"It's like a battle with two demons inside of you. Am I gonna make the right decision? Am I gonna make the wrong decision?" Stormzy asks himself in the opening monologue to his short film, Gang Signs & Prayer. Across the album, themes of religion and masculinity were overt and the anecdotal stories Stormzy told about growing up in the hood were candid. However, one theme overlooked until the release of the film is working class black male adolescence, and the life changing decisions that often lead to unacknowledged trauma and pain.
Released exclusively through YouTube, Stormzy has delivered a sharp and harrowing short film, directed by acclaimed music video director Rollo Jackson. This comes after a rollercoaster year which saw Stormzy reach Gold status, after GSAP went to No.1 in February. The two struck an unlikely bond after working together on the 'First Never Follows' Adidas Football campaign, but it's through a shared understanding of what Stormzy wanted to achieve that allowed them to bring GSAP the film – which was to allow young people to see they have control over their own destinies, despite external roadblocks and barriers – to life.
Speaking to the audience in attendance at the film's premiere at the YouTube Space in London, Stormzy reiterated that the story he was telling with the GSAP film wasn't your typical 'good kid gone bad' narrative. It's the easy narrative to go for and it's clear Stormzy aimed to avoid falling into the cliched 'hood film' trope. All you have to do is look at Adulthood sequel, Brotherhood (which Stormzy also appeared in), to see how these films can often rely too heavily on over-familiar stereotypes without interrogation or any deeper social commentary.
In order to understand the direction of the film, it's important to grasp the layered meaning behind Gang Signs & Prayer. "For gang signs, it's like the temptation to react, or the temptation to act on something, most of the time you know that you're not meant to," Stormzy describes in a limited edition zine, given out at the screening. In the film we see Thomas, the lead protagonist, portrayed by both Abdul Basit Ayanwusi and David Alade, struggle with decisions constantly placed before him. Taking the 'coming of age' approach, Jackson subtly depicts Thomas at various points in his life and focuses in on the protagonist having agency over his own decisions.
The shots where we see Stormzy surrounded by a maze of pastel-coloured buildings convey a sense of respite and ease. Juxtaposed against the hard, abrasiveness of the council estate, you get a sense through the scenes where we see Stormzy alone – which were shot in Spain – that he's found comfort and understanding in who he is today. Of course the demons we have, whatever they may be, never fully leave us – but with Stormzy staring down the camera, we see a man who has let go of many of his worldly fears through prayer. Some may find the religious messages in Stormzy's music overbearing but rather than project, he shows us how prayer works in his life. The choices Thomas makes in the film suggest that prayer can't save, but can provide clarity and solace, helping someone to make wise decisions – to do wrong or do right.
One scene in particular stands out: near the beginning, in a barbershop, Anthony Taylor's Tony gifts young 'T', or Thomas, with a life lesson to never let anyone disrespect him. For a lot of people, the barbershop scenes would've conjured up distant and recent memories of sitting and listening to older men in the community tell us about the world they grew up in. The presence of barbershops in the lives of young black men is important: we sit, we laugh at memorable stories and listen to elders impart their knowledge and understanding of the world onto us. In some ways, barbershops provide black men the necessary space the world seldom affords us where we are able to vent, laugh, educate, cavort, comfort and sometimes confront.
Outside of sport, there aren't many social settings where black men are able to congregate and engage in such a way. While pub culture is a part of the fabric of Britishness, black people have often found themselves alienated from establishments – notoriously so in the '80s – so we go to the barber. It's where black boys are indoctrinated into the world of men that look like them, through conversations about football, women and everything in between. Comedy films such as Barbershop convey the community that can be found in getting your haircut. Yet, while the barbershop scene is significant, the masterstroke with the GSAP film is the bitter truth that, sometimes, community doesn't have your best interests at heart.
Throughout GSAP, 'T' is met with his own solitude on rooftops and in stairwells, perhaps pointing to signs of depression, especially as black men are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious mental health condition. On the album, Stormzy detailed his own experiences with depression, something that has been a common theme in grime since Dizzee Rascal's contemplative "Sittin' Here". By taking himself out of focus in the film and instead zeroing in on 'T', he allows those that can relate to the experience to see themselves in it.
Delve a little deeper, exploring the intricacies of barbershop dynamics within the framework of black masculinity and the picture becomes blurred and serpentine. Although the barbershop scenes show a sense of community, the scene where we see an older Thomas talking to Tony in his car, we see how young boys are often indoctrinated into toxic ways of thinking by what's often seen to be encouragement. The soil in which black British masculinity is left to thrive is often infertile due to both hypermasculinity and racism, giving us little room to manoeuvre and live our own truths. The release of this film depicts those inner conflicts that many young black men from working-class face.
Conceptually, the film adds greater depth and meaning to Gang Signs & Prayer. Stormzy gave life to many of the scenarios imagined on songs such as "Bad Boys", which allow us to see our own truths in his, of how every decision he makes is rooted firmly in his faith. However whether it's the detailing of masculinity, religion or friendship, the biggest takeaway from the film is the idea each one of us is in control of our life. We can make our own choices and live with them. As Stormzy says at one point: "Young youts like myself, that grow up in the hood, we often don't know that we are actually the masters of our own destiny". By presenting this concept in such a high quality, high art format, he gives weight to the idea that when you follow your gut instinct and make the right decisions, greatness will always be on the way.
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