Stormzy, status, and the serious business of social media spats

When is a ‘spat’ more than just that? Like many other performers, Stormzy used Twitter and Instagram to implore followers to register to vote. While emphasising these were “MY views” and encouraging readers to do their own research, the rapper and singer made his own conclusions clear. Corbyn was “committed to giving power back to the people”, while the prospect of continued premiership for a man who admitted nervousness on seeing a “bunch of black kids” was “extremely dangerous”.

It didn’t take long for a Conservative to be called on for a response to Stormzy’s “sinister man” depiction of their leader. On talkRADIO Michael Gove claimed Stormzy had made his “political views” clear by wearing a “stab vest” on stage at Glastonbury. “All I would say”, Gove concluded, “is that he’s a far, far better rapper than he is political analyst”. When Labour’s Angela Rayner retorted that Gove was “crap at both” Gove curiously co-opted Stormzy’s own lyrics to clap back, tweeting: “I set trends dem man copy”.

While this “embarrassing” episode in the campaign seems surreal it’s not something new, and not just because we have previously been subjected to Gove rapping. This ‘spat’ and the media commentary around it feels like a familiar form of boundary policing, questioning whether a celebrity has the status to make political statements. We also saw this explicitly in 2015 with David Cameron’s dismissal of comedian Russell Brand as “a joke”, something he made emphatically clear that electoral politics was not. Gove’s use of Stormzy’s lyrics to double down on dismissing his political knowledge reinforces the sense it is not just that he is a celebrity that matters, nor a musician, but a rapper.

I have argued that celebrities’ status in the political field is grounded in claims to represent citizens. Being seen to speak to a large audience – for example when spikes in voter registration among younger people were attributed to Stormzy – is most important for working class celebrities associated with genres attributed lower cultural capital. While Michael Gove appears to have some liking for rap we can assume he and Stormzy disagree on many things, one of these being what “political views” Stormzy was signalling by wearing Banksy’s Union Jack stab vest at Glastonbury.

But it is broader perceptions of what Stormzy represents – what he speaks for, and who he speaks to – that make this spat something more meaningful. While The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones argued Stormzy spoke for England” at Glastonbury he is generally not seen to have such generic reach, nor to speak for some faceless group demonstrated through social media stats. Stormzy routinely does what is often demanded of celebrities who talk politics: he puts his money where his mouth is. The Stormzy Scholarship supports black students to study at Cambridge, and he has emphasised the importance of using the word “black” rather than framing awardees euphemistically as “underprivileged”. His #Merky Books collaboration with Penguin publishes the stories of young writers “that are not being heard”, and the description of his own book proclaims him “a true spokesman of black empowerment”. Stormzy makes continued connections across multiple social fields to a community he is seen to represent, a constituency that is largely young, black, and excluded from formal politics.

Beyond Stormzy, in this election we continued to see celebrity used to draw battle lines between the two main rivals. While as in 2017 celebrity endorsements were not at the core of Labour’s campaign, their Instagram feed showcased several famous faces in the final days. Labour candidates also continued to accept celebrity support on the campaign trail, even if this time it was often tactically anti-Tory. The Conservatives in contrast continued to be a celebrity-free zone; aside, of course, from their leader. But the divide established in 2015 continues, as the Conservatives distance themselves from celebrity while seeking to undermine the authority of Labour’s star supporters. Here Gove’s comments can be seen in broader context: following the 2015 election he joked that those who had seen celebrities as “the voices of the silent majority” had been proven “marvellously, and hilariously, wrong”.

The use of Stormzy to make a point about political authority in this campaign may have deeper implications than previous celebrity spats. Reflecting after polling day, Stormzy argued “you’re just a rapper” is a “weaponised tactic” to “reduce us to whatever they need us to be and dismiss it”. Whether the celebrity divide continues into future elections, this particular dismissal may reinforce perceptions of who there is and is not a place for in electoral politics.