“Music Is My Oxygen”: An Interview With Stefflon Don

Stefflon Don has never been hungrier.

“I don’t really have a personal life outside of music. Everything I do, every single day, is based around my music career,” the Birmingham-born musician tells Hypebeast while gearing up for her latest live performance in Albania.

Stefflon Don has been a mainstay in the British music scene since breaking through with her single, “Style,” in 2017. The artist is currently on a quest to bring her encapsulating sound to arena shows across the world, and her debut album Island 54 – which dropped today – is the latest stepping stone in her journey to realizing this.

The album is Stefflon Don’s most complete project to date. Combining sounds of dancehall, rap, afrobeats, amapiano, R&B and more, the 20-tracker represents an up-to-date version of her life thus far as one of the most successful musicians from the UK. It also dives into her childhood struggles and the times she felt forced to “step outside of her femininity” as a businesswoman.

Stefflon Don’s multicultural upbringing is what’s given her the freedom to express herself in a way so different from many others; born in Birmingham, she was raised by Jamaican parents, later moving to Holland and then London – but Stefflon Don insists that her exposure to so many cultures at an early age has only broadened her palette and ear for music.

“Growing up, my parents were music lovers, and around the house, they would play a lot of dancehall music. I believe this has shaped the person I am today and the decisions I make in terms of song choices and instrumental choices,” she tells Hypebeast.

This willingness to embrace and experiment with different sonics has been encapsulated more than ever in Island 54. The album is well-rounded, offering everything from jumpy rap joints to more mellow and soulful representations of the darker moments in her life. Opening up her diary more than ever before, Stefflon Don is ready for the world to listen.

Hypebeast caught up with Stefflon Don to discuss her latest album, experiences of navigating the music industry, how she wants to give back to the community, and more.

Hey Steff! How are you?

Over the last couple of weeks, since I’ve known that the project is coming, we’ve gone super hard. Promo has been everywhere, and because of that, I’m not really sleeping, I’m awake, always working – so a little bit drained. At the same time, I’m blessed to have the opportunity that I do have to do something great.

How happy are you that you’re now able to share your debut album with the world?

It’s crazy – emotions are everywhere. You’re excited, then you’re worried. You just want everyone to listen to it. That’s why we do the promotion, right? You want everyone to realize that I’m dropping a project while encouraging them to come and have a listen. So it’s just the fact that we’ve worked so hard and we want the results to show that people have actually been listening to it.

“My music is my oxygen and music is my therapy. If I don’t go to the studio and create for a long period of time, I notice that I start to feel sad without knowing why I’m sad.”

One stand-out song from your new album is the opener, “Top Toppa.” As a record that sets the tone for what’s to come from the album, how difficult did you find it to create a song that would tee up the rest of the album so seamlessly?

Even though I have an opening track and I think it’s amazing, I wouldn’t say that the opening track necessarily tells you what the project is going to give you throughout. When you listen to the project, you will understand how versatile it is, and you definitely hear a few surprises in there. I feel like the opening track, when I made it, I thought about what it would be like when opening on tour. I realized that this track would be a great opener for my live shows, so thought it would be the same to open up the album.

The term “versatile” suggests that you do different things because you can, but do you think that you create different sounds because you need to, and feel like it’s a good way in which you can express yourself?

I feel like I do these things because it’s natural. Like how you, as a consumer, if you go on Apple or Spotify, you listen to a wide variety of sounds. That’s me as an artist. I like different sounds, and I can do different sounds. That’s why the album is the way it is, but all of the different sounds complement each other. It doesn’t sound random, it’s not like people are going to listen to a sound and wonder how it got there – it’s all going to make sense. It’s still the same person on the track. So, to answer your question, I do it because I can and I do it because I love to do it – that’s what I want to hear from my favorite artists, especially when they can execute it well.

Being born in Birmingham with Jamaican parents, to living in Holland and London, you’ve had a varied upbringing and life in comparison to the average person. How do you manage to express all of these different cultural influences in your music?

I would say it just happens subconsciously. Of course, growing up with Jamaican parents has played a massive role in creating the music I make. Growing up, my parents were music lovers, and around the house, they would play a lot of Dancehall music. I believe this has shaped the person I am today and the decisions I make in terms of song choices and instrumental choices. When a producer plays me beat selections, I think my upbringing plays a massive part in what I decide to go with. Also, living in different parts of the world has a lot to do with it. Being in a place like Holland, for example, the music taste and the cultural differences –from the food they eat to the way they talk – all play a part. That’s probably why I’m so versatile.

For a long time, the music industry has been very male-dominated. Do you feel like you have a real sense of responsibility to stand up for the women who feel like they don’t have a fair chance to succeed?

Well, first of all, I’m a woman anyway, by default. So I think by default, I automatically represent the women. Women look up to other women because they are one, we all have a lot of similarities and relatable lifestyles. But yeah, I feel like I’m at a point where, because I’m getting older and been in the business for a while, I think I have more of a responsibility to lead people in the right direction and tell my story that could help someone else. That’s why I have songs like “I Am Woman” on the album, which talks about being a woman but not really feeling like one, because of the things I’ve had to do.

Now, I’m very involved in the business and had to do so many things that take me out of my femininity; talking to a million people, trying to get things done – and because of that, you can’t be overly nice. Sometimes that comes across as being straight to the point, and that can overlap into personal relationships with a boyfriend, where you’re still that businesswoman in the relationship. Men can be taken aback by that, they think that a lot of other girls are not like that – they think girls can be more laid back and chilled.

But, because of the business I’m in because it’s not laid back or chilled, you have to go really hard or go home. So, the song “I Am Woman” explains that. You don’t feel like a woman because the man in your life doesn’t think you’re acting like one. So that song, for example, relates to a lot of women and can inspire them to realize that they’re not alone. This song is for them, one they can relate to and realize that someone else understands their struggles.

“I think I have more of a responsibility to lead people in the right direction and tell my story that could help someone else.”

How do you manage to keep a balance in your life that allows you to be Steff the musician and Steff the regular, day-to-day person?

Well, Steff the musician has been Steff the musician for so many years, and I feel like I haven’t separated the two because my personal life is still my music business. So, I don’t really have a personal life outside of music, everything I do, every single day, is based around my music career. There’s no time off – I say I’m going to go on holiday for two weeks and that never happens. Even if I did go on holiday, for five days for example, I would be on my phone doing a bunch of work, that’s really what it’s like.

Do you think this level of work ethic is something that’s been instilled in you since a child?

100%! If you’re doing music and you suddenly stop because you decide one day that you never want to do it, then it was probably just never for you in the first place. I don’t ever get that feeling where I want to stop, I don’t know what that looks like, I don’t ever want to know what that feels like. Once you’re famous, you’re already there, you’ve just gotta make it work. But yeah, I think it’s definitely instilled in me, it’s my oxygen. My music is my oxygen and music is my therapy. If I don’t go to the studio and create for a long period of time, I notice that I start to feel sad without knowing why I’m sad. It’s because I haven’t been to the studio because I haven’t created anything. That is a part of my life support system and the only way it will stop is if I get too old and I just have to. But other than that, we’re going to keep this show on the road.

So, one day, you never see yourself relaxing on a beach after numerous albums and world tours?

[Laughs] Well, you never know how you’re going to feel over the next 10 years! If I have accomplished everything then that’s a different story. At the minute, there are so many things I dream of and that’s what I’m working towards right now. I really want to sell out arenas across the world and I feel like I definitely can. I think that mission has to be accomplished. Everything I’m doing today with this album – my first album – I feel like if you want to sell out arenas, you need projects. That’s what you tour. That’s how you build a real core fan base. So, even though I’ve done two mixtapes and now my debut album, I also have to understand that because I’ve never dropped a real album before, I can’t fulfil the mission! I need to drop albums and projects – and this is what we’re doing now. But, I know we still have quite some time to go.

How would you describe your style day to day?

I definitely dress according to my mood. Sometimes, I put something on something and it doesn’t feel good on that day, so I need to take it off. I don’t feel like being dark, wearing black, or I don’t feel like wearing orange. I dress according to what makes me feel good. If I’m in an outfit that I’m not 100% with, especially if I have to rush out, my confidence reflects my style. If I put something on that I’m not too sure about, the way I act reflects that. But when I wear something that I know makes me feel good and beautiful, I also reflect that.

What’s next for you?

I’ve worked on this project for two to three years so it’s definitely not the case of dropping it and that being it. I’m going to be pushing this project for the next year because there are so many great and amazing songs that I know need their moment. It’s going to take time to do that – the world is so big, people consume so many artists every day. You need to give it time, be in everyone’s faces, tell a story. The amazing thing about this project is that it’s almost like a soundtrack to what I want to do. I want to do some seminars for young women and young mothers–because I was a young mother–and “I Am Woman” is the soundtrack to that. Then we need to think about how we build the community. Yesterday, I went out to Clapton and put a tab behind most of the shops, hairdressers, African shops, chicken shops, and Caribbean shops, and everyone had a good time and did everything for free for a couple of hours. We also had PUMA giving out some trainers and bags to the kids, which was amazing. These are all the things that I want to do. As well as pushing the album, we want to align it with giving back. We have some great ideas, so we’ve just got to execute it and make it happen.

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