A few years ago, Michael Omari was working at an oil refinery after being expelled from school and ending up on the wrong side of the law. Now he is known by another name – Stormzy, the South London prodigy leading the renaissance of grime and earning the adulation of fans in the process. His thoughtful, gracious and humble demeanour is contrary to the misinformed, media-fuelled stereotype of an MC. He is using his God-given talents to inspire and entertain many. He is truly a British success story.
Last week, the grime legend launched his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, where he unmasked the human face behind the lyrics. He challenged social injustices and nightclub racism, spoke about his strong Christian faith, performed a paean for his devoted mother, addressed his turbulent relationship with his father and his experience with girls, drugs and crime.
To his credit, he also took apart the erroneous nonsense, propounded by some ignorant commentators, that his music somehow glorifies knife crime. But what was particularly striking was his frank openness about his battles with depression, something which he elucidated further in an interview with Channel 4. It is easy to underestimate the importance of this. Loads of celebrities have spoken about their affliction with mental health problems in recent years so why is this any different? Surely, it is just welcome evidence that society’s approach to mental health has become more progressive?
This reminded me of a wonderful guy who was a couple of years my senior at school. His name was Olly Hare. He was the same age as Stormzy and like him was musically gifted. He was kind, popular, intelligent and he immersed himself in all aspects of school life. He later went on to receive a first-class degree in History from UCL and did a spell of volunteering in Romania.
A few weeks ago, he tragically took his own life. Unfortunately, this is not the only instance of a talented young man taking their own life. Suicide is the single biggest killer of young men. Seventy-six per cent of suicide victims are male. Only 50 per cent asked for help beforehand and among those under 25 that figure stands at 20 per cent. These are not statistics to be counted by some obscure agency with acronyms. They are sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, nephews, cousins, boyfriends and friends. This epidemic affects all of us – every single one of us – yet society does not give it the attention it so badly needs.
Young men have been inculcated to believe that any exposure of emotion, apart from those of a sexual or banterous nature, is a sign of vulnerability. It calls our virility into question. It is weak to cry. Don’t be “moist”. Man up. It is not hard to see how these toxic attitudes can lead to young men burying their heads in the sand (or the bottle and the baggy) instead of confronting their demons head on. That is why Stormzy’s courageous intervention is so important. Here is a prominent young man using his huge platform with his generation to openly confront this taboo.
On 8 February, Stormzy’s former MP, Steve Reed, asked Theresa May about the prevalence of mental illness among young black men during Prime Minister’s Questions. Maybe Reed was motivated by his former constituent’s revelation? Who knows. One thing I do know is that a young man suffering from depression probably won’t listen to a politician. But they will listen to Stormzy. That is why he is a hero who deserves our praise. Now for the sake of Olly and thousands of men like him, it is time for society to act.