Why Stormzy’s headline glasto set not only made history but will proceed to go down in it.
On Friday night Stormzy made his Pyramid Stage debut, and all you lucky buggers that got tickets witnessed first-hand the first black British artist to headline Glastonbury.
At only 25 years old, the winner of Best Grime Act at the MOBO Awards is the second youngest artists to ever headline glasto behind David Bowie (I mean if you ever had to come second to someone…) and he started his career after his freestyle YouTube track ‘Shut Up’ went viral. Whilst he can say he “went to the park with my friends then I charted”, I seem to always come back from the park with a leaf in my hair and little else.
There were many nay-sayers when the headline slot was announced, questions about how an artist with only one album would be able to fill such a slot and do it justice. However, as the big screens played a pep-talk from no other than Jay Z, whose headline in 2008 revolutionised the global impression of the family friendly farm festival, silence fell.
Stormzy hasn’t tried to hide how much this slot means to him, the pre-show interview showed a set of pearly whites he could hardly put away as he spoke of how “it’s the biggest honour, it’s the biggest opportunity, it’s the biggest stage, it’s the biggest thing I’m going to do in my career”. As the video shut off and the timer began, the crowd were more than ready for the man of the (2) hour(s), who bounced onto stage right on queue to the sounds of ‘Know Me From’.
After admitting his pre-show plan was to “pray” and “try and dress well”, he didn’t disappoint as he emerged wearing a stab-proof vest sporting a Union Jack designed by the one and only Banksy. In a retrospective Instagram post, Stormzy describes Banksy as “the greatest, most iconic living artist on planet earth”. The deceptively monochrome Union Jack was accentuated by the stage lights, the red hues in the context felt reminiscent of blood, and the piece in total is a comment on the volatile knife crime resulting from the rise of gang culture around London. Stormzy doesn’t shy away from this in his lyrics, for instance in ‘First Things First’ he notes people “tryna’ blame your boy for knife crime (like what?)”, showing the racist connotations pervading gang violence. The topic of police cuts and reductions in investments was recently on BBC Question Time, as a grandmother reminded the panel “we are not supposed to be burying our children” because lack of funding leaves them vulnerable and reliant on gang involvement for protection. Stormzy’s best-selling debut album Gang Signs and Prayers, the first ever grime album to reach #1, is itself an ode to his upbringing, his mother’s financial difficulties but determination to direct him towards god and the brothers he lost to gang violence along the way. He came on stage wearing his armour, a piece of art encapsulating cultural adversity and progress, a description synonymous of the performance to come.
As Clara Aamfo introduced him, #glastormbury well and truly kicked off. Playing hits from GSAP, Stormzy got the crowd involved with ‘Cold’ and ‘First Things First’, ending it by taking a moment to breathe in the reality of what was happening, holding his gang sign up in three beams of ethereal light as sparks rained down – the calm before the Stormzy.
Big Mike took us to the club with ‘One Take’, the techno lights permeating the pitch-black sky and jumping off the faces of thousands of festival goers who came to watch history be made. Following with ‘Mr.Skeng’ and assuring “we’re only getting fucking started”, we got out first cameo from Raleigh Ritchie (we see you grey worm) with the lullaby tones of ‘Don’t Cry for Me’. The stage was occupied by two stunning ballet dancers, the dance a visual commentary on social progress for artists of colour in all scopes, as “ballet shoes have traditionally not been made to match black skin tones until now”.
Returning in all white, Stormzy took Glastonbury to church with a full choir and renditions of ‘Cigarettes & Cush’ and a cover of ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’. Proceeding to cover Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight beam, Stormzy did the standout solo rap of the night embracing that “25 at the top that’s an early rise” but praying he never loses “sight of things”.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Glastonbury if the man who treats the farm as his local Paradise didn’t squeeze in a Hymn for The Weekend. As Coldplay’s Chris Martin stared out at A Sky Full of Stars, he joined Stormzy to duet ‘Blinded by Your Grace, Pt.1’. Stormzy described the moment as being able to “sing with the most incredible and legendary man I know” who he tries to “emulate” in the studio. Martin, however, could not bathe in this Everglow as he needed to set his Clocks and be ready to do Something Just Like This the next day with Kylie Minogue.
His new single ‘Crown’ showcased perfectly the honey undertones of his voice and the mastery of his lyricism whilst ‘Return of the Rucksack’ invited another group of talented individuals, the W.A.R Dance Crew, to share in his glory. The limelight was unfortunately stolen by 10-year-old dancer Princess K, her orange tracksuit complimenting Stormzy’s third outfit of the night.
‘Bad Boys’ acted as it does in the album, a transitional moment between such a diverse mix of tracks and marked the midway point in the set. The tone turned as Stormzy played ‘Shape of You’, disheartened that his red haired friend had his own show to play elsewhere in the world. The vibe of the show was thankfully restored when Dave and Fredo came out for ‘Funky Friday’, yet another example of Stormzy’s willingness to use his platform to elevate talent that has been overshadowed and overlooked for so long due to lack of diversity and inclusion.
That was the real sentiment of this headline set, the humbleness and gratitude coming from a young black artist whose upbringing stacked the odds against him, but whose raw talent and genuine nature rivalled any naysayers along the way. In the opening video, Jay Z mentioned that he had to kill his set because then it would lay the way, as it has, for artists like Stormzy, an admirer of “the greatest rapper to ever grace planet Earth”, to follow in his footsteps.
The crowd pleaser came in the form of ‘Vossi Bop’, a standout moment for the performer/ audience reaction as a sea of very angry locals were able to yell “FUCK THE GOVERNMENT AND FUCK BORIS”, not once, but twice. Hopefully, it was loud enough for him to get back on his bus of lies and do one.
Taking to a smaller stage, a man of the people stood amongst them, and Stormzy spent a couple of minute reeling off names of those who’ve come before him (Skepta, Wiley, Wretch 32 …) and those he hopes will follow in his path. The list seemed endless in the best way possible, the “bag of us coming through” revealed the wealth of new, diverse artists of every race and gender rising in an industry that had previously pushed them to the side. By dropping names like A J Tracey, Slowthai, J Hus, Steflon Don, Lady Leshurr (and so many more), this man gave them priceless exposure, putting them on a stage many would not have believed they had a place on before last Friday.
Saving 3 of his blinders for the finale, though he could have done a lucky dip from his back catalogue and had equal success, the man took his park freestyle to the Pyramid Stage with ‘Shut Up’, he lifted the communal spirit and gave God “all the glory” with ‘Blinded By Your Grace Pt.2’ and shut it down with ‘Big For Your Boots’.
“Glastonbury 2019, My name’s been Stormzy this has been #Merky, South London in the building and I’ve been the fucking headliner”. Mic Drop indeed.
Stormzy’s rap mentor also reaffirmed that this moment was happening because “the world is ready for it” and “that’s culture”. Culture is the core statement of his looks, the artists he brings up with him and the messages in his music. This performance was not only showcasing a young man who specialises in a music genre birthed in the UK, but a man of colour on THE stage, watched by millions on TV who can look to him as an idol, a role model, and an absolute legend in the works.
Header Image by Andy Whitton