meet stormzy, i-D's first grime cover star
Stormzy is one of the leading voices in Britain’s most vital music scene. As grime rises to greater heights, and he prepares to release his debut album, we celebrate the MC from south London whose self-made rise to the top has been impressively...
Stormzy wears T-shirt Thames.
It was written, Michael Omari's success. It was written long before he became Stormzy. It was written long before he released Shut Up or Know Me From. It was written before the MOBO, AIM, and Rated awards. It was written before the 100 million plus YouTube hits, gigs around the globe, top 10 hits, talks at Oxford University, endorsement deals with adidas, launches with David Beckham, and birthday parties at Thorpe Park. Before Ibiza residencies and boxing matches with Anthony Joshua, acting roles in Brotherhood, and watching Soccer AM on a fan's sofa in south London, it was written. Maybe it was written when he shed the skin of Michael to become Stormzy. It was written maybe even before that, in the womb of his mother, Mrs. Abigail Owuo. It was written because, like grime, Stormzy was simply meant to be. It was written because he wrote it and because he believes it. It was written and it's still being written.
"I always tell people it's God's plan. I say this as a normal man, I'm not a mad raving, religious crazy, I'm an intelligent yute, I've got a level-head. But this is God. You might think otherwise and that's cool because I understand that for some people it's hard to give glory to this God, or an idea of God. But my journey has been mental and there are things that are unexplainable and the only way I can explain all these things that happen — the only way — is that God's got me. It's God."
Michael Omari stands on his Chelsea balcony that overlooks (if the facing blocks of flats didn't obstruct the view) the River Thames, the almighty city of London stretched before him. The city that made him, Michael Omari, Abigail's son, a black boy from south London from a single parent, Christian family, two older sisters, one younger brother, one absent dad, a cab driver who Omari would occasionally see driving around the streets of Thornton Heath. "I feel sorry for him, not in a patronizing way, but he is the one missing out on a relationship," he shrugs, adding that he doesn't dwell on a lack of father figure because he's good, his family is good, life is good and, besides, he had Abigail. "My mom made up for it, she did a great job. I didn't ever feel like I lacked something in life," he insists, now spread on the sofa, topless on the hottest day of the year, waving goodbye to his girlfriend, the DJ and presenter Maya Jama. "We march on, innit. You can't stop. We bounce, we cool, we keep it moving."
Big Mike (he's 6'5") and his elder sisters excelled at school but were still, by his own accounts, "little shits," getting expelled and occasionally arrested for fighting. "We put her through madness," he says of the Ghanaian Mrs. Owuo. "Three of your oldest children on fuckerie, getting nicked, terrorizing people, madness." When i-D accompanied Stormzy to his Oxford University lecture earlier in the year, Abigail was practically bursting with pride. "My mom's just a bit of a G you know, if I'm being honest, she's just different," he decides. "She's always very understanding. She's always been a special case. She's so supportive. When I was getting good grades in school, she was gassed. When I got a job, she was gassed. So this is all just an extension of that. She's always been proud, she's always rooted for me."
Three years ago Omari was working as an engineer on an oil refinery off the coast of Southampton. Michael was Mike, doing his 9-5, trying to focus on a job that kept him out of trouble and made his mom proud. It wasn't his first choice of career, engineering, it was more happenstance. "I applied for loads of jobs, got an apprenticeship, and ran with it. But I was rubbish at it, I didn't have a clue what I was doing." It was on top of that rig that Omari started to feel an unstoppable pull back not only to London, but to what he loved most. Music. "It's such a spiritual thing to me. I couldn't not make music. I don't think there's a better feeling in the world than having an emotion in your head, and getting it out through music. That can't be beaten. It's therapeutic. Even if I wasn't a full-time musician, I'd have to be doing music in some way or form to get all this out. It's a release, music is my release."
So he returned home, literally and metaphorically, and the rest, as the cliché goes is history. He put out a couple of freestyles that were initially more road rap than grime before committing himself fully to the world of 140BPM. Unconcerned with convention, he rapped about domestic abuse and decided to sing too, even covering Bieber at one point. He quickly found an audience — a large one — hungry for new blood. The grime scene was about to enter its renaissance and Stormzy slotted in with impeccable timing. In the space of two years, he has accelerated far beyond not only his peers but his predecessors too. You could spend hours trying to distill the secret of Stormzy's success. The music is first and foremost a brilliant blend of chant-worthy one-liners teamed with straight spraying that has won him the love of students, grime heads, pop fans, and his contemporaries; early endorsements from Wiley and Skepta came thick and fast. You might wonder if he strategized his way to the top, perfectly perfecting the art of social media, positioning himself as the ultimate lad with ultimate bants — relatable, touchable like Adele or Ed Sheeran, and as talented as them too. It's not uncommon to see Stormz on Snapchat taking Maya, who he met at Red Bull Culture Clash in 2014, to the cinema or taking the piss out of Krept & Konan for signing a deal with Puma (he's fully adidas endorsed). This is a guy who, just like his fans, takes an easyJet flight to Ibiza — only he's playing and they're paying. "But I'm human," he protests. "Since when did signing up for this make me not human? I didn't know that was the deal. I can't go Nando's with the boys no more? I can't play fight with my bredrins no more?" So no part of this is a strategy? He didn't study the game and set out to manipulate social media to his favor? "You see the human, there can't be strategy in the human," he counters immediately. "You're gonna fuck up. Say if your strategy is to be a gangsta rapper, to act like this and that, but if you ain't like this or that, you will get found out. Life is mad innit, and somewhere down the line, life will draw you out," he stops to change tack slightly. "If people want the honest truth, it was me being a bit scared. Me coming into the industry, there was so many characters and so many different types of artists that I didn't know where to fit in. So I decided I'm just gonna be myself. You know, on a shy one, like, fuck it. This is me and I'm gonna lay myself bare. This is me fuck it, but I can spit, I've got sick music, but this is me." What Stormzy is, what we all are, is an utterly unique sum of many parts. One minute he's telling haters to kiss his ass and rapping about "fingering girls in the park"; the next he's celebrating Maya with "Birthday Girl."
"My message is the message of a young, black 23-year-old don who came from nothing and who has made something of it and who is standing here as a human, a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a bredrin, a donut, a grumpy, angry miserable c*nt sometimes, a happy, silly skanking breakdancing idiot at other times. I feel like that's my message to the world. This is me and I hope you take inspiration from that in whatever way that you choose. Whatever way that is. That's how I will contribute to the world, I think."
An MC. An actor. A spokesperson. A leader. A man of the people. A trailblazer and a groundbreaker. An iconoclast in the making. He also has a point of view and isn't afraid to share it via Twitter or Insta, or even in interviews. "It's important to me to express my opinion cos I'm a black boy. I'm a black man," he corrects himself. "If I see a situation and I ignore it. I'm very fake. Because if I've seen a situation and I've felt outrage, and I don't voice it, then I'm a part of the problem. So I have to stand up. I'm not going to wait until something happens to me or my loved ones before I speak out about it, cos that's not cool. Do I wait before it becomes a trend here until I speak up? Until it's my sisters that don't get let into DSTRKT? Until our government start smoking black people — 'oh now I'm angry cos it happened here, to me.' No, man's angry now, bruv." He's spoken out in the past about Syria too; you sense he's able to be empathetic to those he has everything — and nothing — in common with. But is he ready to really get stuck in, perhaps get more political through his music, attend rallies, protest with the people, maybe even lead the people?
"I don't know my role in this. I don't know if I'm going to write a song that sparks crazy change. I don't know how I'm going to contribute to the solving of this problem. But I do know that I'm ready. I'm ready to be used. I'm ready to be active. I see myself as soldier. People need to realize, that's cool too. You don't always have to be the general leading everyone to the Promised Land. There's a flippin' don somewhere who's got the political knowhow and he'll come with the plan and I'll be ready. I don't know where the answers are, but wherever they are, I'm ready to be a soldier. I'm ready to do my bit."
Before all that though, Stormzy has to release his debut album. While it's still in the works, being shaped and sculpted by the likes of Swifta Beater and Zdot, he points out that his first official album (if we don't count the excellent Dreamers Disease EP) is already unusual because his path has been so unique. "So much has already happened and I'm still on album one. Maybe I should be on my second album now but I'm not, this is where I am. Most people's first albums, they're not talking about touring the world and winning awards. I was meant to still be in the ends with this one. So my album is a treasure in itself because it's coming from such an unusual position as a debut." You sense the record is still being ruminated upon, that he's reluctant to give too much away just yet. But he knows one thing; it's going to be pure, unadulterated, 100% Stormzy. "I can't wait to get it out. I want to give the world a body of work that is Stormzy. That you can refer to it and say it's Stormzy, in the same way you look at Illmatic and say that's Nas or
Boy in da Corner and that was Dizzee, an aggy little shit with a bone to pick. So for me, you will hear Stormzy the son, the boyfriend, the brother, the bredrin, all of it. I will give you a moment in time in music."
He heads back onto the balcony to smoke a zoot. Here he is, nine miles and a world away from those humble Thornton Heath beginnings, here he is, September 2016, grime's hottest new star. Music's new number one favorite. A champ, yes, but the people's champ. "It's mad," he laughs. "Mad. It's like, thank you, thank you for putting me in this position and let me prove now why I'm in this position. Let me make some incredible music. Let me show you why I'm sick. Let me show you why you're still rooting for me. Because I got this, I'm going to deliver." He's got it and he's holding on tight. And why wouldn't he? Who wouldn't want this life? A grime star that loves and is loved, waking up each day to a new surprise, a new challenge, another unexpected victory. "I'm just trying to live, to be honest," Stormzy insists. "I'm just trying to do my bit. That's all anyone can do. Do my bit and have a fucking good time while I'm doing it."
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Oliver Hadlee Pearch
Styling Max Clark
Hair Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group using Wella Professionals. Make-up Chiho Omae at Frank Reps using MAC Cosmetics. Nail Technician Riwako Kobatashi at MAM-NYC using Dior Vernis. Photography Assistance David Hans Coke, Jason Acton. Styling assistance Bojana Kozarevic.