Is Stormzy the new Cliff Richard?

Stormzy, left, and Cliff Richard holding a copy of the rapper's album This Is What I Mean - Jim Dyson/Redfern Daniel Hinchliffe/PA Wire
Stormzy, left, and Cliff Richard holding a copy of the rapper's album This Is What I Mean - Jim Dyson/Redfern Daniel Hinchliffe/PA Wire

The irony is almost biblical. In the week when Christianity was confirmed as a minority religion in England and Wales for the first time, the battle for this evening’s number one slot in the album charts was being slugged out by two of the most high-profile Christians in the entertainment world, Stormzy and Cliff Richard. Stormzy won, in what the Official Charts Company this evening called a “nail-biting finish”.

The grime superstar, whose album This Is What I Mean has been met with rave reviews, and the so-called Peter Pan of Pop, whose Christmas with Cliff album is his first festive long player in two decades, certainly make an incongruous pair. Aged 29 and 82 respectively, they have little in common.

You could no more imagine Stormzy singing along to the twee melody of The Young Ones than you could Richard rapping to the claustrophobic beats of Big For Your Boots. Indeed, Richard told ITV’s This Morning show that he “didn’t know Stormzy at all”. But the pair do share one thing: their faith.

As findings from the 2021 census reveal that less than half the population of England and Wales now describe themselves as Christian, both artists proudly wear their belief on their sleeves. Which pop fan could forget when Richard’s song The Millennium Prayer – in which he gamely set the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of Auld Lang Syne – prevented Craig David and the Artful Dodger from reaching number one in December 1999?

Meanwhile Stormzy’s God-centric new album is packed with religious imagery. He said last week that the process of writing This Is What I Mean had given him “so much more faith in God”. So while Christianity may be on the wane in general, it appears to be alive and well in one corner of the arts. And although it might be a stretch to say that Stormzy is the new Cliff, could it be that Christianity has found a hip, credible, popular new standard-bearer just at the right time?

Dr Stephen Hance, the Church of England’s National Lead for Evangelism and Witness, says that Stormzy serves as a fantastic reminder that Christianity is alive and well. “It might not come as a surprise that the majority of people no longer identify as Christian, but Stormzy reminds us that many people – including younger people – are still passionate about faith and find that belief in God provides a solid foundation for life.” He adds that Stormzy is “far from the only young British artist making their faith known.”

Not that the two musicians’ journeys have been similar. When Richard – born Harry Webb in Lucknow, India, where his father was a contractor for Indian Railways – announced in 1966 that he had become a Christian, many fans feared they’d somehow lose their hero. Such declarations were unfashionable and rare in the showbiz world. It certainly wasn’t cool. Elton John took to calling Richard “the bionic Christian”.

Even when Richard suggested The Millennium Prayer to his record label EMI in 1999, they declined to release it as they were concerned about its lack of commercial appeal. Richard cannily released it via the independent label Papillon Records instead. The fact that it was a smash hit spoke volumes about how wrong the mainstream music industry was in viewing Christianity as a no-go area. Richard once said, “If I’m going to represent God I have to do it the best I can, so I will go as far as I can into rock and roll carrying my Christian banner.” Still, it feels as though it took him a while to figure out how to be both a credible pop star and a public face of his religion.

Stormzy – born Michael Omari Owuo Jr in Croydon, South London – has felt no such restrictions. His 2017 single Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2 was essentially a hymn. He told Louis Theroux in a recent documentary, “We grew up in church. I’ve had faith all my life. I’ve loved God all my life.” Back in 2020, the rapper won an award for his “contribution to the public understanding of religion” from Standford St Martin, a group which according to its website promotes excellence in broadcasting about religion, ethics and spirituality.

Cliff Richard performing in 2008 - PA
Cliff Richard performing in 2008 - PA

Standford said it had given him the award “not because he believes in God but because of how this faith has informed his efforts to foster a public conversation”. The musician has “united thousands of fans across cultural, class, generational and religious boundaries”, it said. In reply Stormzy said that God is the reason he has a career. “A lot of the time I get non-believers saying, ‘Don’t thank God, that wasn’t God, this was all you.’ And I know this wasn’t all me. This was God,” he said. Stormzy told Theroux that his faith had grown over the pandemic, as is suggested by the plentiful religious content on his new album.

Stormzy’s trick has been to be completely open about his beliefs without bashing people over the head with them. Like Cliff, he’s a musician first. And while his language may not be to everyone’s taste (it includes profanities), he cuts through. Last weekend Twitter user PJ Kirby wrote: “Just listening to new Stormzy album – wow a lot of deep spiritual Christian content – possibly not language will hear in church tomorrow but hopefully the message is the same.”

Rock stars haven’t always been popular when they’ve embraced religion. Bob Dylan’s so-called Christian trilogy of albums between 1979 and 1981 (Slow Train Comin’, Saved and Shot of Love) were greeted with confusion by fans. Some musicians have even reacted badly to the suggestion that they’re religious in the first place.

Stormzy performing in Duesseldorf, April 2022 - WireImage
Stormzy performing in Duesseldorf, April 2022 - WireImage

Mumford & Sons’ former member Winston Marshall said in 2012 that it “pisses me off” when people label them Christian rockers. “Just being thought of as Christian is pretty annoying. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. But just being told you’re anything when you’re not,” Marshall told Q magazine.

Times may have changed. We live in an era when standing up for your personal beliefs is lauded, whatever those beliefs may be. Still, the Church of England’s Dr Hance says that openness about religion is often deliberately ignored. “Ironically, sometimes it feels as if, while [Stormzy] and other artists couldn’t be more explicit about their faith, some popular media often just gloss over it,” he says.

Not this week. The religious angle ­– in the days following the census findings ­– makes what Official Charts Company chief executive Martin Talbot called a “classic chart race” even more notable. Commenting on Stormzy’s victory, Talbot said: “Everyone loves a tight Number 1 race, and this week’s battle between Sir Cliff Richard and Stormzy has been an absolute classic, pitching two of our musical icons head-to-head.”

Anyway, according to Richard, being Christian has been cool all along. Rock and roll is all about rebellion, and what’s more rebellious than not conforming to the archetype? As the singer himself once said, “I don’t spit or swear or sleep around. I’ve always maintained I’m the most radical rock ‘n’ roll singer Britain has ever seen.” Amen to that.