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Thursday 27 June 2019

Modern celebrity


Stormzy isn’t just the brightest star at this week’s Glastonbury Festival. With Maya Jama, he’s part of the ultimate millennial power couple

By Olive Pometsey

I can’t concentrate. About an hour ago, while sitting on a delayed National Express coach from Sheffield to London, I noticed that Stormzy had retweeted an article I had recently written about him. I squealed, screen-grabbed and went on to repost the repost to my own social media accounts. I’m now riding the dizzying high that comes from imagining that one of the UK’s biggest rappers might, sort of, kind of, maybe know that I exist.

My imagination is, of course, getting ahead of itself. But I still find myself gravitating towards Twitter with unusual regularity, scrolling through his feed, catching up on what I’ve missed since the last time I checked. This behaviour might seem mindless to some, but it does make sense: Stormzy is a very modern superstar, making social media the lens through which the vast majority of fans view his world. So here I am, vicariously living in it.

Glamour’s the word: Maya Jama and Stormzy attend an awards ceremony in 2017

Looking at Britain’s current roster of household names, there are two people who stand out as vanguards of a new era of celebrity: Stormzy, 25, and his girlfriend, the television and radio presenter Maya Jama, 24. The former is widely credited with popularising grime music; a genre born out of London’s late-1990s and early-2000s garage scene, which one of its originators, Wiley, likens to punk rock for its rebellious spirit. The latter is 2019’s answer to the relatable girl next door trope that has historically been assigned to bubbly blondes.

Both are separately, but frequently, lauded as “the voice of a generation”, thanks to Stormzy’s sharp social commentary (the first two singles from his upcoming second album have both taken digs at Boris Johnson) and Jama’s frank approach to curating her public persona, which is to say that she barely curates it at all. Her Instagram feed is an endless juxtaposition of photos of herself looking impossibly perfect next to makeup-less selfies taken from unflattering angles, punctuated by occasional passages in which she admits that she too falls victim to insecurities, has down days and, yes, gets spots.

Despite their extraordinary lives and talents, Stormzy’s and Maya Jama’s personalities, politics and interests are exactly in tune with those of their generational peers. They just seem normal.

Radio stars on camera: BBC Radio 1 presenters Nick Grimshaw and Jama

In 2010, a 16-year-old Michael Omari created a YouTube channel called StormzyTV. I know this because he’s just tweeted about it, nine years later, in celebration of the fact that it’s now reached one million subscribers. He created the channel, he says, because, at that point in his career, he was unable to get his videos published by GRM Daily, one of the online urban-music platforms that sprung up during the late 2000s to document a scene that mainstream channels were ignoring. Raised by his Ghanaian mother in the south-east London borough of Croydon, Stormzy grew up in the kind of circumstances that saw people in his school year end up going to prison for murder. For a while, it seemed like he might see a similar fate: he sacked off school, dealt drugs and did what could perhaps be considered the norm for someone with his lot.

But “somewhere along the line, I figured out that this isn’t a logical option”, he told The Guardian in 2017. “I realised that being on the streets is very bad for business, very bad for going forward in life, and very bad for success – and success has always been the biggest thing for me.” His music was always ticking away in the background, though. Over the years, the views on his YouTube channel began to climb into the millions.

Stormzy has headlined festivals before Glastonbury – here he is on the main stage for Wireless Festival 2018

At the same age, Maya Jama moved from Bristol to London to pursue her dream of becoming a presenter. To those unfamiliar with her early work hosting shows on smaller channels and stations such as JumpOff.TV and Rinse FM, Jama’s ascension from being a vaguely familiar Loose Women guest panellist to having two solo shows on Radio 1 within the space of two years might seem premature, but it’s the result of eight years of hard work. When she first moved to London, she would have to bunk the Tube to get around the city, unable to afford the fare. While her friends were going to university, enjoying its cushioned sense of freedom, Jama was becoming acquainted with the real world and she seems mature beyond her years for it.

In our hyper filtered, filler-injected world, her approach to her new celebrity life is a breath of fresh air, both on and offline. Last November I found myself sitting next to her on a train from Liverpool to London. She bought herself a cheese and onion sandwich from the train’s snack bar and miniature bottles of wine for both of us. When the train pulled into Euston station, she gave me a warm hug goodbye and headed straight to Burger King.

Jama takes the mic at Stormzy’s 25th birthday party in Menorca, Spain

Individually, and as a pair, Stormzy and Jama are emblematic of the kinds of trends that the nastier corners of Brexit Britain are railing against – and yet they’re both still succeeding. It’s impossible to talk about their influence without acknowledging their heritage. Both are second-generation immigrants – Stormzy of Ghanaian descent, Jama of Somali and Swedish – and both grew up in working-class families, with absent fathers.

That Stormzy has become a platinum-selling artist, who will this week become the first solo black British act to headline Glastonbury, is no mean feat, and his achievements have an impact that extends far beyond his two Brit awards and 6.7 million monthly Spotify listeners. Likewise, the fact that Jama, who was teased at school for being Somali, has become one of the nation’s most prominent presenters, securing gigs such as Stand Up To Cancer and collaborating on a clothing line with Pretty Little Thing, is evidence of a rapidly diversifying nation.

The couple are popular because they’re an authentic representation of a side of British culture that has for so long been excluded from mainstream media. Now, not only can young ethnic minorities living in Britain see themselves in Stormzy and Jama, but they can also see what they could become.

Stormzy visits his old school, having announced a scholarship for black students to attend Cambridge University

This is something that the couple are clearly aware of themselves. Over the past year – up until the release, two months ago, of ‘Vossi Bop’, the first single from his upcoming album – Stormzy has made headlines not for his music but for his philanthropic pursuits and political activism instead. “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” he asked during a freestyle performance at the 2018 Brit Awards. In the time since, he’s arguably done more good for the country than May ever did during her time as prime minister. From funding a scholarship for black students at the University of Cambridge to setting up his own publishing imprint at Penguin that’s focused on spotlighting new talent, he appears to have a clear sense of social responsibility – and acts upon it.

“If it’s for my people I’ll do anything to help / If I do it out of love it’s not to benefit myself,” he raps in his latest release, ‘Crown’. These are lyrics that, if written by anyone else, could come across disingenuous, but Stormzy walked the walk before he started talking about it.

Meanwhile, Maya Jama is an ambassador for Savera UK, a charity that works to support young BAME people who are victims of domestic abuse, FGM, forced marriage and honour-based violence. In the past year, she has also hosted two charity sales with Collections, at which she has donated clothes and greeted visitors on the shop floor. Politically, she is less vocal than Stormzy, but it’s through her engagement with her female fans that she truly makes a difference. “We are strong and powerful and important and a million other things before we are ‘good to look at’,” she asserts to her 884,000 Instagram followers, a more-than-welcome reality check for a generation of girls weaned on the Kardashians and Love Island.

“Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” Stormzy performs at the 2019 BRIT Awards

Despite all of this, there’s a sense that neither Stormzy or Jama ever expected to bear the burden of the title “role model”. Last spring, Stormzy posted – and then hastily deleted – an Instagram video in which bags of drugs were quite clearly strewn across a table in his Chelsea flat. He regularly references drug use in his music, and even has an entire love song that revolves around smoking marijuana, ‘Cigarettes & Cush’, on his first album Gang Signs & Prayer – but this explicit visual reminder sparked outrage from certain quarters.

Parents have a right to be concerned, of course. But to many fans his own age, the incident just reaffirmed Stormzy’s normality. If Britain is prepared to have a prime minister who has confessed to using class-A substances, it makes little sense to penalise a rapper for using them as well. Out of the two, I know whom I trust more.

Jama has also found herself in a position familiar to many young stars who have grown up with social media – having posts from years ago unearthed and unpicked. Last spring, she too found herself splashed across the tabloids for tweets she wrote in 2012, in which she made offensive remarks about dark-skinned black women. She responded by apologising and insisting that she’s now changed, which, really, is all she can do.

The incident demonstrated a very modern truth: the boundaries between the flippant things we might say in real life and the premeditated ways we portray ourselves online have always been blurred. Social media may not always depict reality, but the increasing space it takes up within our lives is very real. That Jama has harnessed this fact to help promote herself is not a bad thing. It’s just smart.

Together, Stormzy and Maya Jama are the ultimate modern-day power couple. The biggest couplings always seem to say something about their age. Posh and Becks embodied the tabloid glitz and glamour that made up a large portion of celebrity culture in the nineties. In the US, Jay-Z and Beyoncé built on that formula throughout the 2000s and used it as a means of turning both themselves and other black musicians into some of the most successful artists working today.

But, in both of those older cases, their coupledom turned into a brand – they monetised their relationships. By contrast, Stormzy and Jama have managed to straddle the worlds of social media and their separate industries in a way that strikes a chord with millennials, and they’ve done so as individuals. Their association with each other certainly helps, but they are also distinct from each other. And at a time when wannabe celebrities feign love for personal gain they stand as a welcome counter-example.

This was a celebrity couple then: David and Victoria Beckham at the MOBO Awards in 1999

People are genuinely invested in their relationship because it appears to be completely authentic. Stormzy and Jama met in 2014, a couple of years before either of them broke through into mainstream popularity, and have stayed together through each other’s individual rises to success, rooting for each other along the way. For her 22nd birthday, Stormzy wrote Jama her own song, ‘Birthday Girl’. The next year, she accidentally dropped his five-tier birthday cake in front of everyone and he simply laughed it off. Stormzy can often be found in Jama’s Instagram comments, singing her praises louder than anyone, while she will subtly tell anecdotes about her boyfriend in a way that doesn’t just scream: “I’m going out with Stormzy!”

In March 2018, they sparked panic when Stormzy briefly unfollowed Jama on Instagram. “If Maya Jama and Stormzy have actually split up I will concede that love genuinely is dead,” said one fan – a sentiment that was echoed by many.

What Stormzy and Maya Jama truly represent, then, is hope. Hope that true love still exists without the interference of dating apps. Hope that there are still some people in positions of power who want to use their status for good. Hope that a naughty young black boy from an impoverished neighbourhood in London could one day make it to Cambridge and even stand alongside the likes of Kylie on Glastonbury’s line-up.

Neons and denim: Jama strikes a pose in February 2019

We might be able to live vicariously in their world by visiting their social media feeds, but they’ve both got their feet planted firmly in ours too, never forgetting where they came from and giving back to the communities that shaped them. Their power doesn’t come from their wealth and status; it comes from their ability to inspire. As Stormzy said himself, their rise has been a “long time comin’, but [they] come to prevail”.

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey is a Junior Digital Editor at GQ.