a stab-proof vest sporting a Union Jack, designed by the artist Banksy, and it just further highlighted his extraordinary rise.
“God let me do that so I could have peace with it,” he tells Nelson on A Stormzy Special. “It gave me a chance to feel what it’s like to be at the top of the mountain.”
But part of his appeal is that, strip away the music and the accolades and at heart, he is just one of us. As down to earth and relatable as your next-door neighbour; known to his friends as ‘Big Mike’ (he’s 6’4”) - even if those friends might include Ed Sheeran.
He’s the music nerd who isn’t too big to get excited when he sees Taylor Swift and get a picture with her. As he reels off his favourite musicians to Nelson, namechecking Whitney Houston, Adele and Cleo Sol, he’s filled with a childlike excitement. He’s a devoted family man, who loves his nephews and, as he told Theroux, is keen to marry and have a family of his own. He is also a devout churchgoer, attending regularly with his mother and sister.
He pokes fun at himself, once turning up to BBC Radio dressed as Santa Claus. He embraces his imperfections and actively works on himself, being vocal about his mental and emotional battles in ways that grime, rap and societal stereotypes of manhood haven’t always allowed. In an open letter published by British Vogue last October, he painted an emotional portrait of his mental state and the conditions that fostered his new album, saying: “I found confidence and strength in my vulnerability. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’. Taking accountability.”
It’s these wholly likable aspects of his character that are key to his broad appeal. An aura of celebrity doesn’t exist because it means little to him. Having made his name in the grime scene, one packed with bravado and hyper-masculinity, Stormzy is transparent about his highs and his lows. We know exactly who he is, and what he is trying to be.
“Being an MC and coming from the background I’ve come from,” he tells Nelson, “I’m here to denounce this whole notion that a young Black rapper is just angry. I really want to stand in who I am, feel how I feel and make the art I want to make.”
Stormzy is incredibly aware of his place and position of power in British music, striving to rework how Black artists are viewed and received. The UK music industry has a dubious history in this regard – both Alexandra Burke and Beverley Knight have spoken about being told they were too dark-skinned to be successful musicians – but Stormzy asserts that Blackness is a superpower, a marker of pride and identity.
Take his recent video for Mel Made Me Do It, a 10-minute masterpiece rounded out by the appearance of several key figures of Black British culture and entertainment, from footballer Ian Wright and author Malorie Blackman to Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B, as a representation of generations of Black British excellence.
Or his Glastonbury set, where he namechecked a long list of British MCs as a mark of respect for the world he came from - as well as making it unapologetically political, playing audio of a speech by the Labour MP David Lammy that condemned the disproportionate number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system.
Stormzy understands his role as an extension of the culture, presenting Black history to all who are watching. “I’ve always understood the mass in which I’m consumed, that I’m the Black act, maybe the token Black act,” he tells Nelson. “I’ve always wanted to reject that. that’s why when I do Glastonbury or Mel Made Me Do It, I’m showing you that this is us. We stand on each other’s shoulders. I didn’t just appear, we’ve been here.”
Using his position to help his community has been of paramount importance to the artist, as he puts it in 2019 single Crown, performed first on A Stormzy Special: “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.”
In 2018, his Stormzy Scholarship was launched, giving financial support to Black students at Cambridge University, working to level the playing field for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Elsewhere, his #Merky Books imprint with publishing giant Penguin Random House has empowered a young generation of would-be authors and novelists to tell new stories in British literature.
More recently, his new collaboration with Adidas, #Merky FC, will offer opportunities to young Black people hoping to enter the world of football. For a man not even 30-years-old, Stormzy has already laid down roots for a truly expansive legacy, affecting Black lives for the better.
Now, as the world awaits This Is What I Mean, that legacy will progress in earnest. But above all, if A Stormzy Special proves anything, it’s that Stormzy remains indebted to music for unlocking his potential and his current existence, and it is to the music that he will remain dedicated. “I think that’s my only job now,” he tells Nelson. “To make music and art and do it boldly and unashamedly.”
A Stormzy Special will broadcast on BBC One on Tuesday November 15 at 10.40pm and will also be available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Future Sounds with Clara Amfo on Radio 1 at 7pm will feature a never-before-heard interview with Stormzy and Clara plus the five tracks performed at Abbey Road. It will then be available on BBC Sounds