A few weeks ago, Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. a.k.a. Wicked Skengman or Big Mike, better known to the masses as Stormzy, stood at the epicenter of the music world, a silhouette of molasses brown anointed by white light. A sight to behold. A King about to deliver his war cry. The South-London rapper broke with tradition, delivering a high-octane Glastonbury set that melded braggadocio, verbal brawn, and polemics without the haughtiness that so often defaces headline performances.
In hindsight, we can view Stormzy’s showcase in accordance with a string of Black British feats in wider culture. Just a few days ago, the grime star waved the checkered flag as Lewis Hamilton claimed a record sixth Grand prix title. And just as Hamilton’s “Britishness” is challenged by analysts who claim he has diluted sense of pride about his nationality, Stormzy centred himself as an ally and brother-in-arms. Intentional, yes. Always the underdogs with ‘something’ to prove.
Stormzy understands, better than most, the wave of apathy that shadows a black or brown public figure when they excel. In the lead-up to Glastonbury, the Woodstock contingent questioned the grime star’s right to perform on the biggest festival stage in the world, but for the rest of us, Stormzy’s presence felt like a much-needed paradigm shift. From the onset, he commanded attention supported by the might of a live band and without the provision of a backing track, reciting his poetry at breakneck velocity over snares and sirens. He earned his rightful place as the top billing. From the now iconic Union Jack-adorned stab proof vest designed by Banksy, to granular video interludes of street life and emblazoned pyrotechnics, Stormzy’s set erased the prevailing view of “acceptability,” a carefully cultivated watershed moment for UK black culture where an unadulterated “rags to riches” narrative played out symphonically.
Stormzy exists in the intersection between the grime fashioned by the OGs and the genre-fluid futurism of UK rap today. Since his 2014 breakout, the rapper has shrewdly finessed crossover appeal with just one LP, with a new one promised any day now. His 2017 debut, Gang Signs & Prayer, was the first grime record to reach the No. 1 spot on the UK Album Charts, a signifier grime and UK Rap was evolving from a nascent entity to something sweeping the mainstream. His version of grime is slinkier, more accessible, laden with quieter moments but simultaneously charged with just the right amount of political ire. His bars are vitriolic and abrasive but he tempers the onslaught with gospel lilts, take the elegiac moment he shared with Chris Martin during his Glasto set, as they performed a duet of “Blinded By Your Grace Pt.1.”
The Croydon rapper’s monumental set, was the product of a seven month collaboration with Tawbox, a South London creative production house. From its conception, Stormzy and creative directors, Amber Rimmel and Bronski, decided that Glastonbury had to serve as more than a fête of hits, but a transgenerational showcase of blackness that was “for the culture.”
“We love what Stormzy represents and stands for, he is a man of the people chosen by the people,” says Rimmel. “His persona and attitude towards his passion of creating music is inspirational, but we had to make sure the set transcended music. It had to have meaning. It had to be a celebration and it had to be touching,” echoes Bronski.
Stormzy and Tawbox fashioned an audio-visual showcase that rivalled Beyoncé’s now monolithic Homecoming experience at Coachella, in sheer stadium-sized ambition and as a reclamation of space and synergy in traditionally white spaces. Iconography and Imagery was of paramount importance. The positioning of pieces of a puzzle – namely Ballet Black, Princess K and the W./.R dance collective – spoke of a bigger picture than just Big Mike spitting verbatim to the anthemic “Vossi Bop” or the screw-faced audacity of “Big For Your Boots.” These set pieces were integrated to highlight the importance of subsidized support for black youth, especially in underfunded urban areas that gentrification has left behind.
With Stormzy’s blessing, Bronski and Amber Rimmel asked Princess K to read a quote on stage from the dystopian novel Noughts & Crosses. “It seemed perfect to me that a young lady who stands strong and full of confidence on a stage alone, can say “I never fully realized how powerful words can be, until this, whoever came up with the saying ‘Stick and Stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,’ was talking out of his or her armpit,” Rimmel states.
Glastonbury ’19 succeeded because it had community enterprise at its core – shifting the ethos from the individual to a collective. As attested in his book, Rise Up, Stormzy spotlighted ‘Team #Merky’, charting how the interweaving roles of his team ascended through the ranks, not with money or status, but with grit, a resolute sense of self and most importantly, the essence to honor your origins. Big Mike did just that during his Glastonbury set. Every detail had an intention; and every detail made a visceral impact. A litany of quotes and footnotes from distinguished visionaries from the black diaspora appeared throughout, serving as interstitial breathers in a blitzkrieg set of Stormzy’s versatile discography.
Most notable was JAY-Z’s veneration of Stormzy as a leader of a new manumission; reminding him that what he was about to do far outweighed personal gain. Both Brooklyn’s finest and Croydon’s own have diametrically-opposed origin stories. But the core tenets of black emancipation, much of which has become JAY-Z’s coda nowadays, rings true for Stormzy as well. He’s the ultimate spokesperson for disillusioned youth seeking legitimacy in a time when political leaders are hellbent on preserving their supremacy at the expense of the people at the bottom. He’s used his influence to mobilize the less privileged and not clout chase – launching his own publishing imprint, geared towards disseminating works by young BAME writers as well as funding scholarships for black students to attend Cambridge University.
As someone who came up rapping on council estates fortified with nothing but his words and street cred, Stormzy has survived on his instincts, steely spirit and steadfast work ethic. “His work ethos is the best I have ever witnessed, his passion prevails immensely, he will rehearse with 100 percent energy every single time. He pushes himself to the next level every time we work together,” says Rimmel. Bronski continues, “We push each other creatively each time we do something. Where someone else might say ‘Fuck it, I’m not doing that,’ Stormzy will jump right in and commit.”
Stormzy unifies people from all walks of life through songs that incite confrontation but also affirm and uplift. For black millennials, his success, and multi-disciplinary approach to life, epitomizes enablement and equity that diverges from conventional wisdom. He’s grasped the power of a platform: co-opting, co-signing and funding underrepresented peoples, subverting the long-held archetype of black grime stars as debauched and self-serving.
During his Glasto set, Stormzy called on Dave and Fredo to perform “Funky Friday,” the first pure British rap song to go No 1. Stormzy used his set to venerate the ones that came before and embolden the next gen, name-dropping MoStack, AJ Tracey, J Hus, Stefflon Don, Ms Banks, 67, SL, Ramz, K Trap, Chip, D Block Europe, Nadia Rose, JAY1 and many more. The Croydon-born rapper was quick to correct his mistake of declaring himself the first British black artist, male or female, to headline Glastonbury. That title belonged to Skin from Skunk Anansie. That’s humility. And that humility was the imprint of a Glasto showcase where, for one night only, binaries vanished and Black and British came together.