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 swearStormzy, ‘Cold’ from Gang Signs & Prayer (2017)
Stormzy’s biography, Rise Up: the #merky story so far, is something a bit different to the more literary stuff I’ve reviewed so far on this blog. My view? Interesting, funny and thoroughly recommended.
If I’m being honest, man don’t work with clowns.Stormzy
Rise Up describes Stormzy’s background and start of his career in the early 2010s, his rise to prominence with hits like ‘Shut Up’ (“just went to the park with my friends and I charted” as he says in ‘Cold’) and how he produced his first studio album Gang Signs & Prayer.
This is not a typical ghostwritten (auto)biography, but rather a series of interviews with Stormzy and his team which have been cut up and ordered into a coherent narrative. I found it very easy to read, and very interesting context to understanding the career and background of one of the major icons of contemporary British culture.
You get a really good sense of the tough, competitive environment Stormzy grew up in, everyone fighting for the mic, MCs like Dizzee Rascal breaking free of the pack. You hear from the team around Stormzy, his DJ, DJ TiiNY, his manager, Tobe Onwuka, his publicist, Rachel Campbell and many others. When Stormzy himself speaks it’s electric; his mindset and strength of character shine through. For example, he says about starting out:
We know where we’re from. We’re from a place where no one is coming to help us. The government isn’t coming to help us. No one is coming to help us. We know as young black people from the ends [South London] that we are at a disadvantage. We’ve known that for a long time. And if you know that, and you come from it, don’t continue it. Break the cycle.Stormzy
I was recommended this partly as a business book, and there are plenty of pithy and inspiring takeaways from those who helped make the #merky brand the success it is today:
When I joined 1Xtra I was fearless – the kind of fearlessness that you look back on and sometimes cringe about. But I’d spent hundreds and hundreds of hours listening to music and burning CDs. I was prepared. When preparation meets luck, that’s when amazing things happen.Austin Daboh Head of Editorial, Spotify UK.
As well as thoughtful comments from the ‘ghostwriter’ Jude Yawson:
The question is, should you work to be a part of something, or work to create something new?
The section I most enjoyed reading was on how Gang Signs & Prayer came about. The chapter really gets into the background to each song, the process of production and what Stormzy went through in the ten month over which it was created. I’ve listened to the album about half a dozen times over the last couple of weeks – it gets better each time.
EDIT (16 Oct 2022): The recently-released video for ‘Mel Made Me Do It’ (here) is a masterpiece (Look out for Usain Bolt). He’s also just announced his upcoming third album This Is What I Mean, which is coming out on 25 November 2022; get excited.