Pin It

BERWYN: ‘I was nobody, I wasn’t allowed to be’

As he returns with new single ‘Path To Satisfaction’, the Mercury Award-nominated artist speaks to Emmanuel Onapa about finding success in the UK’s hostile environment

How do you chase your passions when your identity is being stripped away by the state? For Trinidad-born rapper Berwyn Dubois, this was his reality. After moving to Romford, east London, when he was nine years old, the UK became his new home – but there were limitations to his freedom once he arrived. Having grown up during the peak of the Conservatives’ hostile environment policy, his uncertain immigration status – and lack of British passport – left him unable to attend university or even visit a doctor. 

Even though life seemed austere, BERWYN, now 26, remained optimistic. He turned to music, using it as an instrument to spotlight the bleak fractures in our sociopolitical system, and help his story reach a wider audience. His heartfelt, incisive lyrics directly addressed his experiences of being Black in Britain, and quickly became his passport to prominence. 

In 2021, BERWYN got to taste the first tang of success when his critically acclaimed debut mixtape DEMOTAPE/VEGA was shortlisted for the Hyundai Mercury Prize album of the year. He made the nomination after a recent rule change, sparked by an intervention from Rina Sawayama, which allowed artists to be eligible if they’ve been residents in the UK for more than five years. BERWYN also went on to receive a MOBO Award nomination for “Best Newcomer” that same year. 

A year on, and BERWYN is back with his latest single, “Path To Satisfaction”, which explores his recent successes and what’s in store for the future. It’s his first music to be recorded since a long overdue return to his home in Trinidad earlier this year, following years of passport and visa issues. Along with the release of his latest single, he is also going back on the road to tour across the UK in March 2023.

We met BERWYN in east London last week to talk about his working-class upbringing, his successes so far, his immigration status, and whether or not he’ll be Prime Minister one day.

I know you’ve spoken before about coming from a working-class background – your dad was a bus driver and your mother was a youth worker. How do you think that shaped your outlook on life? 

BERWYN: I never really witnessed my parents working – when I came into the world, my mum already had four kids. I was the fourth one, and my dad had retired by then, so I didn't know that side of them. I'd say that growing up, the working class [experience] was relatively standard in Trinidad, everybody [was living] like that. It's not like England, where ten minutes down the road, you see the wealthy living near the poor. In Trinidad, it takes a long time to get to the rich people – something I never even really knew existed.

Due to your immigration status at the time, you couldn’t enrol in university as a teenager despite obtaining good grades. How was that situation for you? 

BERWYN: I couldn’t get my papers. I was nobody, I wasn’t allowed to be. You’re not allowed to go to the doctor; you’re not allowed to rent a home; you’re not allowed to do anything an average person can and cannot do. In a way, it psychologically affects how you identify as a man. The wise advice my mother gave me was that there’s a line that exists in a human, and it [represents whether or not you’re seen as valid]. Living on top of it is one thing, but the minute you dip under it’s like going under ice and trying to find a hole again. It’s so hard to come out once you fall, you know? I was balancing a war between being seen as a human and non-human – but as long as I know that that line is there, I can make sure I notice it when I’m dipping below it.  

Do you think your experiences with your immigration status forced you to grow up early as a Black man in Britain? 

BERWYN: Yeah, I feel like we didn’t really have guardians. Obviously, my mum was in and out, but our grandmothers raised all of us – and there were 16 of us living in that house. [Growing up fast is] naturally going to happen with any child in that circumstance. It made adults out of all of us. We were all going to each other’s parents’ evenings. I was in year eight, attending my brother’s parents’ evening when he was in year five. My experiences definitely forced me to grow up early.

I’m not too fond of the way society is right now, so I’m going to do something about it through the themes I express through my music, and I feel like I have to” – BERWYN

This year, you finally returned to your home country, Trinidad and Tobago, after years of visa and passport issues. How enlightening was your trip back home? And how did it feel to be reunited with some of your family again? 

BERWYN: If I got deported [to go back there], it would be a big bummer. [But] the circumstances I arrived under were better; it was like a big homecoming and celebration. I’m pleased about it because of the circumstances, most importantly. My dad had never heard me sing, and he got to see a new side of me, and it was nice to come back and show that side of myself.

Your music highlights the sociopolitical issues we face in Britain. How imperative is it for you to do so?

BERWYN: Super important. I went to perform at a show the other day, and the lady announced me as the most important new artist in the UK music scene. I was like, rah! But then I quickly realised it is mad important. I’m not too fond of the way society is right now, so I’m going to do something about it through the themes I express through my music, and I feel like I have to. I don’t care if people think I think I’m too important because barely anyone is talking about social and political issues in their music. I’m unapologetic in the things I want to believe in, so I want to talk and shout about it.

You recently released your new track, returning to the music scene with “Path to Satisfaction”. How has your new music evolved while still being an honest reflection of yourself? 

BERWYN: It’s less an honest reflection of myself and more of a real review of the world around me. I don’t care about myself so much anymore. I’ve told my story and learnt from the beginning that this has nothing to do with me anyway. The reason I’m sitting here today has nothing to do with me. It’s all about us, our people, their stories, and how the song has affected them.

In your unreleased song, “3450”, you talk about a traumatic encounter you and your family faced while the police raided your house. How was that experience for you?

BERWYN: Pretty mad, to be honest. It’s all a bit of a blur. I haven’t really thought about it too much; it didn’t happen once. It happened a few times. I just told the story of why. That day was scary because there were so many police officers, and they were in regular clothes. It was traumatic for the kids and us. But you get desensitised to it after the third time; I’m not going to lie. But yeah, that was the first – I couldn’t tell you how it made me feel. I was a bit shaken up a bit with my nan crying. It’s happened a couple of times that it’s made me desensitised.

“One day, I also want to go into politics when I’m done making music; I’ll probably run for Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago someday”

Even though you wrote your first mixtape in two weeks in 2018, it was later nominated for the Mercury Prize for album of the year. How surreal does it feel to be recognised for your artistry despite the trials and tribulations you've experienced? 

BERWYN: That’s one of the best parts of all this for me. In today’s age, everything is noisy and saturated. We’re in an era that’s scary and isolated, and accolades are so few and far between. Receiving an accolade and being acknowledged is a blessing, and there are so many others who deserve it but will not get it because of the saturation. The Mercury Award nomination is one of my biggest wins, and I'm grateful.

What other creative paths do you see yourself exploring other than music?

BERWYN: I’m always ringing my manager with some crazy cool idea. I want to get into film – I’ve written some great scripts. I also want to invest more money into upcoming brands and make more music for my fans. One day, I also want to go into politics when I’m done making music; I’ll probably run for Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago someday.