June 28, 2019. Glastonbury Festival, England’s premier music festival and a pilgrimage site for 135,000 music fans.
The festival’s storied Pyramid Stage is prepared to host one of the most important events in its 50-year history—the coronation of a grime king. Before the British heir graces the stage, JAY-Z, King of Brooklyn and beyond, offers his blessing on screen: “The world is ready for it. When you step on that stage, you’re gonna see it. That’s culture. Culture moves the world.”
We’ve seen the culture-shifting power of a singular performance before, like Beyoncé’s homecoming at Coachella in 2018 or Kendrick Lamar’s political BET Awards spot in 2015. When Stormzy steps on the Glastonbury stage, like those artists before him, the impact is historic. Never before has a black British artist headlined the iconic music festival. Then again, never previously has a British grime artist earned a headlining spot more than Stormzy, whose 2017 album, Gang Signs & Prayer, became the first number one grime album in history.
The 26-year-old rapper proved his technical skill and charisma through years of hard work. Finally, at Glastonbury, the artist born Michael Omari was crowned King Stormzy, first of his name, the new voice of the culture and ambassador of British grime and hip-hop.
The new king, fitted with a knife-proof Union Jack vest designed by Banksy, could have used this cultural moment to boost his brand, build his ego, and flex his accomplishments. Instead, he addressed racial injustice and praised the diverse work of British artists around him. In a mid-set speech, Stormzy name-dropped 65 British rap artists, saying, “There’s been so many legends that have paved the way for me, but there’s a bag of us coming through right now.” Even at his coronation, Stormzy recognized a ruler’s need to lead with humility.
In the months to follow, the same humble attitude echoed as Stormzy explored what it means to wear the crown and lead the culture.
London rapper Wiley was the first to wear the crown. The “Godfather of Grime” pioneered the genre’s sound and set the initial tone for a community-minded culture. “I’ve realized recently that that’s why I’m the godfather,” Wiley told The Guardian. “Because I think about all of us. In a way, your ideal priority would be just yourself, your manager, and your team. I can’t think that way.”
You can’t have a conversation about British hip-hop and grime without Wiley, and yet he never reached the commercial success and widespread influence Stormzy is currently experiencing.
Next in grime’s royal lineage is Tottenham’s Skepta. The self-proclaimed “King of Grime” has been a leading voice and global grime ambassador for over a decade. For Skepta, wearing the crown means rejecting mainstream culture and remaining independent, which he’s accomplished over five studio releases. Skepta must see himself above the fray to create change, as he told Time Out:
“All the other rappers around me aren’t saying anything worthwhile. They’re lost in rap—all they do is tell you they’re a sick MC and they’re better than you. I don’t want to look like all these other little punk, dress-up, fake, manufactured artists. I’m not a rapper. I’m an activist.” —Skepta
Stormzy carries influence from Wiley and Skepta, both musically and in the way that they carry their crowns. Stormzy, however, sports a crown of humility, an instrument created for the common good rather than self-importance, intimidation, or individualism.
Six months following his coronation, Stormzy released his second studio album, Heavy Is the Head. With increased attention and a higher profile, the 26-year-old could have crafted an album about his fame, accolades, and status. Instead, he offers an honest look into his life on Heavy Is the Head—his anxieties, missteps, passions, and relationships. He does so in the pursuit of humility, hoping to empower the world around him instead of siphon power from it.
The album’s title, Heavy Is the Head, taken from the gospel-fueled single “Crown,” immerses us in the melancholy dread accompanying hip-hop kingship. “Bruddas wanna break me down, I can’t bear it / But heavy is the head with the crown, I still wear it,” Stormzy raps in the first verse. Competition is the driving force in the hip-hop game. Unfortunately, modeled by our capitalistic nature and idea of scarcity, this means artists striving for the top—or attempting to reclaim the position—seek to attack those on the throne.
Since the release of Heavy is the Head, Wiley has attacked Stormzy on multiple occasions, releasing diss tracks and shaming him for collaborating with pop star Ed Sheeran. At the root of the conflict is a difference of opinion about what it means to carry the crown and lead the culture. For Stormzy, it means shedding the power of self and humbly spreading it to the community around him (yes, even to Ed Sheeran).
With a heart not of conceit, but concern for community values, Stormzy fired back a stern rebuke of Wiley’s antics. On “Disappointed,” Stormzy accuses Wiley of not sticking up for the family.
“Where was you when your little bro was moving nervous? / You told me he deserved it” —Stormzy
On “Still Disappointed,” he again calls out Wiley for avoiding issues of local violence instead of opting to be a part of the solution.
“Let’s talk about why you moved your mum to Cyprus / That poor little woman was scared of the house ’cah you put her life in danger you prick.” —Stormzy
Stormzy’s humility isn’t synonymous with meekness. However, we shouldn’t misconstrue his jabs as self-seeking attempts to elevate his throne (though he’s certainly gained a lot of publicity through it). They demonstrate a desire to advance and protect the values of community and family Stormzy preaches on Heavy Is the Head.
On “Superheroes,” Stormzy redirects his spotlight onto others in the UK rap scene. “The way I tour the world, would’ve thought that I was Simz / See her on stage, I know that women can be kings / I know it’s fucked up, they’re overlookin’ what you bring,” he raps in the first verse.
The second verse continues, “The way I top charts, would’ve thought that I was Dave... Young, black king, you are everything and more.” It’s one thing to hype up your label or crewmates, as is commonplace in hip-hop. It’s another to freely promote other artists’ work without financial ties as Stormzy does with Little Simz and Dave.
Stormzy extends the spotlight to his own family as well. On “Rachael’s Little Brother,” he doesn’t allow his celebrity to look down on his family. On the contrary, he elevates his older sister, DJ Rachael Anson, and finds identity in their relationship. “That’s who I am,” Stormzy explained to Manny Norte in an interview on Capital XTRA. “I’m Stormz, I’m Michael, but I’m Rachael’s little brother.”
In the song’s heartwarming bridge section, Stormzy sings to his sister:
“If you were to go, I don’t know / You’re the only one who sweeps me off my feet / Makes my soul go weak / The only one that makes my heart want to beat.”
Newly-found fame can cause tension in familial relationships as pride and ego make it easy to forget one’s roots. Stormzy overcomes this vice on Heavy Is the Head. Instead, in humility, he draws closer to his family even while burning “down the rave-like Rachael Anson.”
Underlying Stormzy’s search for humility, devotion to community, and love of family is a dependence on God whom he prayerfully approaches throughout the record. On “Do Better,” Stormzy confesses his fearful anxieties: “I see demons in my sleep, I need to sleep better / Having visions of my friends in RIP sweaters.” But in the shadow of death, Stormzy finds God’s peace, rapping, “But the holy blood of Christ, you don’t ever let me down.” Again, when faced with pain on “Rachael’s Little Brother,” he prays, “Father, help me through the pain / Father, be my shelter when it’s due to rain.”
Humility is asking for help, whether it’s from God, your family, your friends, or a counselor. Humility is the loyalty it takes to love the people around you. Humility is the selflessness to grab an audience’s attention and lift up someone else, not yourself. Humility is revolutionary.
When we consider the bigger picture of success—God, family, community—there isn’t room for self-congratulatory pride. Whether we’re at the top of the rap game, or just mere observers, human nature pushes us to shoot for the crown and then do everything we can to keep it. Stormzy’s example, from his legendary performance at Glastonbury to the release of Heavy Is the Head, runs counter-cultural. As he invites us to participate in his journey under the crown, Stormzy encourages us to “Do Better,” to empower our communities and pursue humility wholeheartedly.