“This is the greatest night of my entire life,” Stormzy says, three songs into his headlining Glastonbury set. A significant moment in UK culture, the Croydon artist’s performance is a lesson in how to use your platform to elevate others while making a statement of intent.
Before the Pyramid stage set began, the crowd – a massive one, at that – was tense with excitement. “I’m excited to see him because he’s the music of our generation,” Caroline, from South East London said. “It’s cool that he’s headlining so young.” As the crowd swelled, the lights went out and a video of rapper Jay Z – Glastonbury’s first hip-hop headliner, back in 2008 – sitting on a chair telling Stormzy how to “do it for the culture” so that kids can dream of headlining Glastonbury as well.
For the first three songs, Stormzy remains on stage by himself while a pyrotechnics and light show, as controlled as his performance, erupts. Wearing a Union-Jack-flag-emblazoned bullet-proof vest, he opens with ‘Know Me From’ and then runs through tracks including ‘Mr. Skeng’ before cutting the music. Allowing himself to show his vulnerability, Stormzy reiterates “it’s the most legendary night of my entire life”.
Through a smoked-out stage, two ballet dancers appear with the video stating “ballet shoes have traditionally not been made to match Black skin tones until now.” What follows is a ballet performance that’s both a statement of intent as well a reminder that what the crowd is witnessing is a moment. “He’s establishing a voice for young people in the BAME community,” Raghu from London said. “He has a sense of where he comes from and the politics of being working class in England while expressing that through the music.”
Then: a choir! Singing ‘Cigarettes and Kush’, with Stormzy changing into an all-white outfit, it’s evident his singing skills have improved. With a live band backing him, Kanye’s ‘Ultralight Beam’ comes on with the dozens of singers occupying the floor behind Stormzy. Over the barest of production – a light hi-hat and bass alongside a plinking synth – Stormzy raps new verses, showcasing unreleased music getting the crowd more and more hysterical.
Stormzy’s performance is thus far a reminder that he is well deserved to be here, headlining Glastonbury. Chris Martin’s arrival to sing alongside Stormzy for ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ doesn’t overshadow the evening. Rather, it allows the crowd to recoup their energy. Martin’s appearance also adds to the excitement that there could be more guests arriving. And Stormzy delivers.
First, it’s a young, female dancer who showcases her skills before a crowd of others joins her for an incredible choreographed performance. At this point, it’s hard to remember whether so many UK Black artists had shared the stage together at Glastonbury. A speechless minute of Stormzy recognising where is and what is happening around him follows before he brings out rising UK rapper Dave. Fredo then joins him for ‘Funky Friday’, the “first UK single to go to Number One by all black artists,” Stormzy says. Then he says, “and this is number two,” shutting down the entire crowd with an incredible pyrotechnic show that accompanies his stand-out single ‘Vossi Bop’.
During it, in an ode to the video, two young children on bicycles pop wheelies and ride around him. He then walks off the stage, allowing the crowd – and himself – to regain composure before speaking for four minutes. “This is the most iconic moment of my life,” he reiterates, still in disbelief. Starting to shout out “Wiley, Skepta, Tinie Tempah” and the number of Black UK artists that came before him, he then shouts out the current crop: “Little Simz, Dave, AJ Tracey,” while taking time to pay respects to the recently deceased UK rapper Cadet.
“Thank you for the most beautiful…” Stormzy starts to say, unable to complete his sentence. As the choir builds and sings another version of ‘Blinded By Your Grace’, Stormzy falls to his knees mid-performance. Emotionally overwhelmed, he finishes his set with an incredible rendition of ‘Big for Your Boots’ leaving the crowd chanting and wanting more.
“This is my tenth Glastonbury,” Jake from London says after the performance. “I’ve seen three headliners every year for ten years and that is the best I’ve seen.” Tony from Colchester echoes him, saying, “That was one of the greatest headliners I’ve seen in 16 years [at Glastonbury].”
Stormzy’s Glastonbury was a reflection of the time we live in now. Being the second-youngest headliner in the festival’s history and the first black UK solo artist to have such a high billing would have weighed a lot on his shoulders. With anticipation before the night apprehensive, Stormzy does not put a foot wrong throughout. He shows exactly why he deserves to be here. Not too big for his boots, after all.