Of Grace and Grime by Dan Bowman
It’s not the musical genre one would immediately associate with declarations of faith, but the history of rap and hip hop is intrinsically linked to religion. At the forefront of the modern movement is grime superstar Stormzy, who is refusing to compromise on his beliefs as he makes his way to the top of the music world.
“I’m blinded by your grace…” comes the soft vocal refrain, complementing the traditional gospel chords that sit behind the eponymous lyrics. It’s a moment of striking spirituality among one of 2017’s standout albums, but the hymn-like tune’s sonic surroundings are, on the face of it, far removed from anything that might be heard in church on a Sunday morning.
The album is Gang Signs & Prayer; the artist Michael Omari Jr, aka Stormzy, the Croydon-based rapper at the forefront of the UK grime movement. The stripped back and sub-three-minute ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt 1’ may appear to sit incongruously among Stormzy’s more recognisable work, the uptempo ‘Bad Boys’ and the bombastically relentless ‘Big For Your Boots’.
But ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt 1’ and its anthemic sequel further down the running order channel a very different image of the MC who has taken the grime genre to the mainstream.
“I needed to make an album that represented me, which was always going to be a struggle,” he explained to The Fader earlier this year. “I wanted to touch on the gospel side of things, and my faith, because that’s so integral to my character. And the other side of my life – growing up in the streets, doing the things I’ve done with the people I was with, that is also a very integral part of me. I’m not a one-dimensional character.”
At just 24, Stormzy has gone from a freestyle sensation to a giant of the British music scene who regularly rubs shoulders with the likes of Adele and Ed Sheeran. The contrasting images of Gang Signs & Prayer have encapsulated what makes this MC stand out from the crowd – he’s as open about his faith as he is about the time when he lost his way and strayed into dangerous territories. “I was a good boy in primary [school],” he told The Guardian prior to the album’s release. “Then I was a bad boy.”
Even the album sleeve is a mix of gangland and gospel iconography. Standing at a laid table with a host of balaclava-clad men behind him, the image explicitly conjures Da Vinci’s representation of The Last Supper. Its immediate impact on grime fans, Christian scholars and historians alike serves only to further underline the young Londoner’s ability to subvert expectations. The 6’5” performer is positioned front and centre, reminiscent of Jesus himself in Da Vinci’s rendering. Explicit comparison to Christ may well be reductive in this instance, but there’s certainly no doubt that Stormzy is a towering figure in current British culture, not least in his position as a role model to a vast swathe of young black men.
“The main thing with me is my young black kings,” he told The Guardian. “And this ain’t to ostracise young black women or old white men, or Asians, it’s not to ostracise anyone. It’s just to say, ‘OK, young black men in my country, when it comes to who is going to achieve, you are always the very last.’ So I need to talk to my young black kings, because I’m one of you, we who are always last.
“And I say to them, ‘You are sick, you’re nang, you can do this. You’re better than anything anyone’s ever told you that you are. You’re just as powerful as me. You’re just as sick as me. You are just as ambitious, and you can be just as creative and as incredible and as amazing as me, Kanye West, Drake, Frank Ocean, all these people that you see. You can do that.’”
This element of social awareness has always been a part of hip hop and rap culture, from Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ to Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed 2015 effort ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. For Stormzy, the overtly political tone of some of Gang Signs & Prayer provided the realisation that he has come far in such a short length of time. He is no longer known for being the first unsigned artist to appear on Later… with Jools Holland (an impressive feat in itself) – he is now a Brit Award nominee with a UK Number One album and a wide-reaching influence, as referenced on Gang Signs’ second track, ‘Cold’.
“My favourite line is: ‘All my young black kings rise up / Man this is our year / And my young black queens right there / It’s been a long time coming I swear.’ I just love the fact that I can say that on the tune, and it can resonate. ‘Cold’ was a turning point for me, because I figured out how to approach grime differently. It isn’t a political ‘conscious rap’ song – it’s a bubbly, fun, vibrant grime track. But with that one message, it becomes bigger than a song; it becomes bigger than me.”
So too is Stormzy’s faith a concept that goes far further than his own desire to wear a heart on a sleeve in musical endeavours. It’s this belief that links the young MC’s family – his mother was a regular visitor to a Pentecostal chapel in Streatham – and his African heritage. And if the former part of ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ is intriguing in its un-electronic rawness, the concluding part – six tracks later and featuring singer-songwriter MNEK – combines rap, organ and overdubbed choral vocals in a powerful expression of faith so clearly influenced by his days in church.
“Offering faith and humility is something we’ve all got to learn to do. I’ve seen it from within the walls and outside too, and that’s a big part of my message. It’s believing in being looked over, but also believing we can all achieve what we want despite the setbacks and prejudices that life throws at us.
“It’s a spiritual way I am trying to communicate with people – music has always been spiritual to me and grime, as a medium, is the perfect tool. It’s spoken word, it’s my own sermon.”
If ‘Cold’ subtly showcased Stormzy’s cultural consciousness, there’s no such understatement on Blinded By Your Grace, Pt 2. “Although I’m not worthy / You fixed me” he raps, before later adding: “This is God’s plan, they can never stop this … You saved this kid and I’m not your first / It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth / But oh my God what a God I serve.”
“I’m lucky to be where I am now with my career,” he continues. “I hustled and struggled, then everything just happened at the right time. It was all God’s timing, but my work. God, my family and being real are the most important things to me. Everything else comes second.”
But although there is a clear relationship between rap and religion, there’s also a sense that what Stormzy, Kendrick and the like represent is a modern incarnation of Christian music – and it is not without its stumbling blocks for the more traditional churchgoer. There’s plenty of profanity, for example, and Stormzy’s background makes it impossible to dismiss the fact that as a young man in London he was involved in crimes ranging from drug-dealing to robbery.
In Stormzy’s case, the uplifting nature of ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ (not to mention its clear titular connection to ‘Amazing Grace’) is indicative of the young man’s redemption. Despite the arguably un-Christian elements of grime, and by extension rap music, his rise to prominence has been based on a deep faith regardless of his own shortcomings, battling prejudice, an impossibly complex music industry and the perils of depression too, a subject he has been extremely vocal about of late. “You know, the reality is we all have things going on in the background, and they are challenges of life. It doesn’t matter where you live, what you do, or how much money you have in the bank, life is full of challenges and through speech, music and communication I’ve always believed we can overcome the ills.”
Help from a higher source certainly fits that equation. “One of the things that I’m most impressed by, in God, is the grace that he has,” he told The Guardian. “No matter what we do, there’s always this, ‘OK, it’s fine. I understand.’ That’s not to say I can go out and do something bad … But just that knowing that someone’s got you throughout anything, and they’re not going to judge you, they’re just going to understand your situation – that grace.”
Five months have passed since the release of Gang Signs & Prayer, and Stormzy by no means shows any sign of slowing down or letting up. In 2014, grime pioneer Wiley tweeted that Stormzy was the “#1 grime don in this new era”, imploring him to take the genre “to where we couldn’t”. A triumphant set at this year’s Glastonbury Festival – played to an estimated crowd of 30,000 – attests to Stormzy’s desire to do just that; while his involvement in the opening bars of Simon Cowell’s charity single for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster highlights his current cultural significance.
“I find it strange and uncomfortable to aim for anything less than the greatest. That doesn’t even make sense for me, that. If I was going to be an engineer or I was going to be a baker or I was going to be a fireman, why would I not aim to eventually be the greatest at my job? I’ve never understood why I should just try and be the best rapper in London, or even the best rapper in the UK. I don’t want to be the best rapper in the UK. I want to be the best artist in the UK.
“That takes my competitors from 20 people to 100 people, because now they’re indie bands, female singers, soul singers, legends, rock icons that I’m competing with. In my head I’m like, ‘Why can’t I compete with them? Why can’t Stormzy from south London do that as well?’”
There will always be two duelling and composite parts to Stormzy’s personality – and as Gang Signs & Prayer proves beyond doubt, he’s as likely to set aside his faith in the quest for sonic domination as he is to give up those gritty and heartfelt depictions of urban life.
Wiley and the like may have passed the baton to this Croydon-based upstart to take the musical genre to places it’s never gone before – from Jools Holland’s stage to the Brit Awards and, quite possibly, if organiser Emily Eavis is to be believed, a future Glastonbury headline slot. And wherever he goes, it’s not just grime that goes with him into the mainstream, but also the unflinching faith that Stormzy has already taken on his shoulders all the way to number one.