Stormzy's Brit Awards performance ignited Number 10 – and changed the Brit Awards for ever

'Theresa May, where's the money for Grenfell?' Stormzy performs at the Brits
'Theresa May, where's the money for Grenfell?' Stormzy performs at the Brits Credit: WireImage

Downing Street doesn’t tend to get involved in the world of pop music. From Gordon Brown’s toe-curling claim to like the Arctic Monkeys to David Cameron’s slap-down for loving The Smiths from the band’s own guitarist, Prime Ministers have learned that the two worlds are best kept apart. 

But all this changed today after grime artist Stormzy accused Theresa May of ignoring the plight of those affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower, at last night’s Brit Awards. His enraged rap in the closing moments of the ceremony – which started “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” but went on to eviscerate politicians in numerous other ways – forced Number 10 to defend its response to the tragedy.

In just under 30 seconds, Stormzy smashed the worlds of pop and politics together in a way not seen for decades. And in triggering a response from Downing Street, the 24-year-old South Londoner finally made the humdrum Brits relevant again.

It was an extremely potent performance. Stormzy, having just won two awards for British Male Solo Artist and British Album of the Year, stood topless, being rained on, on a dimly lit stage. A tiered wall of balaclava-clad people sat behind him, like contestants in a brooding apocalyptic episode of Blankety Blank. This was clearly not the celebratory winners medley that many expected.

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Stormzy angrily took the Prime Minister to task, rapping: “What you thought we just forgot about Grenfell? You criminals / And you’ve got the cheek to call us savages / You should do some jail time / You should pay some damages. We should burn your house down and see if you can manage.” He then went on to accuse MPs of snorting cocaine and attacked the Daily Mail. All live on ITV.

Following the show, Jeremy Corbyn took to Twitter to praise the “powerful” performance. Fans lapped it up. “He is the country’s greatest asset, musically and politically,” tweeted one. “Iconic as f---,” said another. Others called for Stormzy to be knighted or to become PM himself. Campaigning groups took note. The NHS Million campaign, an unofficial group that raises awareness about NHS issues and is run by its staff, praised Stormzy to its 318,500 Twitter followers for being so politically engaged, adding that it didn’t usually tweet about this kind of thing.

Stormzy admitted afterwards that he wanted to do more than just perform his hits. “I didn’t want to just come here as an artist [and do] ‘the Stormzy show, it’s all about me’. No. This is bigger than me,” he said.

He certainly made the performance about more than just him. This morning, Number 10 to this morning publicly rejected his criticism. The Government has committed £58 million to Grenfell and called a public inquiry, a spokesperson said.

Stormzy’s performance was all the more forceful when set against the backdrop of recent Brit winners. Recipients of the Best British Male award in recent years have tended be mild-mannered acoustic musicians. James Bay, Ben Howard and Ed Sheeran are hardly known for their political statements. And you couldn’t call David Bowie, who won last year and in 2014, overtly political. Stormzy’s win was like a ferocious Catherine wheel going off among strings of artfully twee fairy lights.

Stormzy accepts one of two Brit Awards

But the Brits have wanted this. There was a huge backlash against the awards in 2016 after Brits voters failed to nominate a single black artist in a major category. The #BritsSoWhite online campaign saw the BPI, which runs the awards, reshape its voting panel to include more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) members. Almost a quarter of the voting Academy are now from BAME backgrounds. Of the 64 nominations this year, 42 per cent were for BAME musicians or for bands that had BAME artists in their line-up or songs that featured a BAME performer. Any backlash against Stormzy’s performance, and there will inevitably be one, would constitute a backlash against a backlash, which takes us firmly into parody territory. People can’t have it both ways.

But there’s a wider point here. Protest has always been a potent ingredient in music. Pop and politics have always gone hand in hand, from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley and from Sam Cooke to the Sex Pistols. The genres may be different. But whether sung angrily or peacefully, the message has always been the same: we’re being ignored and we demand change. At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the mother of Pistols singer Johnny Rotten said: “A friend of ours thinks the Pistols are doing more for the country than [Labour Prime Minister] Jim Callaghan.” Judging by the reaction on Twitter, many think the same of Stormzy and Theresa May.

The Brits will certainly never be the same. When it comes to controversy, the awards have historically been remembered for small unplanned moments, such as Jarvis Cocker invading Michael Jackson’s stage or Chumbawamba’s Danbert Nobacon throwing a bucket of ice over John Prescott. They were immaterial. Silly talking points. Trivial. Last night’s ‘controversy’ was of a different magnitude altogether. It was planned and it was staged. And it was carried out in front of a TV audience of millions by the man who’d just been crowned the country’s best musician.

For this reason, Stormzy’s closing set will come to be seen as the most iconic moment in Brits history. His performance was a career-defining landmark. And by so angrily and publicly tearing into the Prime Minister, it could become an era-defining one too.