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Michaela Coel; Guvna B
Michaela Coel; Guvna BPhotography Mike Marsland/WireImage; Photography Jasmijn van Buytene

On turning pain into art: Guvna B and Michaela Coel in conversation

‘It’s astounding what can come from pain’: as the rapper’s new album is released, which tells the story of being involved in an unprovoked, racist attack, he comes together for a conversation with his cousin, Michaela Coel

One weekend, while sunbathing in a random park in London, I confessed to a white friend that I wanted to speak to the older lady sitting near us. This woman, who looked like she was in her early sixties, wore headphones and a contagious smile on her face. I was immediately fascinated by her presence. My friend remarked that I should go and talk to her, to which I responded, “But what if she hates Black people?” While I said this in jest, I also meant it wholeheartedly. My friend laughed, retorting that my comment was a “random” and “horrible assumption”. But my comment wasn’t just a random assumption. In 2022, the Home Office released statistics highlighting that hate crimes have risen again in the UK, with racially motivated hate crimes being the most reported type. Britain has always been an incredibly hostile place for people of colour to live in, but it seems to be getting worse year after year. While white people may find it difficult to understand, people of colour know that doing something as innocuous as speaking to a stranger or getting your morning coffee can result in violence being enacted towards you.

This is precisely what happened to Isaac Borquaye, more commonly known as rapper Guvna B, on 24 August 2021. After getting his morning coffee, the two-time MOBO Award winner returned to his car to find three white men standing near it. In the space of five minutes, Guvna B had hot coffee thrown in his face and was punched in his left eye, completely unprovoked, leaving him blind for months. Notably, this attack occurred just a five-minute drive from the place Stephen Lawerence was murdered in a racially-motivated attack in 1993. Following the attack, Guvna B did what we’re all told to do: he reported the incident to the police. However, after a few months of looking for the assailant, the police closed the investigation citing a lack of leads.

What do you do when you are failed by the people in society who are meant to help you and keep you safe? Guvna B’s cousin, Michaela Coel, told him the only thing left to do was make art. Coel, who is famously known for fictionalising the story of her sexual assault in her BAFTA-winning series I May Destroy You, has spoken candidly about how cathartic it was for her to create something that allowed her to dominate the narrative of her assault rather than let it dominate her. For both Coel and Guvna B, art and creativity is everything. It is how they process happiness, sadness and everything in between, and they’ve been doing it together for a long time. This (and more) is how Guvna B’s tenth album, The Village Is On Fire, was born.

In the conversation below, Guvna B and Coel chat, laugh and cry about this record, writing as a necessity, and what gives them hope for the future.

Massive congratulations to you, Isaac, for creating this record. You send a powerful and positive message in The Village Is On Fire, while discussing upsetting topics. What colour do you both think represents this album as a whole and why?

Michaela Coel: Omg, Halima’s been sent the album, but I haven’t?

Isaac, Michaela hasn’t been sent the album?

Guvna B: [Laughs] I don’t like sending the album or music to the people closest to me because sometimes they influence the sound and what I’m trying to do too much. I like sending it when it’s out, and there’s nothing they can do to change anything.

The colour I’d use to describe this album is orange. The album started from a dark place, but I didn’t want to leave it in a dark place. I wanted to present the facts, show how it made me feel, but pass the torch on and make people feel as though they can decide their own future, especially if they’ve gone through something similar. You can choose to keep the tissues up for longer and process what’s happened to you or what happened to me. Or you can decide to let the light in and think about how to move forward with optimism and positivity.

Michaela Coel: Though I haven’t heard the album, the colour I would use to describe you Isaac or our artistic relationship is some kind of yellowy orange. I’m thinking of songs we’ve written together in the past, where we talk about imagining sunshine and stuff like that. Through art, we are either trying to bring our lives from a point of bleakness into a place of light or we’re just enjoying the light we’re in. So I would say a yellowy orange as well.

Isaac, this album was made in response to a racist attack you faced in 2021. We hear Micheala’s voicenote to you in the first track “Bridgeland Road”, where she says, “Nothing will be more fulfilling than writing it down”. In what ways has creating this record helped in your healing process? 

Guvna B: I think because the police weren’t able to find the perpetrators, the overriding emotions I’ve felt since the incident are rage, anger and unforgiveness. Many people would say unforgiveness is justified in this case, but I found that it was affecting me. I’m usually an optimistic person. When I wake up, I feel good and ready to attack the day. But I found myself waking up with just a lot of rage, and I had nothing to use as an outlet. It was actually my brother who I told first about what happened to me. I didn’t tell my mum or most of my family. It was my brother who told Michaela, and then Michaela called me. She reminded me that there’s nothing I can do apart from using it in my art.

And if I’m being honest, because my last album was about my dad’s passing, I really wanted my next bit of music to be happy and joyful. I don’t like writing about this stuff. But it was therapeutic. It was cathartic. It was a release for me. Listening back to the lyrics that I wrote, I just thought this shows a reality that I think people need to hear about, and it can help people. So it was just really freeing in that sense. It got rid of a lot of the anger, rage and unforgiveness. I obviously still want the perpetrators to be brought to justice one day, but if it doesn’t happen, I’m comfortable with what I’ve done with what’s come out of this situation.

How do both of you push yourselves in those moments of struggle to turn your pain into art?

Guvna B: Michaela, you’ve obviously done this very well through I May Destroy You. But my quick answer is that, for me, it’s the only way through pain. I don’t have any other outlets apart from, you know, someone being brought to justice. Even as a man of faith, this incident was something that I found difficult to reconcile with my faith. So writing about it, getting my feelings out and processing it was the only option I had to get through.

Michaela Coel: I would say a similar thing, Isaac. But for me, it’s not a case of needing to drag myself into it. It is more of an instinct. For different types of traumas, it will occur to me very late to write about it. You will write about it when it’s time to write about it. That desire to write will either be the day after it happened or five or ten years after it happened. Writing doesn’t need to be anything that anyone is going to see. The act of journaling and keeping a diary is proven to be not only therapeutic, but good for your mental health. Writing and documenting is a basic human instinct. We left our handprints in caves for a reason! We’re trying to leave our stories everywhere we go, all of the time. It’s useful to know that writing is in your nature, whether you think you’re a writer or not. It is in your nature. I think it’s part of our human purpose to do it.

“It was my brother who told Michaela, and then Michaela called me. She reminded me that there’s nothing I can do apart from using it in my art” – Guvna B

Isaac, this is your tenth album. How does it feel to know you’ve created ten bodies of work? Do you still feel nervous when you release new music?

Guvna B: I wouldn’t say I’m fearful or scared, but I’m definitely excited. I think the most encouraging thing throughout my career is that there have been people listening to me since my first project. Like back when Michaela was a poet, and we were in a completely different phase of life. These people have grown with me through my journey, my faith stuff, getting married, having kids, losing my dad, and getting attacked. I think it’s a beautiful thing that I have a small community that has stuck by me. I am not an artist like Stormzy, but I’ve managed to sustain myself for ten years and have this longevity, and people are still connecting with it. My parents came here from Ghana and had to do jobs that weren’t necessarily nice, just so my brother and I would have a better life. Thankfully, because of their sacrifice, I can write lyrics, perform them and get paid for it. It’s a huge blessing, man.

Michaela Coel: Cuz, I find you incomparable to mainstream rappers. You’ve been doing this for a long time, and many musicians and rappers are actually repurposing a lot of your content and the tone of your content, which is about, faith aside, positivity. Rappers that you would call ‘mainstream’ are inspired by your music. Your trajectory is one of someone that has stuck to their purpose, belief, intention and motivation for making what they’re making. I really commend you for that.

I want to take us back to what you said, cuz, about how I said, ‘There’s nothing you could do but write’, because I don’t think that’s true. I don’t believe that there’s nothing else you can do. There are many things you can do. Of course, go and fill in your police report, by all means. You can even go ahead and expect the police to do something. You can hope for that. Do whatever helps you, but those things might not happen. But what will happen is that you will have written something down, something that you can read back on. When it comes to forgiveness, I think people think about the wrong thing. I understand you can’t forgive the police force. You cannot forgive a force. It’s not a person. It’s not a thing. It’s not human. You cannot forgive a machine or a company. That doesn’t make sense. But I would say you have to try it before you say it isn’t going to work. Think of an example in your life where you have forgiven a person and tell me you do not feel freer and more involved from carrying out that act.

Guvna B: I want to echo that, Michaela, because forgiving the police officers or people that did it seems illogical before they’re brought to justice, but the freedom I felt since, has been unexplainable, and so I recognise it was important for me to do. But I understand how it might be difficult for people to understand.

It’s interesting because I have no faith in the Metropolitan Police or in any police force for that matter. I don’t believe that they exist to protect marginalised people, to protect Black people. I remember being little and believing what my parents would tell me about right and wrong, and who were the good and the bad guys. Then you get older and realise that those things aren’t necessarily true. So the fact that in creating this record, you were able to take some power back is a major thing because we deserve the tools to reckon with what we deal with in this country as Black people.

Guvna B: I think our relationship with the police is a difficult one. I have cousins and friends that are police officers, and this is not a record where I’m just bashing them. This is a record of me presenting what happened to me, how it made me feel and trying to build bridges because I’ve got kids. I was thinking about this the other day when I put out the video for “Bridgeland Road” with Michaela, and a few people on social media were like, ‘Why would you even call the police? Of course, they’re not going to help you. Why didn’t you fight back? Call somebody from your ends to come’ But I live by a code. I’m a law-abiding citizen, and I’ve got kids as well. If my son ever gets in trouble or a situation like that, I wouldn’t tell him to fight back because that person might have a knife. I want to direct him to the people in society who are meant to protect him. But then it feels like a lose-lose situation because when you do call those people, and they do not protect you, and you’re treated like a suspect rather than the victim, what do you do then? I don’t necessarily have all the answers, but I want this to be an album that can start a conversation.

Michaela Coel: It’s so complicated, and it’s very difficult to prove that a system is flawed until you try it. We only have that data on the number of crimes that go unprosecuted because people have done their civic duty, and that’s how we know it’s not working. In order to prove it’s bullshit, we can’t give up on it.

Is it scary to produce work about the police, racism and injustice in our current political climate? These topics are so divisive in this country.

Guvna B: I don’t think it was scary for me, but I did honestly feel quite embarrassed. From the perspective of my masculinity and growing up in the ends, I was taught to have a stiff upper lip, and if someone hits you, you hit them back. I don’t think that Black boys like being the victim. Being the victim of a crime, of poverty or the victim of neglect. We don’t like accepting the term ‘I am a victim’. But I actually think the sooner we do that and recognise that sometimes we are the victims, the better chance we have of rectifying it in whatever way possible. But yeah, I felt embarrassed that people would think I’m a pussy, but I got over that.

Michaela Coel: Wow. That’s so deep. It makes me think about the fact Black people in this country are forced to grow up too early. We don’t live in a culture where we can say, ‘I was an adult, and these people hurt me.’ We live in a sad world where it’s difficult for a Black man to say that, and their ability to learn how to say that is stomped out of them so early in life. May more art come that allows them to connect with the child within them because we are all still kids. Kids and adults at the same time.

“Yes, it came from pain, but it’s astounding what can come from pain and what that can do to heal somebody else. I felt a myriad of things watching that music video, but mostly just pride” – Michaela Coel

I have a question about the “Bridgeland Road” music video… it is such a performance! The shots are beautiful, the camera angles, everything. It felt like I was watching a movie. Did you have any cinematic inspirations that inspired how it was shot, Isaac?

Guvna B: I’m not the best at depicting my experiences visually. That was a fantastic director called Joshua Stocker. One brief I gave him was that I didn’t want it to be a super-left artistic take on what happened. I wanted it to be quite instant and brutal, and I think it worked well. When I sent the video to Michaela, she FaceTimed me crying.

Michaela Coel: [Starts to cry] I feel emotional now just thinking about it. I felt incredibly proud. At that moment, I saw the impact it would have on others. To play a small part in the origins of that art is an honour. And yes, it came from pain, but it’s astounding what can come from pain and what that can do to heal somebody else. I felt a myriad of things watching that music video, but mostly just pride.

The Village Is On Fire is all about how we can create a safer environment for young people to grow up in. It is such a hopeful album. But we live in a country where people are feeling increasingly hopeless. What keeps both of you optimistic, and what is your advice to young people who are continuously losing hope in this country?

Michaela Coel: The first thing that came to my mind when you said this was the internet and technology. Even though it gives me both hope and despair, deep globalisation enables us to see beyond our horizon. So even though it, unfortunately, coincides with a lot of terrible stuff that reinforces negativity, it can also improve the way we work and our lives. It can show us that there’s a different way we could be living. That gives me hope.

Guvna B: I think the thing that keeps me hopeful is genuinely the people around me. When I look at my little brother, I’m like, man, I hope he’s dealing with his emotions in the best way possible and grieving for my dad in the best way possible. If something like what happened to me was ever to happen to him, I want to make sure that I can be there for him. When I look at Michaela, my mum, my son, my daughter – I want better for the people I love. I don’t want anyone in my family or anyone close to me to feel the pain that I have. I don’t want my son to go through being called the n-word or treated differently in the classroom because he’s mixed race. Because of the people around me, I think there must be a better way to live. There has to.

The Village Is On Fire is out now

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