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Stormzy’s incandescent Glastonbury opening night set played like over an hour of iconic moments. Taking to an industrial stage, alone, wearing a Banksy-customized stab vest the 25 year old hurled himself around his hits with the focused energy and intellect of only the very best rappers. Rap, more than any other form of music, is about physicality as much as musicality. Every step, every gesture, is punctuation and emphasis and Stormzy didn’t put a single foot wrong. His sheer focus and intensity locked you to the screen, so much so that I was fully prepared for this to be the entire performance. It would have been great too.
What we got was so much more complex, important and better.
As time went on, the set slowly filled. Dancers joined the invisible, but ever present backup DJs. The stab vest was replaced by multiple other outfits. The performance shifted gear and as it did so expanded from the focused and necessary rage of the opening section to something far more inclusive and, frequently, astounding. Not just because of his ability, which is unmatched but because of the context he continually placed that ability in. Not to mention the fun he had with it. Stormzy is a focused, rapier eloquent rapper with an unmatched ability to speak his truth. So hearing him cover ‘Shape of You’ by Ed Sheeran is like watching someone go for the hardest possible combo on a video game. Almost no one manages it, but when it works it’s amazing. Real wit and affection balanced with musical versatility, self awareness and bone dry, gentle humor. After all, how many other artists, at any festival, ever, would cheerfully cede center stage to a 10 year old and SUPER fierce back up dancer?
Inclusiveness and the desire to reach across stylistic boundaries was the spine of the entire performance. Chris Martin cameo’d to play keyboards. Stormzy performed a number with Dave and Fredo, the first ever black-British rap performers to reach number one. Stormzy was second and, when they refused to leave the stage without thanking him, he was visibly moved. Earlier in the performance, a costume change was covered by BAME ballet group Ballet Black. David Lammy MP’s speech about the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic prisoners in the criminal justice system was played. Time and again Stormzy either told us the truth or put people in front of us who could do that better than him. That’s not what a King does. That’s what a leader does.
Which isn’t to say Stormzy can’t flex with the best of them, he can. He got the crowd to sing ‘Fuck the government! Fuck Boris!’ On Vossi Bop and finished with a bravura performance of the ultimate put down song ‘Shut Up.’But that last one was also an opportunity for him to stop and honor the artists who got him and his field where he is today as well as the new talent coming up behind him. That was the epitome of class; using the biggest stage he’s ever been on to boost over sixty other people. Inclusiveness, compassion, humour, raw emotional honesty. This wasn’t one man in the spotlight, this was one man becoming the spotlight for others and in doing so, growing himself. It was inspirational, defining, startling work,
Also fuck the government and fuck Boris.
A couple of minutes after taking to the stage in a pair of combat boots, a diaphanous cape and a leotard fresh from the 10th Rhinestone Orbital Funk Division, Lizzo paused and looked out over the crowd. She offhandedly mentioned that the first time she played Glastonbury there were two people in the crowd and now, she’d guess, there were ‘16 million thousand’. The old adage about working for a decade to be discovered overnight is true. And Lizzo, at long last, has finally been discovered.
If Stormzy’s set was a triumphant and clear-eyed march through modern culture, Lizzo’s was a jazz open mic night with occasional flute breaks. She’s not just a phenomenal singer and musician she’s painfully honest and endlessly, relentlessly funny. A jazz flute solo in the middle of one of her numbers is impressive. The fact she’s twerking while she does it is doubly so. The fact that it’s punctuated by a triumphant and more than slightly metal ‘BITCH!’ Is what puts you over the top. And brilliantly you’re never laughing at her, always with her. At the end of almost every song she’d get this massive, sudden grin on her face that was one part ‘I did it!’ And 100% ‘You bet your ASS I did it!’ And it made you want to applaud each time.
Stormzy’s armor is a Banksy modified stab vest. Lizzo’s is her disco commando outfit, a look so good she asked for (And got) two rounds of applause for it. Both of them wear their hearts on their sleeves. ‘Jerome’, one of the new album’s best was given some welcome context. She hinted that the break up of her relationship with him was key to the album going platinum and, swigging what seemed to be tequila, she cheerfully admitted that if he was at Glastonbury she would ‘WHOOP HIS ASS!’. 16 million thousand people applauded. Good thing you took your ass home, Jerome. Later still, she championed the idea of self love for the crowd, asked them all to focus said love and then give to her because she’s been depressed recently. It was funny because of her total lack of front. It was sad because of her total lack of front. Most of all, it was honest and kind and unexpected. She spent her whole set cheerfully upending expectations and finished where she began; a massive smile on her face, knowing she did it, we saw it and we loved it.
Both the Lizzo and Stormzy performances are available on iPlayer for the next month on YouTube for basically ever because information doesn’t die, it just gets turned into content