I was attempting to not be within the lockdown,” rapper Stefflon Don tells me, operating a multicoloured claw by means of back-length, honey-blonde extensions. “Hell no!” Once we converse by way of Zoom in mid-November, Don is in Ghana, the place she has flown to flee London, together with her mom, son and a detailed buddy in tow. Regardless of it being a visit for pleasure, she has a studio session booked that night. “Regardless of the place I am going, I’m all the time gonna work,” she tells me.
This nonstop grind has paid dividends. Stephanie Victoria Allen, 28, recognized to buddies and followers as Steff, is one in every of Britain’s greatest exports, in line with the all- necessary stats: 5.78bn streams globally, 2.3bn streams on Apple Music alone, 444m views on Vevo, 1.2m subscribers on YouTube. However mainstream recognition eludes her within the UK, notably when in comparison with a few of her much less commercially profitable male counterparts.
Don arrived on the music scene in 2016 with a debut mix-tape, Actual Ting. Right here was an artist who had swerved the grittiness related to British rap. Twelve months later, she was longlisted within the BBC’s newcomer ballot, Sound of 2017. 4 months later she signed a £1.2m cope with Common, and her breakout single, Hurtin’ Me, that includes US rapper French Montana, reached quantity seven within the UK singles chart. She’s been on an upward trajectory ever since. She’s received Mobo awards. She’s labored with Nile Rodgers, Drake and Mariah Carey. In 2018 she turned the primary British artist ever to make legendary US hip-hop journal XXL’s annual Freshman Listing.
Don was born in Birmingham to Jamaican dad and mom. She moved to the Netherlands when she was 5 and returned to the UK at 14. In Holland, she grew up among the many immigrant communities of Rotterdam – folks from Suriname, Curaçao, Portugal. She remembers it being “similar to London” when it comes to range, however she didn’t come throughout many different Jamaicans till she arrived again in England. “Individuals [in Rotterdam] didn’t even know what Jamaica was,” she laughs. “So I used to say, ‘Are you aware Sean Paul?’ If it wasn’t for him, folks wouldn’t have recognized the place the fuck I’m from!”
‘I really feel I’m part of a lot extra’: (from left) together with her companion Burna Boy. Credit score: Getty Photos
Making an entrance on the World Leisure Awards on the Hammersmith Apollo London. Credit score: Alamy
Her discography attracts on dancehall, grime, R&B and, culturally, any nation’s impressed by. Although she is usually described as a British artist, she says, “I’ve by no means felt like a UK artist. I used to be round so many various folks from completely different backgrounds, completely different nations. I really feel I’m part of a lot extra. That’s why I’m by no means scared to attempt issues.”
In her newest single, Can’t Let You Go, Don slips between patois and the Nigerian dialect, Yoruba. When she was placing the music collectively, her Nigerian producer mistakenly thought she’d mentioned one thing within the language, and inspired her to hold on, which left her uncharacteristically coy. Given the blended response to Beyoncé’s Black is King album – rapper Noname panned the album’s visuals as “an African aesthetic draped in capitalism” – Don anticipated a backlash. The music was met with reward, however the idea of cultural appropriation is mostly one which she isn’t fully satisfied by. Take the summer season furore over Adele’s now notorious Instagram post, displaying her carrying Bantu knots and a Jamaican flag bikini prime to mark what would have been Notting Hill carnival. Steff shakes her head on the tradition vulture accusations.
“The individuals who have been complaining weren’t Jamaicans,” she says, with a shrug. “To us we simply see it as love. Even that Chet Hanks man [actor Tom Hanks’ son, who has repeatedly gone viral for videos speaking with a Jamaican accent]. We’ll simply snort. We’d by no means name it “cultural appropriation”. We by no means use that time period. As a result of when you consider it, the entire music scene has a Jamaican affect. Jamaican folks know that they’re creators and inventors of lots of issues.”
Once I meet her on Zoom, Don is undoubtedly glamorous and assured, nevertheless it wasn’t all the time so. She was an outcast when she first arrived in Clapton, east London, in 2006. She was sporting a nostril piercing and decrease again tattoo, physique modification being much less of an enormous deal in Rotterdam colleges. “My costume sense was fucked,” she laughs. “So after I got here, they have been me like, ‘What’s happening for this chick, fam? What sort of footwear? What is that this jacket? What coiffure? And I’m similar to, ‘I’m a child!’”
Don’s distinct accent additionally set her aside. “I had an American, Jamaican, bizarre, fucked accent. I keep in mind after I had a boyfriend he can be like, ‘Speak to my buddies! Hearken to her accent, take heed to how she sounds, it’s mad!’”
It was round this time she started taking music severely. She was raised in a musical household – her mom sang in choirs, her dad dabbled in music, her brother is the drill artist Dutchavelli, who has not too long ago confronted severe accusations. After his Instagram account was allegedly hacked a couple of weeks in the past, inappropriate messages leaked which gave the impression to be between him and his late supervisor’s teenage niece. Dutchavelli has since mentioned they have been edited by hackers and each he and the woman’s mom have denied the allegations.
Don was “that child” in major faculty, rounding up reluctant buddies to carry out Future’s Little one routines at expertise reveals. “I might write down what I believed have been the lyrics and drag them alongside,” she giggles. After encouraging her to start out singing, her dad landed her first gig, aged 9, recording an unreleased model of the Arduous Knock Life hook for Dutch rapper U-Niq. However she knew singing wasn’t fairly proper for her again then, and says she was “bored with the embarrassment, bored with being shy”.
Don was inspired by her sister to attempt rapping as an alternative, at 15. “Once I began rapping, I used to be like: that is it. This matches actually who I’m. The arrogance.”
All through our interview, Don repeatedly refers to her confidence and her “realness”, as most rappers do. However in her case, her lack of filter is simple. She speaks wholly from a stream of consciousness, briefly acknowledging that what she has mentioned will most likely elicit a response after which saying it anyway. This has, after all, a number of instances landed her in scorching water. Final yr, whereas selling a brand new single, she staged her personal arrest by the hands of a white police officer and revealed photographs of the faux occasion on social media. In an Instagram caption, she wrote: “Bloodclaat mi a get locked up Black Lives Matter,” and added a laughing face emoji. The put up was criticised by followers for being insensitive and was later deleted.
Then, there have been the tweets of hers that resurfaced in 2018, insulting darker-skinned ladies, a difficulty she raises earlier than I do, the elephant on the Zoom. In 2013 she tweeted about “dark-skinned” ladies “hating on light-skinned” ladies, including: “Don’t act like if God gave you an opportunity you wouldn’t change your color.” She has since apologised, however the “colourist” label has confirmed troublesome to shake.
“I perceive everybody’s frustration with me,” she says. “And I understand how unhealthy that tweet seems, like I’m one other particular person including to all of the fucked-up shit that everybody says…However I used to be considering rah, I’m not even this particular person that you simply’re attempting to say I’m. How might I not like somebody due to the color of their pores and skin? A racist particular person is an evil particular person and that may be the identical factor for a colourist.”
She provides that whereas she understands the comparative privilege she has as a light-skinned black girl, the idea of colourism was not one she grew up with. “In Holland, in case you’re black, you’re black,” she says. “Should you’re white, you’re white. It was by no means shades: by no means a light-skinned, dark-skinned factor. I by no means discovered that till I got here to England, the place I might get into an argument at college and ladies can be like, “You suppose you’re good cos you’re light-skinned.” And I’d suppose, ‘What the fuck does that imply?’”
Over the previous few years, a number of musicians, media personalities and influencers have had outdated tweets unearthed expressing related, offensive views. Many have been capable of transfer on from their feedback, however for Don, it’s nonetheless one thing that crops up often on social media. Today, she says tends to clapback much less (“There’s lots of instances I write stuff and I’ll hit the backspace actual fast,” she says), however she believes it’s getting extra poisonous. Instagram’s choice so as to add the characteristic of liking feedback, she says, has inspired extra on-line maliciousness, because the meanest feedback are sometimes upvoted. The location invited her into their places of work for a gathering to handle the difficulty of trolling, which she dubbed a “waste of her time”.
Don’s manner softens when she discusses her son, who’s 10, and who she had, unplanned, at 17. His father was in jail on the time, making an already difficult scenario harder. “I used to be truly fascinated about having an abortion,” she says. “I had appointments to do it and so many issues stored occurring to not make me do it.” It crossed her thoughts how having a toddler would possibly have an effect on her profession. However she feels her success has been due to her son not regardless of him. “He has made me who I’m at present,” she says. “He helped me avoid lots of nonsense, in the case of boys. I maintain myself so excessive as a result of I’m a mom. There’s lots of issues I wouldn’t stand for and locations I didn’t need to be as a result of I’m a mum.”
‘My son made me who I’m at present’: prime, observe pants, socks and heels, all by miumiu.com. Credit score: Danny Kasirye/The Observer
Household is clearly a precedence. Don has purchased a big home in Essex: 10 bedrooms, a designer wardrobe and a swimming pool. She lives there with numerous relations, together with her brothers, sisters, mum and her son, in addition to nieces who’re round a lot, she says, that they might as effectively dwell there full-time. I inform her that is one thing I’ve all the time wished to do. “You say that till it occurs!” she cackles. “Then it’s like, ‘Fucking hell!’ Once I was youthful, I needed to take care of my little brothers and sisters, I needed to take them to high school, I needed to cook dinner dinner. Even now I’m just like the second mum. My little sister simply turned 18; she doesn’t do something with out asking me. So after I’m doing one thing I all the time carry my household alongside. However I’m fascinated about it now, although, as a result of I’m bored with them,” she jokes.
The principle supply of fatigue? Being a critically acclaimed artist who nonetheless has to choose up after her siblings. It’s her solely bugbear, however she balks at any suggestion she get a cleaner. “I’ve bought how many individuals in right here that don’t do nothing?” she says. “No. In my home it’s a must to clear day by day.”
As feminine rappers stateside proceed to climb the charts – Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, City Girls – Britain remains to be no less than a decade behind, with a solitary “Queen B” spot that Don is keenly conscious she holds. “Within the UK, lots of people are very a lot on the identical stage. There’s not many people who find themselves thus far to achieve. I’m one of many solely feminine rappers that’s like that, so that you received’t actually see lots of the feminine rappers fucking with me, as a result of they really feel I’m thus far gone.”
Whereas she applauds extra ladies on the scene, she worries concerning the sustainability of the present mannequin, what she refers to as a “development” of influencers-turned-rappers. It’s a frequent trajectory for a lot of musicians, particularly feminine rappers and is achieved with various levels of success. One managing to make the transition is self-styled Queen of Drill Ivorian Doll, who Don says she reached out to after she spoke about her struggles navigating the business.
“I needed to message her like, hey, you’re doing good, everybody loves what you’re doing – stick with it,” she explains. “However that’s any individual that most likely didn’t develop up eager to do music and now it’s like, ‘Rah, I didn’t know that is what it comes with.’”
There’s nonetheless some technique to go, Don says, till we see the identical camaraderie that we do amongst male artists. “Ladies naturally have beef with one another,” she says – one thing she feels primarily comes all the way down to “boys”. “We simply see different ladies as threats; we compete with how we glance, we compete with our careers. The connection I’m in now, he makes me really feel like I’m the one girl within the room; that’s why most likely I’m far more relaxed and far more cool with everybody.”
The person in query is Grammy-nominated musician Burna Boy, who she met in Ghana two years in the past, by likelihood. She attended his present after lacking a flight and he advised her she was going to be his spouse. This week, nevertheless, the couple have been dealing with infidelity rumours, with Burna Boy being accused of getting a two-year relationship with one other girl. Each are but to touch upon the allegations.
The journey to Africa was the start of a distinct love story altogether, with the nation Ghana itself, which she visited for the primary time two years in the past, after she was invited by Afrobeats artist Fuse ODG.
“As quickly as I bought right here I simply felt at residence,” she says. “It’s bizarre, however you get a sense. I’ve by no means felt it anyplace else, nevertheless it’s that feeling of, ‘Oh, I belong someplace.’
Individuals don’t realise that in western nations the place folks be like, ‘freedom’, it isn’t freedom. You’re trapped,” she provides. “Freedom is the place you possibly can stroll and really feel like nobody would hurt you… I’m not saying there’s no crime in Ghana, however I fell in love with it.”
On this journey, she has been visiting a major faculty that she, Fuse ODG, Ghanaian comic Michael Blackson and activist Chaka Bars are constructing in Akosombo, which is able to partially be used as an orphanage. “What’s his title has additionally been a part of this… What’s that ginger man’s title once more? Ginger hair.” Ed Sheeran? I supply. She nods. “I all the time neglect his title!”
Stefflon Don’s standoffish fame precedes her, so I wasn’t positive who I used to be going to fulfill. Her honesty was refreshing, nevertheless, and one thing many media-trained musicians might maybe be aware of. “Once you’re an actual particular person and you’ve got an opinion, it’s arduous to play faux,” she says. “What I’m realising is, you must get your cash, get your shit collectively and whenever you’re on the prime, say what you need”.
Stefflon Don’s single Can’t Let You Go is out now
Vogue editor Jo Jones; hair and wig by Snobbstylist; make-up by Summar Hunjan; shot at Large Sky studio; style assistant Peter Bevan