Heavy is the head
What kind of person do you picture if I ask you to describe a modern psalmist? It’s a tricky thing to imagine – perhaps you’re trying to figure out what King David looked like and base it on him. But what if I told you that I truly believe the answer is staring right back at you from this page? Take a look around. That’s right. I’m talking about the British grime artist Stormzy and his latest musings in Heavy Is The Head.
When I first dived into the book of Psalms I was totally transfixed. Pure, honest pain, incomparable joy, violence, heartbreak, confusion and a constant curiosity for the ‘why’ and the ‘what next’. I felt as though the entire essence of my life – the ups and downs, the ugliest of the ugly and the best of the best – had somehow been captured in writing, like David was some sort of Dr Who that had been following me since birth. I really did believe there was nothing else out there like it. When I first heard this album, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the very same emotions: the pain of living, the longing to know the answers, and the careful balance between the violence and the joy of God.
If there’s one thing that Stormzy doesn’t shy away from in this album, it’s that life can be painful and difficult. He addresses all sorts of struggles, from the personal trials of mental health and breaking up with his girlfriend, to the bigger picture issues: the failures of the Government, racism, poverty and death. Parallel to the Psalms, Stormzy explains in lyrics that often things won’t go our way, that we may feel distant from God, that we won’t know what it’s all about. “Lord, I pray you make it easy that’s my one desire” he breaks out in ‘Lessons’ – a confessional self-reflection on the mistake she’s made and his inner troubles – admit-ting to, at times, finding it all too much.
But, if there’s one thing that I learned from the Psalms, it’s that despite the tricky stuff, the tears, self-loathing and a longing for death to come and swallow you up, God is always there to ensure it’ll all be alright in the end: “You have rescued my soul from death, My eyes from tears, My feet from stumbling” (Psalm 116:8). Stormzy understands this and it makes plenty of appearances in Heavy Is The Head: “Father God, you brought me down to build me up” he recites in ‘Rachael’s little brother’, and later: “But the holy blood of Christ, you don’t ever let me down.”
The Psalms are full of longing for a better and closer relationship with our maker, a desperation to make sense of life. It’s a book jam-packed with big, existential questions: What does life mean? Why do people suffer and die? How do I stop myself drifting from God? What does the Lord want me to do? With all these big questions and longing, the psalmist rightly comes to God to pray through them.
Heavy Is The Head does the same. It asks some big life questions: “Ever had to sacrifice yourself?” Stormzy muses in ‘Do better’, later trying to figure out how he can part with his mental woes: “What did you do with your pain?” And then offering prayer as a solution: “We pray for better days” he offers up in ‘Superheroes’. “Pray I never lose and pray I never hit the shelf” the prayer continues in ‘Crown’: “I pray you keep me on this path, I pray I never slip.” These biblical-based truths are littered throughout the album.
Naturally, many people may disagree with me because of links between grime music and violence (see Stormzy’s recent musical brawl with fellow grime MC Wiley). But you don’t have to look far in the Psalms to find the everyday grit of surviving in a world torn apart by aggression. There are promises from the psalmist to destroy all those against him, to “strike all my enemies on the jaw” and “break the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 3:7). There even seems to be celebration of these acts: “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9)!
Violent lines from the Psalms wouldn’t be out of place in a fierce grime track, and aren’t too dissimilar to Stormzy’s own outbursts: “You can get your chest banged or you can get your jaw torn, I’m that cold” (‘Rachael’s little brother’). Or the slightly milder reference to Matthew 5:45: “Let the rain fall on my enemies” (‘Rainfall’). While it’s certainly a shame that violence is still such a pivotal part of society (have we learnt nothing in the thousands of years since the Psalms were written?) it’s still as important as ever to address this emotion in music. If the Bible isn’t afraid to tackle it, grime artists certainly shouldn’t be getting stick for it.
Amid the difficulty of this album – the raw sadness and the horror of living – is joy and celebration. Between the bounce of great beats and lyrics, Stormzy spreads the goodness and love of God: “First you give God the praise, then see him work”, he celebrates in ‘Rainfall’, a joyful mirror of the Psalms. Stormzy is doing exactly what they instruct: to “sing and make music to the Lord” (Psalm 27:6).