Guvna B – he’s the double-MOBO award-winning rapper who has shared the stage with rappers Tinie Tempah and Wretch 32, and performed all over the world at iconic venues including the O2, Wembley and the Emirates Stadium. He became the first rapper in history to top the Official Christian and Gospel Charts and holds mainstream records with his album Secret World being the highest selling ‘clean/non-explicit’ rap album in 2015. With accolades such as this to his name, you’d be forgiven for thinking Guvna B ‘popular.’ And yet, he doesn’t always feel this way. In fact, he doesn’t even want to.
In his debut book, Unpopular Culture, published by SPCK, Guvna B seeks to inspire young people to challenge the status quo: what if we chose to live differently to how society tells us to? What if we dared to be unpopular? Speaking to Sorted, Guvna B shares parts of his own journey, from his struggles to conform to society’s ‘norms’ and how, through his music, book and work in schools, he hopes to encourage a generation of courageous game-changers.
You speak in Unpopular Culture about feeling the pressure to conform to society. What would you say are the big pressures of the day? What do you feel society is telling us we ‘ought’ to be?
Guvna B: If I could sum up the big pressures of society, I would use the word ‘perfection’. Society pressures us to be perfect. To have perfect bodies, perfect personalities, perfect careers, perfect bank balances, perfect Instagram pictures, and the list goes on. Because of this, we can become self-centred and inward-looking, doing whatever it takes to attain perfection. What we sometimes forget is that nobody is perfect.
Now, I’m not saying that we should be totally content with failures and never ever strive for better. Of course not, we should always strive to achieve more. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t be so obsessed with success that we become self-centred and uncompassionate towards others. I try and remind myself of that as much as possible. Another big pressure, and one I felt myself when I was younger, was the pressure to fit in. Now I’m a bit older I’m more comfortable in my own skin, but I think at any stage of life, sometimes the feeling of wanting to be accepted haunts us.
Can you recall a specific time in your own life where you have felt such pressures?
GB: The general consensus in the environment I grew up in was to look out for number one but I think I’ve always had a natural ability to look out for other people. Whenever I do something for someone that can’t do anything for me, I feel a strong sense of satisfaction. I remember a time when I was in my first year of secondary school, and someone in my class had forgotten their lunch money. He wasn’t a friend or anything, but when I heard about what had happened, something made me want to help him out. My dad used to give me money weekly, so I offered to sponsor this kid’s lunch as long as he’d pay me back the next day. My friend overhead the conversation and said in shock, “What you doing? If he forgot his money, then that’s his problem. You shouldn’t have to bail him out.” That’s a pretty simple example of society pressuring me, of me having to go against the grain.
Have you seen this pressure to conform play out in your adult life as well?
GB: I supported a mainstream act on tour quite a few years ago and it was really early in my career. I was a big fan of theirs, and so when they invited me to their dressing room after the show, I was pretty chuffed. There were a few other people there and we got chatting and the vibes were cool. Someone started to pass some weed around and at that point in my life I had never smoked a cigarette, let alone weed. It wasn’t because I had any strong thoughts on whether it was good for me or not, it was just something that had never interested me. In my young teenage mind, time moved slowly as the weed was getting closer to me, and I knew that I didn’t want to do it, but I feared saying no would make me an outcast, as it was such a norm in the music industry. When the drugs got round to me, I plucked up the courage to say, “No, I’m OK thanks.” No one really cared that I said no.
It actually sparked some good conversation because they realised I was different. I look back at that situation and laugh because sometimes we can try so hard to fit in, when what we should really want is for people to just accept us for who we are.
‘Who we are’ is often closely linked to where we are from – whether we choose to become or overcome the environment we grew up in. How was it growing up in your London E16 postcode?
GB: I loved growing up in east London. Custom House was diverse and there was a lot of love on my council estate. It was like a little family. We didn’t have a lot but we learned to make the most of what we did have. My mum always told me to count my blessings. If you focus on what you haven’t got, like the dream car, the dream house, the dream dog, you can begin to have a heart of resentment. But when you count your blessings and focus on what you have got, like a loving family, a roof over your head, food on your table, you begin to have a heart of gratitude.
You can’t escape the lack of opportunities though. Our parents weren’t well-off and the need in the area was great. My [local] friends … didn’t fancy going to school without decent trainers and clothes. We wanted disposable income so we looked at the role models around us for inspiration. Unfortunately, most of the people we looked up to were involved in illegal activity. I guess the lack of job opportunities available to them helped them to justify their behaviour. What happened was that our benchmark for success became the local drug dealer, or the most feared guy on the estate who had earned respect from gang activity. I was too scared to become either of those things, so I started to read about role models that were more positive, like Martin Luther King.
I loved growing up in E16, but I wish we saw more positive role models interacting with us and showing us a better way. It would have been great to see relatable politicians, lawyers, accountants, footballers and the rest. I think this would result in less knife crime, anti-social behaviour and poverty.
How do you approach what some would consider to be a very ‘tough’ industry as a man of faith?
GB: My faith makes it easier to navigate in this industry. There are some true greats that have blessed the music field. Whitney Houston, Jimmy Hendrix, Prince, Michael Jackson. When you look at how their lives tragically ended, it’s really sad. The music industry is non-stop. Constant recording, constant touring, constant appearances, and I guess most feel like they need some kind of drug to keep them going. My drug is faith. It gives me hope in the hard times and an unexplainable peace.
How have you felt the pressure to conform in this specific industry? How have you sought to do things differently?
GB: When you’re a man of faith, people can sometimes pigeonhole you as the ‘Christian guy’ or the ‘positive guy’ and the reality is that the masses don’t really care about that guy. That guy can be boring so some people can opt for the sex, drugs and rock and roll because that’s exciting. I don’t try and do things differently; I just try to be myself. I know that people need positivity, hope and faith in some way, shape or form, so no matter what the industry is doing, I just stick to my guns and try to inspire everyone that listens to my music or reads my book.
Can you explain in a bit more detail how your faith has inspired you to go against the grain?
GB: I was at a show a few years ago and after my set, a girl came up to me for a chat. She said that she had been self-harming pretty much every day for three years, but today was her last. She heard my songs and realised that even though life can take its toll, there’s hope. I’m going against the grain because I can see the difference it makes in people’s lives. My faith shapes my world view and I really believe that everyone on earth is special and here for a reason. I don’t think anyone is here by accident, so the reason I go against the grain is so people can realise that.
You have relatively recently been presented with your second MOBO award. How does it feel to have your music recognised in this way? How does being ‘popular’ in the music industry affect your identity?
GB: It obviously feels great to be recognised publicly and on a mainstream level. When you get to that point with the right values and character, it’s even more satisfying. It’s been a great experience getting my second MOBO and something that I can be very proud of. Being popular in the music industry isn’t a bad thing at all. I think it’s only dangerous if you find your value, self-worth and identity in it. If you place your identity in being successful in the music industry, it means that if things don’t work out or you run through a hard patch, you’ll feel worthless. I place my identity in my faith so it means that MOBO or no MOBO, I know God has my back. Every now and again, I try and remind myself of this. If my MOBOs got taken away and all the possessions and achievements I have, I’d be devastated, but life goes on and my value doesn’t lie in these things.
Many years have passed since you were that kind kid in school, but lately you’ve found yourself going back to school for a completely different reason. Can you explain a bit more about the work you are doing with young people there?
GB: I never had a big brother or big sister. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have made as many mistakes in my teens. I got suspended four times from school and I wasn’t really a bad kid, I just lived my life to impress people and was a bit of a class clown. Young people often have this idea that they can mess about and not really face up to the reality of life till they’re older. I know that if I [had] bucked up my ideas a lot earlier in life, I would have been able to take advantage of some great opportunities.
I go into schools to be that big brother for young people. I share my story and hope that it [will] encourage them to make wiser decisions and try to reach their full potential at every stage of their life. I run workshops on peer pressure, staying safe online, integrity and identity. I also run creative writing workshops as well as doing some one-on-one mentoring sessions. I love that side of what I do. Giving back to young people is a big passion of mine. I just want to see them all become the best they can be.
If you could offer one piece of advice to the younger generation of today, what would it be?
GB: I’d offer two bits of advice because I’m a rebel – ha! The first bit of advice is simple: love. The world is a pretty dark place at the moment. There’s a lot of suffering, pain and injustice. It’s so important to combat that with love. Love yourself, love your family, love each other. The sooner we stop tearing each other down, the sooner we can fill the world with more light.
The second bit of advice would be to find what you love and what you’re passionate about and start doing more of that. I don’t think we were born to just exist in history, I think we were born to create history. Never succumb to the mundane. I believe that God has greater things planned for all of us than we could ever imagine.