"Yo, we’re making history today!"
We’re in a photo studio in West Manchester and is meant to be on set - but the Croydon-born MC has snuck off to greet the final arrival of his LouisvuittonShop cover shoot. From an upstairs balcony, he bellows down to Temi Mwale, a South London activist known for her work against youth violence, and his booming voice floods the studio.
At 6'5", Stormzy—real name Michael Omari— looms over the balcony edge, one hand gripping the bannister while with the other, he punches a glass of Courvoisier skyward. “This” he says, “is for the culture”.
He has reason to toast. In the last two years, Stormzy has entered unprecedented territory for a British rapper. As well as a number one album and a handful of BRIT and MOBO awards, he’s launched #Merky Books, a Penguin imprint that champions BAME writers, and created a scholarship to fund two black students through Cambridge (six of the university’s 31 colleges had admitted fewer than 10 black or mixed race students between 2012 and 2016*).
There’s a common thread that unites all of Stormzy’s pursuits, musical and otherwise, and it’s in his resolute determination to champion black British talent. “When you look back, there’s been incredible achievements, but black Britishness is not always well documented” he says, as we chat between takes. “Now it’s time to say, ‘it’s here, it’s vibrant and it’s alive’. This country [has a history of] reducing young black British men and women, but we’re a whole spectrum of incredible things, and we’re on a mission to show that to the world... ”
It's for this reason that - on honour of his LouisvuittonShop cover, and the issue's celebration of British talent - Stormzy chose to curate a collective of the young black Britons, who inspire him the most. Seeing them come together in one room is electric; at one point, in between shots he takes actor Damson Idris, poet Yrsa Daley-Ward and supermodel Leomie Anderson in his arms and they hold each other in a long embrace.
It’s a powerful moment.
“We’re making something so incredible, who knows what it will trigger” says Stormzy “[I want] people to see this and realise if you are young black and British you can 100% excel in whatever lane you want”. From singers to sprinters, he has brought together a group who, in his words, are “powerful and incredible young Brits coming together like superheroes...like Avengers.”
That might sound like a hyperbole until you consider Dina Asher-Smith is the fastest woman in Britain and boxer Joshua Buatsi is yet to lose a professional fight. Across music, fashion, literature, sports and activism, these are “superheroes” at the forefront of their respective industries, breaking records and making history.
Two days after the shoot, I head to Stormzy’s house, located in a leafy suburb just outside of London. He opens the door wearing black slim fit tracksuit bottoms, a wide grin peering out from under the hood of his navy dressing gown.
Behind him, his dog naps in a corner. It turns out Stormzy is something of a connoisseur when it comes to canines; French bulldogs are “ugly”, he thinks his publicist should get a chow chow, staffies are “beautiful” and a pug, it turns out, “is the only thing more ugly than a French bulldog”.
“Do you play poker?” he asks, before leading me into a small room taken up almost exclusively by a poker table with “Stormzy” emblazoned across it in white writing. He gestures to a wooden box in the corner. Inside it’s filled with a set of brightly coloured poker chips and a crystal decanter.
There’s a plaque on the lid inscribed with the message, “Merky. Love Adele”. “She got me that when I played Brixton” he says, brimming with pride, as we settle onto the sofa alongside his girlfriend, Radio 1 presenter .
Now 25, he started rapping aged 11, spitting with his friends and uploading videos to YouTube. Growing up with his two older sisters and his Ghanaian-born mother in South Norwood he’d listen to grime music—an undoubtedly British genre, that emerged in London in the early 2000s—not knowing that one day he would come to define it. “My age group, we were the first ones who didn’t have to follow American [musicians], our heroes were British MCs” he says. “I was looking at Wiley and Dizzee [Rascal] thinking, ‘yeah, I want to be like you.’ Having that visual representation...I know what that did for me, I come from a class of people who really own their black Britishness.”
It was in 2013 that Stormzy began to release a series of freestyles that would in turn become and set him up for mainstream success. They quickly amassed thousands of views and began to earn him a cult following.
Up until that point, Stormzy, who had landed an engineering apprenticeship, had been working on an oil refinery off the coast of Southampton, but as his music career gained momentum, he knew it was time to go home.
The last instalment of his run of freestyles was 2015’s WickedSkengMan 4. In the video he’s surrounded by fans and friends, and it’s as much a showcase of his sense of humour as it is his lyrical dexterity. At one point he invites a young boy to battle with him, retorting “you’re nine, you’re not even ten yet, you can’t bench press”.
The track made the top 20, with no campaign behind it or PR support, which in turn made Stormzy the first unsigned rapper to chart with a freestyle track.
A pivotal moment, it proved that his model — eschewing major label support in favour of releasing music independently— worked, and it set the tone for a career that would continue to be defined by firsts: the first unsigned rapper to perform on Later....with Jools Holland in 2014, in 2017 the first artist to win a MOBO for Best Grime Act.
In February 2017, he released his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer. It’s a genre-spanning and soul baring album, an incredible mix of grime, R&B and gospel that demonstrates not only his skill as a rapper and musician, but an unnerving emotional honesty. The final track, Lay Me Bare is a heart-wrenching ode to absent fathers, friendship, depression, religion, confidence, anger, determination and everything in between. Gang Signs & Prayer became the first independently released grime album to top the UK chart, and incidentally, Stormzy’s first ever number 1.
The day before his LouisvuittonShop cover shoot, he manages to outdo himself again when he’s announced as a Glastonbury headliner, making him the first ever black British artist to do so. “This is the biggest moment” he says, “it’s the biggest stage, the biggest all-eyes-on-me kind of spotlight in my career, ever” he stops. “But if you are waiting for the Glastonbury headliner to give you the Glastonbury headline caliber performance, then have no fear, calm down, settle: this will be a day in the office."
"You see like how Coldplay or Beyoncé or Radiohead treat Glastonbury? It’s just another show, a day in the office, only it’s the biggest fucking day in the office ever.” As for any naysayers – for, amidst the enthusiasm the announcement met, there were those who questioned whether Stormzy’s body of work enough to headline – he’s not letting them bother him. “I get it” he says. “Only one album, where’s all the number ones? But I think the argument doesn’t even deserve the fuel.
When June 28th comes, either everyone will be proved right or they will be proved wrong, - but I am the headliner and I will come and give you a Glastonbury headline performance. I am looking very, very forward to doing exactly what I know I am capable of doing.”
Whether it’s in song or in conversation, when Stormzy has a point to make, his delivery is galvanising. Of course, lyrical flow and razor sharp vocal precision are requirements of the job, but when he sets his mind to something, it’s hard not to sit up and take note. Case in point: his performance at last year's BRIT Awards, where he would go on to win Best Album and Best British Male.
He walked on stage with water raining down on him while he sung the opening lines of his gospel choir backed single, Blinded By Your Grace pt 2: “Lord, I've been broken / Although I'm not worthy /You fixed me, I'm blinded by your grace.” It was a heartfelt and moving performance that would have been memorable as it was.
Then, song over, ripped off his wet hoody and launched into a ferocious freestyle that became a searing takedown of the government's response to the Grenfell fire tragedy. “Yo, Theresa May, where's that money for Grenfell?” he snarled. “What, you thought we just forgot about Grenfell?”
“I remember thinking, ‘I have to get this right’” he says of the performance. “I missed the timing when I was rehearsing, and it was like, ‘you cannot miss this.’” He’d kept details of what he planned to do a secret from almost everyone. “I hadn’t really told anyone”. He looks over to Maya: “Did I tell you babe?” he asks. “You told me you were going to switch it up,” she replies “I hadn’t heard it before the show.”
He nods. “The whole idea of that performance was to make them hang on to every word; I’ve got five minutes with the British public, I can do bare things, I can show them why I’m a deserved [BRIT Award] winner, I can show them why I’m musically excellent, I can show that I’ve got incredible performances... but most of all I can say something really powerful, that means something: make it count.”
By the next day, millions of people had watched the performance, and on Twitter “Stormzy” was the top trend of the UK, while “Grenfell” was the third.
The reaction to the performance was so huge that the government was forced to issue a response, defending the prime minister and admitting that the initial response to the fire was too slow. Having previously spoken out in support of Jeremy Corbyn, Stormzy found himself being thrust into a new role of political commentator. “There was this overwhelming amount of ‘Stormzy for Corbyn’ or ‘Stormzy against May’, and if I’m honest, being used as a political pawn all the time, it’s like, you’ve gotta get off me a bit. That [performance] was just me saying my truth. I am just a 25-year-old man” he corrects himself “a kid. A man-boy who’s still trying to figure it all out. I know it’s hard for people to understand that when I’m on the BRITs stage that confident with my top off.. but there’s a lot I’m overwhelmed by”.
Rather than align himself with a political party, he says he wanted to send a message: “Just fucking give Grenfell their money innit?” he says. “That’s how I feel. If I was just chatting to my mate, that’s what I’d say. I’m not gonna act like I’m this mad political guy, but [Grenfell] was crazy. I’ve been there and met a lot of the people and made some beautiful friendships with some of them. Grenfell is the ends—not my ends, I’m from South London— but I used to run around blocks like that.”
For all the headlines, award shows and A-list friendships that permeate his life, ultimately, Stormzy is still the same grime-obsessed, tracksuit-wearing teenager he was ten years ago. “Fashion has changed a lot” he admits. “[but] the mission has always been to tell my truths in incredible jewels of songs,” he says.
Later this year, he’ll drop his second album, a highly awaited follow up to Gang Signs and Prayer. “I can’t let what I think a second album should be dictate it. Every time I go to the studio I just run the rhythm, open my mouth and do what I do: this is what I have to say, this beat makes me feel like this, this is about my family or something I want to get off my chest. I can’t overthink it, it’s my second album, and it will be bigger, better and braver than my first.”
As I get ready to leave, Stormzy’s attention turns towards ordering a pizza with . As they debate toppings, it’s strange to witness this act of mundane domesticity, knowing that the next time I see him he’ll be on stage in front of 100,000 people about to play the biggest show of his life. “I can’t wait” he says, thinking about that moment. “I’ve got mad underdog syndrome, but I got confidence too. I feel like I have so much to prove, but at the end of the day, I’m Stormzy, and I’m meant to be here.”
LEOMIE ANDERSON, 25, MODEL
Leomie Anderson is a model and campaigner. As well as fronting Fenty Glory’s first campaign, she founded clothing brand LAPP and has given a TEDx Talk her experiene of the industry.
“When I first started modelling you could go through a whole magazine without seeing any black girls, you could go to a casting and they’d tell you to your face there’s only space for one black girl, and I was told that that was normal, that other black girls were my competition.
My voice has always been something that I’ve known is one of my strengths. I spoke out because I didn’t want to feel like I’m less than another model just because of my skin colour.
I really feel it’s about time that we start celebrating all the black British talent that we have here in the UK, people who have contributed to the community and to the culture, we are all trying to be the best in our field, trying to leave our mark which is really really important, especially as young black people in this industry. I love how Stormzy isn’t afraid to use his platform to elevate others.”
WILFRIED ZAHA, 26, PREMIER FOOTBALLER
Wilfried Zaha started training to become a footballer at the age of twelve at the Crystal Palace academy — he now plays professionally for the club as their forward.
“Stormzy is a good friend of mine, I don’t think anyone else has reached the heights he has. We’re all trying to do the best we can in our craft. I’m doing what I love, stepping onto the pitch is the best feeling ever and I’m excited for every game. It’s exhilarating. It’s important to inspire a future generations. When you come from nothing, there’s not a lot of people directing you the right way, telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. I think there’s a lot of stuff that people feel they can’t talk about in football because you’re meant to be ‘a man’ about things. If I feel a certain way I need to say it, vent, get it out of my spirit and feel better. But it’s important to be honest.”
YRSA DALEY-WARD, 29, POET
Yrsa Daley-Ward is a poet, model and author, whose work explores identity, race, mental health, and femininity. Her memoir, The Terrible, was published last yera to rave reviews.
“My mum was this Jamaican single mother and she taught me to read really early because she knew it was just so important to have a good education. Being from the north west of England, there were no other black people around me at school, so she always told ‘you have to excel because of all these things that are against you’. Words have always been the way that I understand humanity, and the way that I express my own feelings. It’s a way we can build a bridge together and not feel so isolated, a way to understand each other. I love Stormzy’s message. I love what he’s doing for the culture, for young people. I love the lyricism of his music and what he is doing for literature. It’s intelligent, its clever, but it doesnt lose its roots. Its very now, it shows how you can be a multi facated human being, you can be hard and you can be sensitive at the same time, you can care about politics.”
JOSHUA BUATSI, 25, CHAMPIONSHIP BOXER
Olympic bronze medal winner, Joshua Buatsi is the boxing world’s next big thing – just ask his manager, Anthony Joshua, the current world heavyweight champion.
“When I moved from Ghana to Manchester it was so different. It snowed that year and for the first time I was surrounded by more white people than black people. I like the diversity in London - you see black, caucasian and Asian people living alongside eachother. I started boxing when I was 15 at an estate called Shrublands in Croydon. My best mate bought gloves, we tried them on and sparred eachother, I thought “Ok, I like this sport, I want to learn this skill”. I instantly loved the individuality of the sport, you get into the ring and everything is based on you. America used to be where it was at for boxing, but now with Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte, Americans want to be fighting here, it’s an amazing time to be British.”
TIANA MAJOR9, SINGER/SONGWRITER
Tiana Major9 is the sound of British soul. The singer-songwriter has already won our hearts with her hit single, Merry Go, earlier this year.
“Stormzy first reached out to me on Twitter after seeing one of my videos online. If he likes something he likes it, it doesn’t matter if someone's up and coming or already established.
I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, but I’m really into new school jazz as well like Ezra collective. I’ve always wanted to bridge the gap between older and young people because jazz is for everyone, and it’s influence is everywhere whether people realise it or not.”
DINA ASHER-SMITH, 23, WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SPRINTER
Dina Asher-Smith is Britian's fastest woman, holding the British records in the 100 and 200 metres. She also loved fashion and walked for Virgil Abloh’s Off-White during Paris Style Week.
“ It feels like there’s a shift with women in sports happening now because there’s so much focus on them right now. That’s why I’m honored and grateful to Stormzy for choosing me as part of this British talent group. I love that somebody in a completely different industry can recognise that you are doing well in yours. I listened <To Big For Your Boots> before I went into my 200 final at the European Championships [where she won gold and broke the British record] – it’s the right tempo, the right energy that I need going into a race, especially a sprint race.”
DAMSON IDRIS, 27, ACTOR
Damson Idris is the actor that will be all over your screens next year — as he’s currently filming a re-boot of, The Twilight Zone.
“There are so many young people today, particularly where I’m from in South London who are lost and don’t have a lot of role models. Now we have the opportunity to project that onto our youth and show them, ‘here we are. we’re come a long way and we came from where you are now, so you can get to this place too’. Now my main calling - however far I get in the industry - is to scream Peckham! I want let everyone know from that estate where I grew up, Dursley Court, North Peckham - that they can get to where I’ve got to too. If you don’t know where you came from you never know where you’ll go.”
TEMI MWALE, ACTIVIST
Temi Mwale is an activist who set up in 2012 to empower young people and their communities to live free from violence.
“Stormzy reached out to me earlier this year, he saw a Ted X talk I did about ending youth violence, and some of the solutions I was putting forward for victims of violence resonated with him and he got in touch on Twitter. We met a few times, he actually did end up coming to my estate which was crazy. A lot of the younger boys in our estate are making music at the moment and their videos are doing well, but my community is very neglected and abandoned so we have been fighting locally just to even have resources to have spaces for young people who are affected by violence and using that as a model to show what other work could happen around the country. I believe in being embedded in a community, a tight knit community, seeing everybody and building long term relationships with young people – that is the model that we promote.”
JOURDAN DUNN, MODEL
A lot has changed in the twelve years since Jourdan Dunn was scouted in her local Primark. Back in 2006, the then sixteen-year-old was studying for her GCSEs and had no aspirations of becoming a model. A decade later , at 28, she’s walked for everyone from Burberry to Off White, landed campaigns with Calzedonia, Maybelline, Yves Saint Laurent and more, as well as starring in music videos with Beyonce and launching a children's line with Marks and Spencers. Entrepreneur, designer, icon, mother and role model: Jourdan is leading a new generation of supermodels who are known not just for their looks but for their voice and their actions. Throughout her career Jourdan has been honest and vocal about her experiences in the fashion industry. “I remember going to shows when I first started, and backstage I would be the only black model” she says. “I’d turn up to castings that I really cared about, only to be told I didn’t get the show because they didn’t want to have a black girl in it.” Committed to calling out injustice and shaking up the fashion industry, Jourdan has changed what it means to be a supermodel. During LouisvuittonShop’s cover shoot, we caught up with her to chat self-care, selfies and why it's a great time to be British.
I Was The First Black Model To Walk The Prada Runway In A Decade. That show [Prada A/W2008 catwalk show] helped my career, but it was also sad because it highlighted the lack of diversity on runways and on magazine covers. Now it has definitely improved, when I go to a show in London it’s amazing to see such a wide range of different faces. Everyone talks about diversity in terms of models, but the changes need to be industry-wide. It’s about hair and makeup and stylists and editors and photographers; these are the things that really do matter, the whole thing is connected and we need to be represented in those areas too, that’s the conversation we need to have.
Everyone Wants To Be Included, That’s Just Normal. The other day I saw an IKEA advert and I got excited because it had a black family with natural hair, that’s a big moment, that represents a family in the UK, and seeing adverts with a diverse cast is important. Growing up I never saw commercials like that, you can’t hide that we’re here, and we need to be represented.
I Want To Let People Know I Have Struggles Too, I Am Just Like You. It’s easy to look on Instagram and think someone has a perfect career or family life or social life but everyone goes through different emotions. I guess people look at models on Instagram as if they’re untouchable and not human. Getting told that you’re a role model is such a heavy thing like I said I’m just trying to be responsible for myself but at the same time, I get it, I know that I have women and young girls that look up to me, so I want to be my best self and my true self and it’s not all day every day glam and perfect selfies.
We Have To Realise That Self Care Isn’t Selfish. We have to look after ourselves or we won’t be able to function. I have a son that looks up to me and I’ve realised if I come home from work or travelling and I’m exhausted he picks up on that energy and think that it’s because of him, I have to make sure that I take five minutes just to breathe. I still feel like a work-in-progress and I have to look after myself, because if I don’t I find that I’m not the best mother, sister, model or friend. Those little moments of zoning out are so important for me.
It’s An Amazing Time Be British. Our music is doing big things and we really have our own style - look at [UK rappers] Dave and Fedo getting to number one. From Adele and Ed Sheeran to J-Hus everyone is having their moment and America is looking to British music. I meet so many people around the world, but I just love British humour and it really does get you far!
I’m Optimistic About The Future Of Britain. I have to be because I have a child, but I also feel like the youth today have such a strong voice and the future is in good hands.
This Shoot Will Be Iconic. Everyone wanted to come together and work together and that’s so important. Before I felt like it was [an attitude of] every man for himself, but it shows that we’ve become this young black, British collective. Every one of us represents someone’s story; I’m representing the mums!
This article appears in the February 2019 edition of LouisvuittonShop UK.