‘The spotlight can scare the shit out of me’: Stormzy speaks out

As he releases his second album, the all-conquering grime star talks about living in the public eye, a new politics of hope – and why it nearly all went wrong at Glastonbury this summer

Ladies and gentlemen please make way for the man of 2019, barrelling into his lovely kitchen-lounge in a blue dressing gown and tracky bottoms. “Sorry, sorry!” says Stormzy, enveloping me in a hug. “Sorry.” His apologies are because he’s a bit late – he had a headache, “even though I went bed early” – and also because I’ve just heard him bawl out a man who came to his front door. Stormzy had thought it was a food delivery and so buzzed the gate to let him in. But the man wasn’t delivering food. “He was looking for money,” says Stormzy. “So send me an email, you get me? I get it’s a charity, but this is my home. I’m Michael here, not Stormzy!”

We’re sitting on an L-shaped sofa, opposite an enormous TV. Michael Omari Jr, aka Stormzy, who is jolly despite his buzzing head, goes to feed his dog, a huge Rottweiler lounging by the front door. Time for me to have a nosey around. Stormzy’s house is open plan, bright and modern, with what at first glance looks like an awful lot of ornaments but turns out to be awards: 29 of them, on various living-room shelves, including several Mobos. There’s also his 2019 Time cover, framed and waiting to be hung up, and in his downstairs loo a double platinum disc for his first album, Gang Signs & Prayers. The place is neat, but not a show home. There are clothes on the ironing board, bottles of Coke on the surfaces.Floor-to-ceiling glass doors look out over a grey sky, a small square of grass, a free-standing boxing bag and what looks like a glass-fronted studio. It’s actually a glamma-kennel, for the dog.

“I bought this house in October,” says Stormzy, who’s got his food now. “I saw it and I was like: ‘Yes, bless, this is it.’ But next door is a Lady, no… a Baroness, who has a Conservative poster up in her window. I took the dog for a walk the other day to the park and there was a gang fight. And everyone rings my bell all the time.” Not that he’s not used to strangers trying to gain entrance: when he lived in Chelsea, with his then girlfriend the TV and radio presenter Maya Jama, the police battered down his front door just after he’d moved in, because a neighbour had assumed Stormzy was a burglar. Anyhow, he split up with Jama last year and now he lives alone. So he has no one to look after him when he’s ill. “I’m sad,” he jokes. “I just lie there and feel sorry for myself!”

This interview appeared in the 15 December 2019 Observer Magazine edited by Stormzy Photograph: PR

Now that’s he’s everyone’s favourite homegrown rapper, it’s easy for people to forget where Stormzy came from. He grew up in Norbury, south London, with two elder sisters, a younger brother and his mum. His dad wasn’t around and, back then, home wasn’t a place to hang out. I once asked him if he had posters on his bedroom wall as a kid, and he looked at me as though I was mad. Home was “individuals operating in the same house,” he told me. “I never had that home of having posters on my wall and having trainers lined up, it was just… somewhere I slept.” No wonder he’s protective about his home now. It means a lot more to him than it does to most.

* * *

We last met around three years ago, in the Putney studio of Fraser T Smith, the main producer of Gang Signs & Prayers. At the time Stormzy was fairly unknown outside of grime – Shut Up had gone Top 10 a couple of months earlier – though, personality-wise, he was almost exactly as he is now: chatty, honest, “gassy” (upbeat, energetic) and ambitious. “I don’t want to be the best rapper in the UK,” he told me then. “I want to be the best artist in the UK.” His ambition wasn’t just for himself. “The main thing for me is my young black kings…” he said. “I say to them, ‘You are sick, you’re nang, you can do this. You’re better than anything anyone’s ever told you that you are.’”

Stepping up: Stormzy announces his scholarship for two students to study at Cambridge.
Stepping up: Stormzy announces his scholarship for two students to study at Cambridge Photograph: Stormzy

I remind him of what he said then, and he is quite overwhelmed. “Sick,” he keeps saying. “That’s hard.” And, “Thank God.” Because, of course, he achieved every one of his aims. Not only did he have a massive smash album that moved him from grime into the mainstream, he also set up a book imprint for young black writers and created a yearly scholarship to Cambridge University for two black undergraduates. (He pays for all their accommodation and fees.) And he’s been an advocate for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, using his appearance at the 2018 Brits to perform a rap about Grenfell that specifically addressed the then-prime minister, Theresa May, and, more recently, calling Jacob Rees-Mogg “an actual piece of shit” for implying that those who died lacked common sense. He has also tackled the current prime minister in his lyrics, mentioning “the irony of trapping on a Boris bike” in Crown, as well as Vossi Bop’s “Fuck the government and fuck Boris”: a huge crowd call-back during his triumphant Glastonbury appearance in June this year.

So, Stormzy is far from frightened of politics. On social media, he encouraged young people to register to vote and said he’d vote Labour. This led Michael Gove to comment that “Stormzy is a far better rapper than he is a political analyst” before, bizarrely, quoting one of his lyrics. “I set trends dem man copy” tweeted the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 52.

Two years ago, Stormzy would have reacted. But now he can’t be bothered. “I’m so used to it, being this black face in mainstream culture. It’s like Ali G, like, “Yeah, bruv. Yeah, fam”… The nuances are as loud as possible.

Vest to impress: Stormzy headlining at Glastonbury festival 2019.
Vest to impress: Stormzy headlining at Glastonbury festival 2019. Photograph: Richard Isaac/Rex/Shutterstock

“It’s the classic, ‘You’re just a rapper,’” he says. “Using ‘I set trends dem man copy’... No one was talking about that. I wasn’t talking about music, I wasn’t talking about Shut Up – I was talking about politics. So him saying that is like he said: ‘Oh, no, forget politics. This is what he does. He’s a rapper.’ It’s a weaponised tactic. They do it to young people, they do it to black people, they do it to rappers, they do it to entertainers: ‘Just shut up and rap.’ Stay in your lane. It’s very telling of who these people are. As much as I’m a rapper, I’ve also done X, Y, Z. But they’re dismissing everything else. They just look at me and say: ‘No.’ They reduce us to whatever they need us to be and dismiss it.”

* * *

This Stormzy-edited issue of the Observer Magazine was produced in the week before the election, coming out in its immediate aftermath. Clearly, the guest editor is going to be disappointed if the Tories win, but even if they have, he won’t be cowed into silence. “Choosing hope and righteousness and a person committed to helping the many, not the few, that is not a fairy-tale dream,” he says. “They make it sound like one decision is stupid and uninformed, and the other one is smart and intelligent. That’s a lie. It’s funny, politics is so dark that when a shining knight comes along, we’re told it’s just a fucking dream. But ambition, and a better future, a genuine kinder, better society, that is the smart choice.”

Stormzy isn’t ruffled by the insults of politicians, because he knows he’s clever. “I’m intelligent,” he says. “That’s why there’s always a bit of a smugness to me.” He did well in his GCSEs, gaining six A*s, three As, and five Bs, and would have smashed his A levels if he’d bothered to do any work. As it was, he got ABCDE. “It showed me that in life, you need work ethic,” he’s said since.

“So when they dismiss me it’s like, ‘You lot picked the wrong fucking rapper.’”

Anyway, no matter who is now our prime minister, you can guarantee that at some point, they will encounter Stormzy’s new album, Heavy Is the Head, which came out the day after the election. The process of making it was very different to Gang Signs (or “GSAP” as he calls it). GSAP was made in one go, over a solid period in 2016, when Stormzy locked himself in the studio with Fraser T Smith for eight months, quit social media and concentrated.

But with Heavy Is the Head that just wasn’t possible. He had all his other new commitments, plus everything else that comes with being famous. “I had to go out into the world,” he says. So he got in touch with a lot of different producers. For instance, he spent several weeks in LA, working with Pharrell Williams, among others. But it didn’t result in anything: “I give him all the love and props, but sometimes it just doesn’t gel.”

He did, however, make a track with Ed Sheeran and Burna Boy, Own It. He met Sheeran in 2016, around the time of Shut Up. Sheeran got in touch and asked him to come over. What did they have in common? “Ambition,” says Stormzy. “He’s super ambitious and so am I.” ( Stormzy used to want to be prime minister, just because “it’s the biggest job”. “I was like, seven? And I was proper not joking. I was like, ‘That’s light work. Becoming prime minister is light work.’”) He has recently had some stick about it from fans, who’ve accused him of featuring Sheeran just to have a hit. But Stormzy insists it was more natural than that. He never goes into a studio saying to himself, right, I’m going to make a hard grime track or a pop hit. He just “serves the music”, he says, and with Own It, it started with him and producer Fred trying to imitate a sound on Kanye West’s Waves. Then Stormzy decided he wanted a verse from Sheeran, so Sheeran wrote that and sang it. And then, Stormzy thought the tune needs “flavour, sauce” so he turned to Burna Boy. He wasn’t trying to manufacture a hit, he says, he just wanted to make a song that women could put on and feel good about themselves. “Sometimes music can be a bit sexist or like using women as objects,” he says. “I was like, no, forget all of that, I want a woman to be able to play this before she’s going out for drinks with her girls.”

Brixton boys: Stormzy at the O2 Academy Brixton with Ed Sheeran, 2017.
Brixton boys: Stormzy at the O2 Academy Brixton with Ed Sheeran, 2017. Photograph: Pjp Photos/Rex/Shutterstock

Anyway, the album is out. The subject matter is, mostly, Stormzy, to be honest, but he’s keen to show he’s not a one-sided character. Each track is a separate entity. “It’s 16 truths from a man. So it’s like 16 chapters.” This reminds me of his headlining Glastonbury performance. Watching it from the sofa, it seemed very clear that each song had been planned as an individual experience, with every one offering a different feel and delivery, whether a piano ballad, a straight rap, or a full-on performance featuring a choir or ballet dancers. He admits to having been worried about the show. In his assessment: “You got one fucking album, 59 minutes long. Glastonbury is an hour and 30 minutes.” Hence his use of Sheeran’s Shape of You, Kanye’s Ultralight Beam and Dave and Fredo’s Funky Friday.

Though his performance – Glastonbury’s first headline slot for a solo black British artist – was deemed one of the festival’s best ever, Stormzy did not find it easy. He’s spoken recently about how he couldn’t really hear while he was onstage. The whole story takes a while, because it was “the moment of my life,” and it’s still raw and real in his mind – but also because he’s a great storyteller. But the short version is this. Eight songs in, during Sweet Like Chocolate, the monitor in his ear blew. “It just went… poof, nothing. I can just hear the distant sound of the festival PA speakers. Everyone’s coming in, ‘We on an ultralight beam,’ and I’m thinking: ‘This is the most fucked you’ve ever been in your life. You are on Glastonbury stage and you can’t hear.’”

So at the end of the song, he ran off, shouted at everyone, got fitted with another in-ear monitor and came back on. Coldplay’s Chris Martin, at the piano, was stalling for time: “You can see him looking over his shoulder at me, just filling in, but because he’s so classy, you can’t tell.” They perform Blinded By Your Grace Part 1, then Martin leaves and Stormzy segues into Crown. Halfway through that, his monitor blows again.

“And from then on, I can’t hear anything,” he says. “I’m in no man’s land. Finished. Can’t hear nothing for the rest of the show. I’m just rapping to this faint sound of the festival speaker PA, but then sometimes I get the full sound of the crowd, like DUUHHHHHHHH, and then nothing. And then I would hear like a fucking conversation, faint little bits of laughter, like the mic is left on in a control room. It was fully like I was going mad. So I’m just rapping, and all that’s going on through my head is, ‘Oh, my God, I want to cry so bad. This is the pinnacle of my entire life and it’s all going to shit.’ And I was just thinking, ‘Just pray. Just keep thanking God, giving God the glory, and take it all in.’”

Oh Jeremy Corbyn: Stormzy with the Labour leader at the GQ Men of the Year awards 2017.
Oh Jeremy Corbyn: Stormzy with the Labour leader at the GQ Men of the Year awards 2017. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

I’ve watched a video of his performance since he told me this and the only way you can tell is he touches his ears and the mic pack every so often, and asks the crowd to “Help me out!” by joining in choruses, getting them to sing along. At one point Dave and Fredo join him onstage and he has to just bow his head and make the prayer sign “because I can’t hear a fucking word Dave’s saying”. Anyway, when he comes off, he’s in bits. “Literally bawling my eyes out. I’ve never cried like that in my life.” He thought he’d blown it. All his friends and family are looking at him like he’s mad, but he’s in full emotional flow. It was only about an hour later, when his best friend Flipz arrives with a laptop and a USB of the show, that Stormzy realises he’s played a brilliant set.

* * *

A week or so later, he goes to church. (Stormzy is a regular church-goer, attending the Word of Grace Ministries in Kennington.) He goes to give thanks and to testify. And when he’s there, he discovers his mum hadn’t watched his performance live because the pastor had called her up just before Stormzy went on stage to say that he’d had a vision.

Stormzy in profile with eyes shut
‘They say, Shut up and rap. I say they picked the wrong rapper’ Photograph: Henry J Kamara/The Observer

“The pastor saw reviews that said: ‘The worst performance of all time’ and then a hand coming down holding a stamp, and stamping on the review, DENIED.” He told Stormzy’s mum they needed to pray that Stormzy’s performance go well. So that is what she, the pastor and some other churchgoers were doing while her son was dealing with not being able to hear anything at all in front of the biggest crowd he has ever played before in his life. As far as Stormzy is concerned, God saved him. God and muscle memory: “I was so ready for that show. I’ve never been more prepared for anything.” And if it hadn’t gone well? “I was thinking: ‘The country’s going to slaughter me for this. They’re going to absolutely rip me to shreds and I’m going to fucking disappear.’ I was going to go. There wouldn’t have been no second album.”

I’m exhausted just hearing this. What a rollercoaster Stormzy’s life has been recently! Yes, he says, and he’ll be happy when it’s not. Now he’s out of a long-term relationship, he’s trying to work things out solo. “The beauty of a relationship, you lean on each other, you rely on each other, you take energy and give energy to each other,” he says. He and Jama started dating when he was 21 and first became a musician, so it’s strange for him to be making music, with all that entails, without a partner.

“Now, when I’m alone with my thoughts, it’s like, ‘OK, this is on you to figure out, and for you to get to the bottom of, and for you to work through,’ which is a new thing for me.” Now, he says, “I just want to be an artist. I just want to figure out this next bit of my life. I want to live. I want to see what I like, what I love, what I don’t like, what I want to do, who I want to be, what characteristics I need to work on, and I just want to be an artist. I’ll just make art, I’ll come home, I’ll walk my dog. I don’t know, man. I think the spotlight makes me a bit… hmm, is it nervous? Does the spotlight make me nervous? Is that a cop out? The spotlight… sometimes it scares the shit out of me.”

Stormzy says this, almost laughing. He looks completely unscared. Is he planning to step out of the spotlight? It’s a hard thing to do, now it’s focused on him and he shines so bright. He might want to lay low, but I’m not sure the world will stop ringing on his doorbell.

Grooming by Maria Comparetto at The Only Agent using AJ Crimson; styling by Melissa Holdbrook-Akposoe; shot at Worx studio


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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