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When Stormzy launched into the opening bars of Shut Up at the O2 last Sunday — a thrilling flashpoint in the first of three incendiary homecoming gigs at London’s biggest arena — the 20,000-strong crowd roared along with such ferocity that it almost felt as if they could be heard in the spot seven-and-a-half miles away where the then-21-year-old MC first recorded the game-changing freestyle.

That was back in 2015, beside South Norwood Lake in south London, and the man we know today as a genre-leading, Glastonbury-headlining, chart-topping, book-publishing, university-granting titan of British culture was on the cusp of stardom.

Clad in a now-iconic, eye-popping red Adidas tracksuit, and geed up by a loyal cadre behind him, the Croydon-born rapper was firing on all cylinders, launching lyrical missiles towards anyone who doubted his potential for greatness. “How can you be better than me?” he would demand with a self-assured, enemy-crumbling smirk. “Shut up.”

He certainly had a lot to be confident about. He had already stormed the underground with his WickedSkengMan freestyle series, spitting bars over classic grime beats and posting the results on YouTube, but now he was ready to crack the mainstream. In 2014, he picked up a MOBO Award for Best Grime Act while also becoming the first ever unsigned rapper to appear on the institutional Later… with Jools Holland. Just a few weeks before Shut Up dropped, he found his official debut single, Know Me From, sat within the UK top 50.

All of which now seems almost insignificant for an artist whose ability to sell out three nights at the O2 was a foregone conclusion. But each achievement was ground-breaking in its own right. The grime scene, though born over a decade earlier and honed by some of the finest musicians this country has ever produced — Skepta, Kano, Ghetts, Wiley and the like — was still vying for its rightful place in the limelight. Still in need of someone to grab the public consciousness by the scruff of its neck and turn the movement into the culture-devouring behemoth it eventually became. Stormzy was that man.

But the revolution led by the south Londoner born Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr wasn’t just a musical one. His approach to mental health, pairing boasts with bare-hearted vulnerability in his lyrics, has helped to lay down a blueprint of modern masculinity. Like any great pioneer, artistic or otherwise, he’s ensured that any doors he smashes down are kept wide open for those behind him. And his lovable public persona — that infectious, full-chested laugh; the time he fangirled over Billie Eilish at the BRITs — has gone a long way to endearing him to fans far beyond the worlds of UK rap, too.

Still, it all began with music, even if his childhood home in South Norwood wasn’t a particularly musical one. “I would love to say I grew up on Tupac and the Beatles, but I didn’t,” he told the BBC in 2015. And so he immersed himself in the sound of London’s streets. “My generation, me and my friends, we grew up on grime,” he added, with inspiration coming not from the celebrity rappers on the other side of the Atlantic, but from the up-and-comers just a few streets away. Local grime artists a few years his senior, future MOBO winners Krept and Konan among them, were already making waves, which prompted an 11-year-old Michael to pick up the mic himself.

“Everyone else was older than us but I’d go on the mic and clash whole crews,” Stormzy recounted to Vice in 2014, remembering his time spent sharpening a prodigious talent while clashing with other MCs at a nearby youth club. “I’d be talking about their mums and all that. I remember people saying ‘This little yout’s hard!’ Any opportunity to spit, I’d spit. I’ve always had that hunger.”

That motivation wasn’t matched entirely during his time at Stanley Tech high school — he was, by his own admission, “a very naughty child” — but a natural intelligence was always apparent; six A*s and three As at GCSE don’t come by fluke. At sixth form, though, the exams became harder and the grades dropped, and he found himself studying for an apprenticeship before working at an oil refinery in Southampton.

It wasn’t his calling, and soon that itch for music started to become unignorable. He’d snatch moments to scribble down lyric ideas while his boss wasn’t watching. This grew into a habit of pulling sickies when he wanted to go and spit freestyles on the radio instead of working. By the spring of 2014, he’d jacked the job in altogether. Now, it was the music, all in.

The decision was a seismic one both for Stormzy and the music industry as a whole. Grime was beginning to drag its way back into the wider public consciousness — even if many fans will tell you that the scene never went away between its Noughties emergence and its mid-2010s “revival” — and it was Stormzy’s bulletproof lyrics, digital savvy and humongous youth appeal that really turned the tide.

The Shut Up freestyle went viral (122m YouTube views to date), and the fanbase started to swell beyond the confines of the M25, out into the suburbs, beyond borders and across oceans. His name started shooting towards the top of festival line-ups, and the headline shows were landing in bigger venues.

But then, in September 2016, things ground to an unexpected halt. A string of upcoming concerts were called off, and Stormzy stepped away from social media for a period of hiatus. It was a time, he revealed later, in which poor mental health and depressive episodes had begun to get the better of him. “For me,” he told Channel 4 after re-emerging to promote his new album in 2017, “it was a realisation of how fragile we are as humans.”

Those darker moments were explored on the album, Gang Signs and Prayer. “I know they see me climbin’ charts/ But plaques won’t help me find my heart,” he admitted on Lay Me Bare. His braggadocious side was still there — “Got the big size 12s on my feet/ Your face ain’t big for my boot”, he declared on the record’s lead single — but this was by all accounts a refreshed, mature Stormzy, one who had found a way to fuse his talents, his pitfalls and his potential into one superpower.

And it’s only gone up and up since then. GS&P became the first rap album to win British Album of the Year at the BRIT Awards — a groundbreaking win at a ceremony that had been rightly chastised for its monochromatic nominee lists in the past — and raced to number one in the charts. His follow-up album, Heavy Is The Head, achieved a similar feat, and spawned Stormzy’s first ever chart-topping single, Vossi Bop.

Stormzy at the MOBO Awards in 2017

/ Getty Images

And then, of course, there was Glastonbury. He may have fallen victim to a dodgy ear-piece during the performance, but for the 100,000-plus crowd watching in front of the Pyramid Stage, and the many more tuning in at home, you would never have known this all-conquering artist was in trouble. It was, without doubt, a headline slot for the ages — not least because he was the first Black British solo artist to do it.

His off-stage efforts have helped entrench him in the hearts of fans, too. He’s never shied away from making socially conscious, political statements;  his searing lyrical attack on Theresa May at the 2018 BRIT Awards, in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, sticks out in the memory. “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell? Just forgot about Grenfell, you criminals, and you got the cheek to call us savages, you should do some jail time, you should pay some damages, we should burn your house down and see if you can manage this,” he blasted in his closing freestyle.

Stormzy at the BRIT Awards in 2018

/ Getty Images

His publishing deal with Penguin Random House, which launched the #Merky Books imprint, has been guided by a dedication to “bold voices from untraditional spaces that are inclusive and intersectional” — and has picked up awards in the process. The Stormzy Scholarship, launched in 2018, has provided financial support to scores of Black students admitted to study at the University of Cambridge. And in the summer of 2020, Stormzy pledged £10m over the next decade to tackle racial inequality. “Black people have been playing on an uneven field for far too long and this pledge is a continuation in the fight to finally try and even it,” he said at the time.

If actions speak louder than words, then Stormzy’s yell proudly from the rooftops. So if anyone walking around that lake in south London did hear reverberations from the homecoming gig at the weekend, they won’t have been the only ones — the sound of his success has been heard throughout the world.

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