By now, most people know a version of the story. Stormzy enjoyed a ridiculous rise from London’s grime underground, freestyling on the city’s grey pavements in lo-fi videos, to a number 1 album with his February 2017 debut album Gang Signs & Prayer. Even if you’d not necessarily followed his ascent from the start, it would have been hard not to pay attention by 2017, when the now-25-year-old was grinning on national UK late night talk shows like Jonathan Ross, or hopping onstage with Ed Sheeran at the BRIT Awards. When he swept the BRITs on his own earlier this year, and gave an emotional solo performance ending under an indoor-rainfall rig, it felt as though his success was a given.
But, it’s been a journey. And he outlines as much in Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far, the first book out on his #Merky Books Penguin Random House imprint. Though it looks like a standard autobiography, from the title alone, inside it takes on a different structure. Consider Rise Up more like an oral history of Stormzy himself, with input from key members of his team plus other voices from the music industry who closely watched as his career bloomed. It's co-written and edited by Jude Lawson, and includes the voices of people like Stormzy's publicist, his manager Tobe Onwuka plus images courtesy of super-talented videographer Kaylum Dennis.
We've got an exclusive extract to share, ahead of the book's publication on Thursday 1 November, where Stormzy and Tobe are both sharing their memories of his big breakout year: 2016. He'd just pushed 2015 single "Shut Up" into the UK top 10, gunning for the Christmas number 1 (and peaking at number 8, in this case). And it was time to get everything lined up for Gang Signs.
By 2016, we basically had the team in place. It was a sick time, but I didn’t really know what was going on. It wasn’t like I knew that we were about to create Gang Signs & Prayer; we were just moving forward.
The more I think, the more I remember. It’s been four years of madness. When I think about everything we’ve gone through, it’s crazy. When we talk about it now, we can remember bits and pieces, but not everything. I was talking to Tobe and TiiNY [Stormzy's DJ] the other day, laughing about the time we had a play-fight backstage at one of the shows. Me and Tobe against TiiNY and Kaylum. We were fucking them up! But we couldn’t remember where it was.
It could have been Dublin, Australia, Denmark, anywhere in the world. Or there was a time when a firework went off at one of the shows and it almost hit me. Couldn’t remember where it was. Or the time we were late for our plane, and had to run through the airport, with security chasing us. Or the time Fran, my agent, got dragged away by the police. He’d gone through customs at the airport and came back to say goodbye. And the police just said, "Excuse me, you can’t do that." I couldn’t tell you where that was. No idea. It’s all become a blur.
Tobe Onwuka, Stormzy's manager
Stormzy has always been aware of perception, or how people will see him. How people will take him wanting more. We always knew that there’s a truth in the world that isn’t represented in the world. We have our own concerns. And we are worried about what’s happening in the world around us. But it’s how you act that’s important.
There’s a real problem with our culture in the way that artists are pigeonholed. I was determined it would never happen with me. I’d come out guns blazing. I’ll go and spit in the park, then I’ll go on Live Lounge and sing something.
I had a little trick. Whenever I’d go on Live Lounge, I always did a mad singing medley. My first one was tragic. My singing voice just wasn’t there. Some people appreciated it, but even they were saying, ‘I see what you tried to do there.’ But you have to understand, I was setting myself up. It was me being fearless, and showing the world that I love R&B, I love singing,
I love experimenting with music. That’s the artist I am, that’s my truth. This ain’t new. Go back and listen to 168.
You can pre-order 'Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far' right here, for £16.99. It's out on Thursday 1 November.