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BERWYN: “No one in this dream can convince me it’s real”

Nominated for a Mercury Prize this year, BERWYN's remarkable story has been shaped by his own experiences of overcoming homelessness and immigration battles

By Nick Reilly

Berwyn poses for Rolling Stone UK
Berwyn, 2021 (Picture: Frank Fieber)

There was this girl at Reading Festival, right at the front, who was crying throughout my whole set,” says BERWYN. “It felt like there was a whole movie playing out in front of me while I was performing. It was probably the best two days of my life.”

The rapper, producer and songwriter is speaking to Rolling Stone days after his first ever festival shows at Reading and Leeds, which saw him delivering one of the weekend’s most commanding performances on the BBC Music Introducing stage.

Listen to his debut mixtape, 2020’s DEMOTAPE/VEGA and it’s clear why he’s established himself as one of the UK’s hottest talents. The Mercury Prize-nominated project sees BERWYN flitting between hip-hop and deeper, piano-based cuts to dissect the issues that have shaped his life – including losing close friends to knife crime, homelessness and his mother’s imprisonment.

His musical roots can be traced back to his early life in Trinidad, where his passion was sparked when his father taught him how to play the steel drums. “That was the only instrument around. Everyone went to the pan yard to play the pans and the entire village shared the instruments,” he explains.

He moved to Romford, east London, when he was nine, and credits one of his school teachers with encouraging him to pursue his talents. “My teacher was doing this Christmas concert and taught me the chords to ‘I Will Survive’. It gave me that sensation of being your own record player, and I’m sorry if that sounds like a cliché. But it was enough to teach myself guitar, and the earliest moment of being the musician I am today.”

But after later securing A levels that were good enough for a university place, BERWYN’s uncertain immigration status meant he was unable to go into further education or even land a job. DEMOTAPE/VEGA, he explains, was his ambitious attempt to escape those desperate circumstances during a period of homelessness.

Recorded during a two-week stint in a Romford bedsit, the project sees BERWYN discussing his circumstances with remarkable honesty. “How come sleepin’ in the car only filled me with drive?,” he asks on ‘Glory’.

Berwyn poses for Rolling Stone UK
Berwyn, 2021 (Picture: Frank Fieber)

He’s just as unflinching when asked about his lowest point during this time. Have you ever washed your arse in a pub sink and had the man in the cubicle opposite you open the door and make direct eye contact with you?” he candidly asks.

Err, I have not.

“You’re so far down the ladder that you couldn’t care less about his opinion because you know it’s not even going to bring you half a step up. I guess that summarises my whole experience.” ‘DEMOTAPE/VEGA‘, meanwhile, was his “ticket out of that situation”.

“There was no other end goal and this was literally my only option. On my mother’s life, this was it, so thank fuck it worked!”

BERWYN is now in an entirely different place. He finally secured settled immigration status earlier this year and secured that Mercury Prize nod in July, becoming the first artist to directly benefit from the rule changes that were brought about by Japanese-British trailblazer Rina Sawayama.

Her 2019 genre-hopping debut won acclaim from the likes of Elton John, but Sawayama revealed last year that despite living in the UK for 25 years, she was ineligible for a Mercury nomination and domestic categories at the BRIT Awards.

The subsequent furore sparked the #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH campaign online and eventually resulted in a successful meeting with the BPI, the organisations charged with organising the BRIT and Mercury awards, where Sawayama secured the rule change.

BERWYN, who explains that he also fell foul of those BRIT Awards rules, recently reached out to Sawayama to thank her for driving change.

“I dropped her a message on my way to Leeds and just said ‘Yo, thank you for doing that’. I know the strength it takes because I was in the same situation, but I kept schtum when I got to the end of mine, I couldn’t be bothered to swing for that final blow,” he says. “She said she wasn’t expecting a message but wished me all the best.”

Although Berwyn didn’t win that coveted Mercury Prize, you sense he’s just getting started regardless. He has followed up that debut effort with the equally compelling ‘TAPE 2/FOMALHAUT ‘and says his end goal is to be “the best who ever did it”.

That, and the small matter of his plans to become Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. “It *is* going to happen, he affirms. But until then, BERWYN says he’s just expecting to “wake up at any minute”.

“The first moment I felt that was when I first got signed. Then there was an article someone wrote about my whole life, but it just keeps happening, fam. If I wake up, I’m going to be furious! No one in this dream can convince me it’s real, either, I’m onto you!”