Last week saw the drop of Stormzy’s debut album Gang Signs and Prayer . Whilst the whole album is beautiful, brave and ambitious, it’s a bit of a grower and maybe not what most grime fans were expecting. It deals with themes of black identity, love and spirituality in a way mostly unheard in grime before.
One track, the final one, above all others, has been causing waves. Lay me down is a heartbreaking, complexed ode to depression. The track is not just about Stormzy’s experience with mental illness, but also the underlying pain of being from a working-class background in London; of growing up missing at least one parent and where life is cheap. Of expecting to see friends and loved ones die young from violence, addiction and mental health issues. And also, of never dealing with it or talking about it because above all else, what you are taught to valourise is hardness.
Stormzy fleshed this idea out further in an interview with Channel Four when he spoke about his decision to make the track. “This was something so alien to me. I always believe if something gets you down you pick yourself up and carry on”. But he goes on, “Then I had another complex. Okay, I went through this but do I really want to let the whole world know what I went through?” Eventually he made the decision that depression is too important and prevalent not to talk about. “What convinced me to talk about it in the end, was thinking if anyone else is feeling like this — knowing I did too might help. Because for a long time I believed real soldiers don’t feel like this. Anyone who is brave, anyone I admire couldn’t feel this way.”
Stormzy isn’t wrong about the importance of breaking the stigma around mental health issues. Especially for young black men, who are more likely than any other demographic to suffer from poor mental health and commit suicide. But this is also the same group for whom the subject is most taboo. I really felt touched by what Stormzy said in Lay me down’ and on Channel Four. I am as guilty as anyone else of believing in the myth of the soldier. For years I took pride in believing that there is no such thing as sad or tired. There is only dead or dying. However, that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the last two years alone my brother (from another mother) and a close friend of mine have both committed suicide. Another close friend of mine has been institutionalised for the foreseeable future, deemed a threat to himself. These are just the “highlights”. Silence on mental health, coupled with the increasing scarcity of mental health provision is literally killing us. Talking about it alone will not solve the problem but it will begin to shed some light on the scale of the issue. What we really need however is publicly-owned and funded, easily-accessible, life-long and holistic mental health services. Only then will we have a shot at tackling the problem.
I very much respect Stormzy for making the conscious decision to speak out. One of the scariest things in the world is talking honestly about your feelings and showing your vulnerability. I can only imagine what that must be like for a working-class black man. In a society where almost everything is stacked against him and he is constantly told he has to be hard to survive.
This isn’t the first time Stormzy has used his platform to talk on real issues. As much as he claims he “hates to go on like a role model”, he also understands that his position as the UK’s grime ambassador comes with responsibilities.
Whether he’s chucking his weight behind the Corbyn campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement, or talking passionately about the love and respect he has for female artists, his mother and his girlfriend. Or calling out the institutionalised racism of the Brits and the police or simply “singing his lungs out” to Adele and “bussin two twos jokes” in videos. Stormzy is always three-dimensionalising the “angry black man” and striving to subvert our ideas of what a grime Emcee is supposed to be. So all hail Michael Omari, the south London lad we’ve all been waiting for.