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How BERWYN tackled the state of Britain and personal pain on his remarkable debut album

BERWYN’s debut album is a deeply personal collection of the problems he has had to face, told with honesty as he searches for meaning in his life

By Nick Reilly

BERWYN (Picture: TJ Sawyer)

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?!” says BERWYN with a smile, palm outstretched as he strolls through the door of his management’s offices in west London.

He’s right, and it’s a neat piece of recollection from the east London musician, given that BERWYN’s relationship with Rolling Stone UK stretches back to this very magazine’s beginning in September 2021. At that time, he was one of the artists who featured in our first-ever issue, candidly opening up about how a lifetime of hardship had informed his remarkable debut mixtape — 2020’s Mercury Prize-nominated DEMOTAPE/VEGA. On that first body of work, he employed hip hop and looser piano cuts to dissect his experiences of racism, homelessness and losing friends to knife crime.

Nearly three years later, that same spirit burns brighter than ever on his debut album, Who Am I. As that title suggests, it’s a remarkably honest record which sees BERWYN reckoning with his own identity amid the toughest of personal problems. On the stirring album track ‘I Am Black’, he lays it out simply: “I am Black and I’m not trying to run from myself… Imagine living life scared you could die on the streets / Any day, any week, brothers pray, and they weep”.

The frank discussion of racism reflects the adversity that the rapper faced after leaving Trinidad at the age of nine in 2005 and moving to Romford, east London, as part of the only Black family on his street. Compounding this, he explains, was the constant fear of deportation, which ultimately meant that he was unable to go into further education or even land a job.

He’s previously used his music to outline how this limbo led to a period of homelessness, but none of that reaches the stark clarity of ‘Dear Immigration’, one of the album’s standout tracks. It takes the form of a remarkable stream of consciousness as BERWYN reads out an immigration plea to his lawyer — and pulls no punches about the reality of his situation.

You make me feel like a fugitive and runaway,” he says on the song, before adding, “Today you made my little brother say he wants to sell drugs, and I hate you for that, I really blame you for that / How was he born in this country and still needs papers and that? / You made him want to sell drugs and he’s so much greater than that.”

Even now, after critical acclaim, sold-out shows and the small matter of a Mercury Prize nomination, BERWYN says that he’s still not been granted an indefinite right to remain.

“I’ve got something called discretionary leave to remain, and it’s a financial loophole that was designed for prisoners who were coming out of jail to be monitored so they had the potential to be deported if they misbehaved,” he explains. “But I’ve never been to prison, and my little brother was born in London in Whipps Cross Hospital and he has the same situation as me. I have to pay three grand for me, him and my mum to apply every three years, and at the end of the day, it’s an extortion scheme. It’s taking the people who are the most vulnerable and putting them in a corner. I have to pay them three grand for nine years and I’m still paying tax on top of that. It’s extortion, it’s nonsensical, and it’s still affecting my life.”

He adds that the situation has also affected his professional life — he had to get straight off the stage after a show in Amsterdam with Fred Again last year and return to the UK by 11pm or he wouldn’t be allowed back in the country.

Though it’s a deeply personal album, BERWYN explains that his personal relationship with his music has changed, too. He says that he’s a “serviceman” and he can be detached from why he’s in this game. “Now I know exactly what to say in front of the mic,” he says. “If there’s a story that needs to be told and I can tell it beautifully, that’s my service done. My job is to produce light and positivity. It’s simple. I don’t take anything else into the room apart from this energy that people tend to enjoy.

“I can hone in on that and it’s really liberated me. It’s made me appreciate myself for myself and that is crazy because for the first two years of my career I couldn’t fit into the mould, and I’d get upset about that. Now, I’m going to look back on it like an idiot.”

That realisation, however, came as a result of the rudest of awakenings. BERWYN was at home when he suddenly lost his eyesight for an evening, which led him to examine the reality of what would happen if it didn’t return. “I rolled a spliff, smoked it and went to sleep,” he recalls. “I thought if I’m blind by the time I wake up then I’ll go to the hospital. But my mind started racing on this path and I started thinking about what would happen if I am permanently blind. I thought I could be a rap version of Ray Charles because I can play piano without looking; I can play guitar and my voice is still here.

“I was thinking about the benefits too because I thought I could go home, look after my dad and start a business with the bit of money I do have. The more I started thinking about it, the more I wanted to wake up blind!”

He was pulled back to reality by recalling the emotional interactions he’d had on tour with fans. “All of these people were pouring their heart out to me when we did meet-and-greets,” recalls BERWYN. “There would be all these people coming and chopping their life up to me, crying, telling me how hard their lives have been, and how I’ve affected that. That’s when I started re-analysing the situation and whether I’m doing this for me. Because if I was, I’d probably go to Ibiza and enjoy a week there at least. I don’t feel like I’m doing much of this for me, so I reduced it to just being a serviceman.”

It’s a healthy dynamic too, given that the blindness, which happened on a second occasion, was eventually diagnosed as being a result of stress. It’s understandable, given the burden of a debut album on a major label resting on his shoulders. However, the result shows that the toil was worth it. On Who Am I, there are moments of remarkable beauty. The tough subject matters are offset by the penultimate track, ‘Without You’, an unbridled love confessional, while the stunning ‘Dear Mama’ sees him reflect on the journey so far through a letter to his mum, who is the last voice to feature on the album.

“When the sun comes up, my service is telling stories through sound,” says BERWYN as we wrap our conversation. “I’ve understood the components of a BERWYN album and these are my tools of power. What’s most important is that there’s an exceptional body of work that everything revolves around and as long as that is consistent, we’re good.”

Taken from the next issue of Rolling Stone UK. You can buy it here.