In any career, seven years is an excruciatingly long period of time – but in music seven years can almost seem like a lifetime. Fans are incredibly fickle, trends shift at a relentless pace and unfortunately there often comes a time when we, as listeners, just stop caring. But in the case of Stephanie Victoria Allen, known to us all as Stefflon Don, she’s managed to uphold her reputation as a global star with ease.
In 2016, the musician released her debut mixtape, Real Ting, which went silver in the UK; the following year, her mammoth single “Hurtin’ Me”, featuring the Moroccan-American rapper French Montana, reached the UK Top 10. Thanks to her impressive amalgamation of rap, dancehall and R&B, Don quickly became the next hot topic – and she’s been on an upward trajectory ever since. She’s won a Mobo award. She’s worked with Nile Rodgers, Labrinth and Mariah Carey, and in 2018 she became the first British artist to make US hip-hop magazine XXL’s annual Freshman list.
Don was born in Birmingham to Jamaican parents, moved to the Netherlands when she was five and returned to the UK at 14. Despite the wide range of cultural influences, it’s the 31-year-old’s Jamaican heritage that she holds most fondly. “One thing someone told me that stuck with me is you can’t buy culture,” says Don, who’s sitting across from me in the glam room, prepping for a long day of shoots. “So many people don’t get the privilege to be from a heavily cultured background like Jamaica, which has heavily influenced the music industry throughout the years. So I feel like because I’m from that, I should take advantage of it.” Even when Don is exploring other cultures and influences, her Jamaican heritage manages to push to the forefront. “When I’m jumping on something different, the melodies and words I use would always be from Jamaican influence,” she says.
Despite her long list of accolades, perhaps what’s most impressive is that Don has reached these dizzying heights without a studio album under her belt. That, however, is about to change: her highly anticipated debut, Island 54, is being released this year. “I never understood the art of making an album and all the things that go into it,” Don says of the delay. “But now I feel like I finally get it.” Given that fans have been waiting years for an album from her, you’d expect some nerves from the artist – although she now finds herself in the most self-possessed period of her career. “I’m getting to the point where I’m sure about everything, it’s all making sense and it’s aligning,” she says gleefully. “When you’re not sure about something, that’s when you get nervous.”
As a traverser of genres and soundscapes, Don expects fans to be “pleasantly surprised”, detailing that there will be “so many different sounds” for them to sink their teeth into. And when it comes to the subject matter, she reveals that there will be an added focus on substance. “[Expect] more meaningful stuff because, as a person, I’m very big on important messages and reality,” the musician says. “I don’t feel like that comes across in my music because I focus on having the greatest time and twerking. So, yes, we have the fun element and we also have another element where we get a little bit serious.”
One thing that Don has always held close to her heart is the art of rapping and hip-hop culture as a whole. As a youngster she watched in wonder as the likes of Lil’ Kim (whom she would go on to share a stage with) and Foxy Brown performed, impressed by their lyricism and charisma. But as Don’s career progressed she became more and more comfortable with singing and entered the world of pop. And there came a stage when she lost her passion for hip-hop. “I fell out of love with rap for a bit because there are so many people rapping and I feel like they’re very shit,” she says frankly, pointing out that she grew up in a time when grime was at its cultural peak, trap hadn’t fully arrived in the mainstream and lyricism was of the utmost importance. “When I was coming up, a shit rapper couldn’t get anywhere – because they’re shit. You had to actually work on your craft, have punchlines and be saying something. But the bar is in hell right now, it’s so low down, and you can just do anything you want.”
As time and music have progressed, there’s no denying that the shift in rap culture has resulted in a number of lacklustre stars rising from the depths of the internet – which ultimately pulled Don away from the genre completely. “It just made me feel like, ‘OK, why am I bothering?’ I didn’t understand the hype around so many artists,” the star says. However, following her recent Daily Duppy and Funk Flex freestyles, it’s safe to say that her pen game was never in question, even if she has felt she “didn’t go hard enough”. And while she’s by no means a fan of rap’s latest evolution, Don feels as though there will be a time when the genre reverts back to its essence. “I feel like the heart in hip-hop is kind of lost, but what’s good is it always comes back around. There’s a time for games and gimmicks, and there’s a time where that’s gonna be over and people have to show up with nothing but real talent.”
During Don’s rise to prominence in the 2010s, social media was undoubtedly a factor, but it’s nothing in comparison to the TikTok era we now find ourselves in. A simple 15-second snippet can ensure a track’s virality, leading new artists to instant success, millions of eyes and an immeasurable amount of pressure. When asked if she’s glad she avoided the TikTok generation in her early days, Don replies: “Oh yeah, I’m so happy. Thank you, Jesus. I feel so sorry for the new artists because it might be easier to be seen, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.” In years gone by, no one would see an artist’s baby steps, but today we see everything. So Don is incredibly thankful we didn’t witness her with her musical training wheels on. “We all learn and make mistakes, but now the world is seeing those mistakes and taking that as who you are,” she says. “I’m so happy no one saw some of the first videos I came out with – it’s a time where you just want to try things, but now you can just go viral off that.”
While she doesn’t envy the position many young artists find themselves in today, there’s one piece of advice she believes they should all take on board. “You need to understand there’s only one of you,” she says intently. “You’re special because you are you, so stop doubting yourself. Because whatever you bring to the world, no one else can emulate that.” And although many may describe music as one of the most competitive industries in the world, Don disagrees. “I feel like the only battle you’re having is with yourself. People think you’re competing with everyone, but if you’re the best version of yourself people can’t compare you to anyone else.”
We move on to discussing the day’s itinerary for Don, which includes the photoshoot you see on these pages, shot by Rankin – a longtime hero of the musician. “He’s amazing, I love all his work,” she tells me with a smile. “He’s been around for a long time and he’s just iconic.” Then there’s a shoot and cocktail-making session for the whisky brand Chivas Regal, for which she is a new ambassador, and has produced her own cocktail, aptly titled the Don. “It was surprising, I didn’t really expect it,” she says of this development. “I love cocktails too, so I was just like, ‘All right, yeah, let’s do it!’”
Finally Don details her goals for the rest of the year, which is likely to get very busy following the release of Island 54. She hopes her schedule will include her first world tour: “I’ve never toured the US before – I did Europe, but that was with [the American rapper] Future – so that’s the goal for me, just doing these tours on my own.” And performing is one aspect she’s continuing to take more seriously. “I’m really killing it on stage, implementing the maddest shit, and I want everyone to talk about my performances.”
It’s clear that Don’s confidence is at its peak and she can happily reflect on her accolades while keeping an eye on her future goals. Before we met, I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but her honesty is refreshing and it’s clear she cares deeply for the art of music more than anything else. “Music is supposed to be inspiring and true to you,” she says.
It may be seven years since the start of her career, but with her debut album on the way it’s arguably the most exciting part of her musical journey yet. Don’s work ethic and immense passion for her craft are what have allowed her undeniable talent to shine. “I’m really in the studio all the time and I’m trying to have people come out and see me,” she concludes. “Some of my peers are always at events or in the club every week, but I’m the one in the studio, and that’s where I’ll always be.”