Let's get this right: Stormzy's Glastonbury set was one for the ages, an instantly iconic moment that underlined his status as one of the most important British artists of our time.
But he can't do it alone. As the recent book Rise Up attested, Stormzy has built a team second to none in this country, with each part interlocking with the next to produce something exemplary.
Equally, he's always been happy to share the stage. At Worthy Farm he turned Glastonbury into a theatre for Black British excellence, from inviting Dave and Fredo to perform their single 'Freaky Friday' to utilising black ballet dancers and beyond.
A truly gripping, highly dramatic set, it seems to underline everything great about Stormzy: his magnetism, his thirst for excellent, and his raw, unrelenting ambition.
To create the performance he worked with creative house Tawbox, with the team spending months piecing together each aspect of his intricate headline show.
Clash spoke to Tawbox Creative Director/Choreographer Amber Rimell and Creative Director/Production Director Bronski to find out more.
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When did you start working with Stormzy?
Bronski: Weirdly, we first started working with Stormzy three years before this, but also at Glastonbury. It was back when the Silver Hayes area in particular was the go-to grime area at Glastonbury. I got a call from his tour manager to say: we need to bump up Stormzy’s level a bit for this show. It was all very, very simple at that time, so we did that, and we noticed a big difference.
We thought it would be cool to continue that, and obviously his ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ record came, and to be honest with you I don’t think some people appreciate what the Brixton shows in particular meant to the urban scene. That was a moment of: oh God, we’ve got to spend money now!
Stormz really wanted to make that incredibly special. For three shows at Brixton Academy we were there four days before it, it took two days to load that show in, and we did something that was very forward thinking in the grime scene at the time. From that, our relationship with him was cemented.
Glastonbury is such a unique environment – how do you go about transplanting that aesthetic and approach into a festival setting?
Bronski: What I would say, is that initially we didn’t think about the scale, in terms of physical. Our scale was celebration. It was celebration of culture. Where Stormzy is from culturally and geographically. That was what it had to embody. Super early on, that was conversation number one – Stormzy wanted to share the stage. And we were like: that’s perfect. If it’s to be celebratory, cultured, then that works.
So at that point we only ever really thought about that. And then what we know if we wanted a set where there were levels, to help us show the amount of bodies that we would ultimately have onstage. Obviously, we are known for quite a ridiculous lightning show as well.
We had Misty Buckley, who designed our set, and she took on board the fact that we wanted to work around Croydon brutalism, and those elements of South London, to show our theme. She came and worked with us to do that set concept, along with how we wanted to show to flow, and the special effects on the bodies. We ended up with something that was ultimately really large! We only just made that in an hour. Only just.
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The scale of it is enormous, but it still feels bigger than the sum of its parts – it’s a show that has meaning.
Amber: Exactly, yes. And the whole creative concept for Glastonbury was that we brought South London to the farm – his culture, his background, where he’s from, to kind of share that with both the live audience and with everyone at home. If you’re surrounded by flats in South Norwood, Thornton Heath, it’s a very natural surrounding for him to be in. We felt that we definitely helped create and get that across to the audience, that this stage is his home for 90 minutes.
The BMX crew from the ‘Vossi Bop’ video returned – how did that come about?
Amber: The BMX Bikers are actually called Biker Storm, and Stormzy met with them quite a few months ago. They have a huge following on Instagram. One of the boys that was onstage in Glastonbury was tricking in a park in Battersea, and Stormzy pulled up in his car and asked him: bro, what you doing? So he kind of explained where he’s from, what Biker Storm is, and that it’s this huge family who learn BMX tricks and hang out together.
It’s a new youth culture, and their hashtag line is knives down, bikes up. It’s to support youth in keeping them on the straight and narrow, keeping it positive. So once Bronski and I had taken that on board, and saw them in the ‘Vossi Bop’ video as well, we knew that we’d love to bring them to the Glastonbury stage as well.
One, because of what they mean in the youth of today, and two, because they’re such amazing boys, who work very hard at their talent. It’s almost the only thing they’ve got going in their lives at the moment, so it was such a positive thing to celebrate youth talent.
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It was a hugely positive performance, you’re right. Just look at the ballet dancers – such an unexpected twist, but also very beautiful.
Amber: It was a brave thing to do. Bronski and I knew about Ballet Black, this very small ballet company with seven dancers, and we wanted to celebrate them.
I found this article in the BBC in November last year, and me myself, coming from a dance background, I never fully realised that ballet dancers point shoes were never produced in all skin tones. They were only really created in white skin tones.
And this article in the BBC focussed on Ballet Black, and how they bring to the forefront that point shoes should be made in all skin tones. But before then, they used to have to buy make up and basically colour their shoes in. Which, to me, was quite a shocking thing, but it’s also a great thing to move forward from that, and that we can celebrate this.
We felt it was an act of celebration to incorporate it into the show, and when we spoke to him about it we couldn’t believe it was a thing, that ballet shoes came in pink and that was it! We all felt that it was time to let the world know about this, and celebrate this, and let people know that we can move forward in a really positive way.
Bronski: It was also an attempt to use beauty – from the ballet – alongside what seems like such a small, crazy element… the fact that it took until 2018 to have multiple skin tones… it was such a beautiful statement – and still so subtle – about showing the equality in the arts not being quite correct, but at the same time moving forward. It doesn’t matter who you are, that would have touched home a little bit.
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We should talk about the stab vest – the work of Banksy, it seems…
Bronski: There’s only so much we can say on this one, unfortunately. What we can say is Stormz pulled us aside fairly soon into the process, he secretly pulled us over and said: I might have something. He said it was a possibility. And we were like: if this comes off it’s just… more than the icing on the cake. That’s pretty much all I can say. And it did come off – it’s an iconic moment, up there with the way Geri Halliwell or Noel Gallagher used the flag, but given this wholly different meaning.
Amber: Oh, absolutely. Knife crime was something that we spoke about, something we wanted to make an element of the show. Obviously, 'First Thing’s First' – that led towards our youth rebellion aspect, in terms of our bigger picture concept. And the fact that ‘First Thing’s First’ was performed in the section where he wears a stab vest with the union jack on it was… crazy.
Can you do a full run-through of something like this? Is that even feasible?
Bronski: Stormzy was so prepared for that show. He took that so seriously. For over a month beforehand he was running the show in full performance mode, sweating – like he does – full blast. That’s him on his own. We then had band rehearsals – which he would join – and dancer rehearsals – which he would join.
And then, ultimately, the week before we loaded in… We loaded the show in on Thursday, so the Wednesday before that – so two days before the show – we left a room up in the Midlands, where we’d been four, five days rehearsing. The full show. Everything.
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What were those last minutes like? Any hiccups? Or was it all extremely focussed?
Amber: I don’t there were any hiccups. It was scarily quite an amazing rehearsal period. He was focussed in his training, and making sure that his diction was correct, and how he came across to everybody who watched Glastonbury… he was fully prepared. The rehearsals went really well – we ran the show at least two to three times in the last two days of rehearsals, and previous to that we were running it everyday for a couple of days. He was very well prepared and ready.
There must be an element of nerves right until the last minute – what was it like watching that performance unfold?
Bronski: I would say that… God, that moment was so surreal! All day that day the way everyone said ‘hello’ to each other… I won’t get over that. It was really emotional. And I mean everybody. The way we would say ‘hello’ to Stormz, the way Stormz would say ‘hello’ to us, the dancers, the band, the crew, his media team, his management. Every single person – and I think there were 200 of us that day, to ultimately do that show. The way that we all greeted each other was with this respect of, we knew that we had something in the bag that was going to be special.
We had no idea it was going to go off like it did, but we certainly knew we were about to do something special. After changeover, and we hit the stage, that was the moment when the mutual respect that we had for each other went out the window – weirdly – and it just became a moment of execution, but with the biggest heart, and the biggest smile, and the biggest passion across everything.
Everyone was gassed but the emotions changed. That’s the best way of putting it. It was a very emotional day, but then the emotions at 10.20pm… it just literally all came out, from everybody.
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Amber: I feel like all day he seemed so calm and collected. He arrived at Glastonbury quite early on because he just wanted to be there. He just wanted to be in the midst of it all. It was like he was literally conserving his energy for 10pm. And then he just exploded, and it became this incredible 90 minutes.
Bronski: And here’s one thing that people don’t know. On Thursday night, as we were loading in, at midnight he went up onstage, and spent a good half hour. He just stood onstage, to take it all in. He wanted to feel grounded, and to feel part of the whole festival. So at midnight on Thursday he just went up onstage and felt it, absorbed it all.
And then had a good night sleep, because he was in super early on Friday. He wanted to be a part of that. He didn’t want to just get out of a car and go onstage like any other show because it wasn’t, it was never going to be like any other show.
What was the atmosphere like afterwards?
Brosnki: Just an element of knowing that we achieved it. He, ultimately, delivered… we know he can deliver like that, but I feel like a huge amount of people who aren’t necessarily into his music were able to see something that night that they just weren’t ready for. Like I said, he’s a talent, he’s six foot five, he’s overpowering, he’s statuesque, he’s powerful – but he’s also the most beautiful human, and that all came out on Friday night. We were all just incredibly happy.
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Photography: Andrew Timms
For more on Tawbox visit their official website.
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