Stormzy’s freestyle at the Brits proves he’s a true virtuoso

22 February 2018, 10:27

By Daniel Ross

Last night’s Brit Awards offered up a slew of pop stars making political points from a national stage, but no-one managed to do it as succinctly and powerfully as Stormzy.

Taking to the O2’s stage at the end of the ceremony, Stormzy used his platform to deliver a stinging attack on Prime Minister Theresa May and the Daily Mail in one 30-second verse that demonstrated all the qualities we associate with a musical virtuoso.

Regardless of genre and regardless of the politics behind his freestyle, his technique, his sense of the dramatic and his delivery under pressure made this an electrifying performance. And here’s why:

Message

“Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” Like a modern-day Shostakovich, using his music and his platform to upset the authorities, Stormzy’s message was clear. Equally we could look to the story of black American composer Florence Price, whose 1939 song ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord’ caused a similar spectacle when it was performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (the contralto who sang it, Marian Anderson, was also black and therefore not allowed to perform in Washington’s Constitution Hall).

Stormzy joins a long list of composers throughout history who have sought to highlight the societal injustices around them, whether it’s Russia under Stalin or segregated America. The point is, it’s authentic: Stormzy’s subject, the pursuit of justice for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire in West London, is one authentically close to his heart, and that indignation comes across in his performance.

Delivery

Though it’s only 30 seconds long, this single verse allows Stormzy to deploy his most impressive musical tricks. Staccato articulation on almost every single syllable could easily become monotonous, but in this context of delivering a very specific message, it works, especially with those pointed rhymes - savages / damages / see if you can manage this.

His voice audibly scratches and rasps at the edges of its speaking register, almost as if he’s deliberately limiting its sound. It’s a performative choice that highlights tension in delivery. Think of the great virtuosos from history, specifically those who have performed at the edge of their capability: Nigel Kennedy, Pavarotti, Lang Lang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - they all perform(ed) with sweat pouring off them, as if their current performance might be their last. True, Stormzy's sweat is actually fake rain cascading from above, but the entertainment benefits of this stylistic choice are, naturally, huge.

It’s a synthesis of message and delivery, but with half an eye on communicating to a huge national audience - a remarkable balancing act that has roots stretching back throughout musical history. Stormzy has done real musicians proud.