It’s official: Stormzy is a phenomenon and black British culture is flying
The artist’s mindblowing Glastonbury set was notable not for the profanities aimed at Boris Johnson, but for the way he celebrated all those black artists who have come before him – and those who are yet to come
Gun fingers sway on a darkened stage in front of 100,000 festival goers, shown on TV to millions more, as Stormzy stands tall, embodying the heights that grime culture has reached. Donning body armour designed with a blackened union jack, Stormzy’s performance was heavy on the references to the fact that – against all odds – he was even there in the first place. With the stage’s screens flashing up with the areas he’s from as he performed “Know Me From” – South Norwood, Thornton Heath, West Norwood, Croydon, Selhurst, Norbury – Stormzy wanted everybody to know what he represents.
To start his set, he showed a clip of himself discussing the performance with Jay-Z, a key inspiration for him. “Culture moves the whole world,” stated the American rapper. Well Stormzy’s performance last night did just that.
It was outstanding: the production, live instrumentation, backing singers, the choir, the duet with Chris Martin and then Raleigh Ritchie – our beloved Grey Worm from Game of Thrones – and Dave alongside Fredo, who performed their UK number one hit “Funky Friday”, with Stormzy performing his, “Vossi Bop”, straight after.
Before Dave left the stage he praised Stormzy for making this all possible – without him, this boom in the popularity of black British music culture would not be happening.
But Stormzy also made it clear that he was standing on the shoulders of the giants before him, by mentioning the artists that had paved the way – Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Chip, Skepta, Giggs and the like – before giving a shout out to all those who are now coming through: AJ Tracey, J Hus, Ms Banks, Little Simz, Kojey Radical, A2, K-Trap, Hardy Caprio, Nadia Rose, Slowthai and many more.
We, the youthful black British talent, are the writers now, the presenters, headliners. And as Stormzy’s performance proved, our culture is now British culture. The slang terms and phrases, the dress sense and presence on stage, the reloads and adlibs by DJ Tiiny showing his and Stormzy’s captivating chemistry, and scenes and memes of our past, especially in the lyric, “Where’s Carlos?”, which all of those who follow grime will know the significance of. Then there was the classic garage song “Sweet Like Chocolate”, performed in between bikes wheelying on stage and bodypopping dancers.
Stormzy is more than just an artist, he is a cultural phenomenon. If Jay-Z epitomises hip hop, Stormzy epitomises grime. And although they are both trailblazers that have expanded the culture to new spaces, there is something about Stormzy’s success that feels especially significant.
Stormzy recognises the potential for greatness in what he and those around him can accomplish. Many anticipated the show on the basis of his “f*** the government and f*** Boris” comments – but his comments highlighting the transition of the scene were maybe the most revealing. What’s most important to him is the culture he is a part of and helps to promote, and the ongoing building of that community.
The latest example of this, a day before Glastonbury, was Stormzy’s # Merky Books imprint releasing Taking Up Space: The Black Girls Manifesto for Change, a book co-written and edited by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, following his own Merky team’s story that I co-wrote with him and edited, Rise Up: The # Merky Story So Far.
The point of it all is to show the realities and journeys of underrepresented people: Rise Up covering how he and his team had achieved their success and Taking Up Space highlighting the experiences black women face in higher education. Stormzy has also paid for a scholarship scheme for two black students a year to go to Cambridge. This is leadership.
A recent photoshoot cover with Elle magazine, where he and other black British talents were highlighted for their excellence, included Wilfried Zaha, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Joshua Buatsi, Tiana Major9, Dina Asher-Smith, Damson Idris, Temi Mwale and Jourdan Dunn. As Stormzy stated then, this is black British excellence, and he is intent on utilising his platform to pull up all those around him to greater heights. From start to finish, his Glastonbury set stuck to this logic. And that’s what made it so special.
Jude Yawson is a writer and co-author with Stormzy of Rise Up: The # Merky Story So Far