Rising above the online criticism, singer and rapper Stefflon Don opens up about making her way as a young mother, being a woman in rap and why it’s all about the music.
While she’s more readily associated with the glamour and energy of the stage, by her own admission, rapper and singer Stefflon Don (real name Stephanie Victoria Allen) knows a thing or two about community. Born to Jamaican parents in Birmingham, she moved to the Netherlands as a four-year-old, where she grew up surrounded by the multiculturalism of Rotterdam. “I had friends who were Turkish, Moroccan, Afghani, Iranian,” she recalls. “I learnt so much as a child and became so open-minded about culture and anybody who’s different.” She still carries this international vision with her in her career, during which she has landed a successful stateside crossover, hopped onto a remix of MC Fioti’s Brazilian funk smash “Bum Bum Tam Tam” and unleashed lines in Yoruba on her single “Can’t Let You Go”. “Music is a universal language,” she shrugs. “It’s good to be diverse.”
While Rotterdam shaped Allen, it was in the UK capital, which she moved to as a teenager, that she would find her idiosyncratic sound. With a chameleonic versatility, she slips between English and Jamaican Patois just as easily as she flits between stripped-back freestyles and big room bangers, but through it all she possesses a voice that’s very much her own. Even when featuring on tracks alongside heavyweights such as Headie One, Demi Lovato and Doja Cat, she can grab the listener’s attention with a single bar, ready to rise to the occasion without batting an eyelid, always dripping with self-assurance. It’s this confidence and an unshakeable work ethic that have helped carry Allen to the top of the charts. “How far can you really go without confidence? Not very far,” she says. “Confidence literally carries you in a room – it sets the precedent for how someone perceives you. The biggest job in the world is salesmanship.”
As a woman on the British rap scene, which remains male-dominated, despite the best efforts of upstarts like Ivorian Doll and Shaybo, strong self-belief is always going to be a necessity. But, forever the pragmatist, Allen doesn’t see this lack of female talent as something to be afraid of. “Being a female in this industry, we stand out quicker,” she says. “When a woman has a strong presence and she demands you listen to her, people will turn their heads a lot quicker.” And with her infectious, look-at-me energy, Allen is doing just that – paying homage to the boundary-breaking female rappers who came before her, such as Lil’ Kim, who she “of course” cites as an influence. “Growing up, I would listen to rap and, if a female was on the track, I remember always waiting to hear what she was going to say,” she admits. “I wasn’t the only one.”
While Allen might be filled with gratitude about being a woman in her field – “It’s a beautiful thing, we’re creators, we’re nurturers, we’re lovers,” she says with a smile – she’s fully aware of the challenges it can bring. “The more eyes on you, the more criticism you’re gonna get,” she says. Sitting alongside the likes of stateside big-hitters like Cardi B and City Girls as a female rapper exploring female pleasure without shame, Allen crafts verses that have certainly attracted their fair share of detractors. “Before now, I don’t feel like there’s been a time when so many female rappers have owned their sexuality, and come through as strong as they are now. That’s just new to a lot of people,” she says. But at the end of the day, no matter what people are saying about her music, Allen sees these criticisms as a compliment. “The greatest people get the most criticism,” she says.
Speaking to the musician person-to-person is a stark contrast to reading about her online, where her every misstep, as well as the most intimate details of her relationships, are combed over by thousands of prying (and unsympathetic) eyes. Thankfully, she’s got backup: doing battle with the clamour of trolls eager to tear her down is a legion of fans, whom Allen affectionately describes as “ride or die”. But regardless of the good – or the bad – she makes it clear she will emerge unscathed, keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground and her mind in tune with the real world beyond her phone screen. “My son and my family keep me grounded,” she says. “So does always remembering where I came from, how hard it was to get to here and how hard it is, still, to maintain where I’m at.”
Throughout our conversation, Allen is remarkably self-possessed and understated, every inch the shrewd industry veteran. But she can’t help herself from becoming animated when discussing her 11-year-old son. Whether it be immersing herself in his school worries or keeping him off of social media – “Why would I want to give my child access to anything he could imagine?” – she’s clearly a passionately involved parent and, while she admits the pandemic has been hard, prolonged periods of lockdown have brought her cherished mother-son time.
Now 29, Allen became a mother at 17 – an experience that has made her keen to wave goodbye to the patronising preconception that young mothers can’t achieve success for themselves. In a world where teenage mums are still demonised in the media, their struggles belittled and met with a lack of support, she wants to be a much-needed role model. “Having a child at a young age shouldn’t stop you from going after your dreams,” she says. “I wouldn’t encourage girls to do it, but if it happens, I definitely want those girls to look at me and say, ‘Steph did it and I could do it.’” So, what would she say if she could speak to young women in a similar situation to her 17-yearold self? The answer comes with the utmost conviction: “No one can stop you from doing anything you want in life and no one can tell you what you can and cannot do.”
Indeed, as a person of colour, a woman and a young mother on the music scene, Allen quickly had to learn the power of never taking no for an answer. But with the cards stacked against her, she also had to work twice as hard as everyone else – a mentality that has stuck with her to this day. “I don’t really have much downtime,” she says. “I’m sure it’s important, but I have more important things on the list to do.” With some of the items on that to-do list including a skincare line and dropping a new project every year for the next decade, she certainly won’t be giving herself a break anytime soon. So how does she sustain the passion for her craft amid all that hard graft? “You know, the passion is just there,” she says, a note of bemusement in her voice. “It’s like breathing, like getting up in the morning.”
16 June 2021