I found it refreshing at this year's Brit Awards, that the artist who made probably the biggest impact was a 24 year old south London grime rapper called Stormzy - all thanks to the popularity of his first album 'Gang Signs and Prayer', which won the best album category. Sadly for many, this is not the kind of music that is heard in our churches, and yet he's clearly having an influence on our youth culture and wider audiences. This is all the more startling because he sings openly about his faith and the impact that it has had on his life.
His supporters, it seems, include Jeremy Corbyn AND the Church of England. A spokesperson for the CofE praised his 'determination to make his faith central to his art'. And that's exactly what impressed me when viewing the Brit Awards on television, as, in accepting his award, he first and foremost thanked God for what he had achieved, and continued to return to this theme of gratitude to our Lord at various stages. He summed it up with the words: 'Every time I give the glory to God, I know it seems like such a strange thing, but if you know God you know that this is all Him'.
I wanted to say 'AMEN' when I read in the Guardian a further comment from a CofE spokesperson: 'It turns out the devil doesn't have all the best tunes' which I think is a reference to one of Cliff Richards' songs 'Why should the devil have all the good music?'
One song of Stormzy's that particularly appealed to me is 'Blinded by Your Grace' - now available as a 'Part 1' and 'Part 2', and contains a powerful message about the mercy of God's love. In Part 1 he sings:
'Through the darkness You came, and I'll be alright with You by my side. The way that I see You, You're all that I'm needing , Your love never let's me down, Your love never leaves me'. And then, in Part 2 he develops this theme: 'Lord, I've been broken, although I'm not worthy, You fixed me, I'm blinded by Your grace'
During the Brit Awards, Stormzy performed a routine that began with this Gospel-influenced 'Blinded by Your Grace' and then progressed through to a 'free rap' which contained strong criticism of government, authorities and some of our National Press for their inactivity or prejudices to the disadvantaged - all performed under flowing water. A set engineer who worked into the early hours of the morning to perfect the staging, commented: 'Stormzy was clear from the outset that the performance would have this specific political purpose. The rap breaks the hymn like a bomb lobbed through a church window and the rain brings unrehearsable realness and urgency: each word and gesture is magnified and radiated through it'
The response to his performance is testament to Stormzy's profile: not just a ground-breaking musician, but an agitator and inspirational figure who seeks to project his faith at every opportunity. His supporters have presented him as a role model, with one MP saying: 'The kids I've met from tough backgrounds, who move in and out of school, who carry knives or get involved in selling drugs, their talent and dreams are wasted and we need to give them choices in life. The best way to show them that they can achieve is for them to see people like Stormzy who come from the same part of town, who have lived the same experience, and made it'. His critics - including some of the Tabloid Press, have not been as complimentary, but there again he has referred to some as being 'hypocrites'!
I have to admit I like some of his music - although I cringe at some of the language he uses - but I have to admire someone who publically uses his God-given talent to speak a message both of hope as well as stinging criticism which is influencing a mass audience, and probably reaching those parts that the Church is failing to reach! It is a testimony to the way God raises up people within every generation to speak of our dependency on His love, grace, and forgiveness, so that 'all may have life in all its fullness' (John 10: 10)
In our Lent Study we have been exploring what it means to be an Easter People, in other words living in a way that confidently reflects the life we have been offered through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour. We have discovered that this can lead us to sing out hymns of praise and thanksgiving to the One who saves, to find strength and trust in times of difficulties, to share the Good News with all whom we meet, as well as to challenge the unjust systems of our communities, nation and world. That's the kind of expression I find in Stormzy's lyrics - so he certainly gets my support, even if I find him unconventional - but in so many ways, so was Jesus!