“I’m definitely an album man,” Guvna B tells me as we sit down to talk through his new record The Village is on Fire. “I prefer consuming music in album form, and I view myself as more of an album artist. I like people hearing the singles, but I'm excited for them to press play from start to finish.” That starting point (and also the album’s first single) is “Bridgeland Road,” a vivid account of an unprovoked, racially motivated attack he suffered just under two years ago. On an August morning in South East London, he was leaving a local café, cappuccino in hand. A group of white tradesmen were blocking his path, and upon being asked to move, one of the group responded by throwing his coffee at Guvna, followed by a punch to the face.
“It escalated in like fifteen seconds / I know man that could have bought fifteen weapons / But I ain't the type to invest in a fight / So I did it right and called the police,” Guvna raps in the second verse of “Bridgeland Road.” The song’s interlude features a voicemail from Guvna’s cousin, Michaela Coel, sent in response to seeing a photo of his injured eye - the same photo that adorns the cover of The Village is on Fire. “You’ve reported and I think that's great,” she tells him, “But I don't know if that's going to be as fulfilling as writing it down. Which I know probably sounds ridiculous to say, but just think about how you can use it creatively.”
“Michaela sent me that message pretty soon after it all happened, but I just kind of put it to the side,” Guvna explains when I ask about the influence that voicemail had in starting to write about his experience. “It wasn’t until about three months later, when I got a call from the police to say that they'd be closing the case. I struggled with that, not having closure. That’s when what she had said made sense, and it felt really organic and authentic to start writing about it, more as a release for me than anything else.” As our conversation continued, I was interested to hear more about the process of using his artistic output to work through his trauma.
How soon after the attack did you first start to write about it?
It was about three months later, when I got a call from the police to say that they'd be closing the case. I struggled with that, not having closure. Michaela had sent me that message pretty soon after it all happened, but I just kind of put it to the side. But then it felt really organic and authentic to start writing about it, more as a release for me than anything else.
So when you started writing these songs, it was purely a way of processing what had happened?
Yeah, I didn't really anticipate anyone would hear this stuff, but after speaking to a few people about it, these instances are a lot more common than I would have thought, so I thought it'd be cool to raise awareness about it. The album before this was mainly about me losing my dad and it felt quite heavy, and I always said I just want to make happy music next, so I was reluctant to put this out - because it just felt so heavy again. But you can't run away from that feeling of “I should do this,” so I just tried to listen to that internal voice.
Did you feel that writing through that experience helped?
It helped with my rage and my anger. When it happened, all I wanted to do was see them again. Because the police weren't really doing their jobs.
Yeah, you say on “Revenge Ain’t Sweet” that you left the hospital and went trying to find them.
I was circling the ends for like a week straight. Having that unforgiveness in your heart is not a great feeling, but I found that writing was therapeutic and helped me feel a lot better. I feel like if I saw them today, I wouldn't be all the way angry. I would still want something to be done about it, but I've dealt with the anger.
Are there any particular memories of the recording process that stand out?
I really enjoyed making “Amplify” with Darkovibes, because we didn't do the thing where we just sent vocals over the internet - he was visiting London from Ghana and came to the studio. Working with someone from a completely different culture, a completely different life experience, and capturing some of that energy was just a real enjoyable experience. And the cool thing about Darko is he's from the village that my dad grew up in, so with my dad not here anymore, it felt like a cool way to connect with him.
You mentioned the previous record was about your dad's passing. You also made a podcast series, The Lost Tapes, speaking to guests about grief. Where did that impulse come from?
I realised that with grief, I'm a very practical person. I would Google like, “What's the healthiest way to deal with grief,” and I realised that it's different for everyone. Depending on how you're wired, it might be an internal process, you might have access to private therapy, or you might have to join a waiting list for three months. And so the podcast was just to hear from a breadth of people, hoping that one person listening might be able to relate; maybe not to me, but to someone that I speak to. In a way it’s like with this album, I don't want it to be just my thoughts on what happened. I want to set the scene, tell the story, and for people to listen and make their own mind up about this situation. I wanted to spark conversation - similar to the podcast. I hope it does.
There’s a few songs on the album that touch on fatherhood. Is writing songs as a father of a three year old a different thing to writing as the father of a one year old? Are you aware of them listening to your music as they get older?
I'm personally quite desensitised to persistent trauma at different levels, just because I've faced it all my life in varying forms. I think having a kid makes me want to prepare my son for life not being perfect. For example, the front cover of the album is this super raw photo that I took directly after the attack and I took him to see the first billboard when it got put up, because I don't want to hide the reality of life from him. My parents did that for me, and so when I first faced something traumatic like my mate getting murdered on the estate, it was like the end of the world - I didn't know that life was like this, I just thought it was gonna be amazing all the time. And I know that's quite a heavy thing to teach a three year old, so I'm not going to go in super raw, but I want to start having honest conversations with him at this point like “yo, you're gonna have hard days, bro.” I let my newborn off, because she just got here. She's good vibes, man. She's just chilling, she's four months old.
It’s now almost two years since the incident. If you could go back and speak to your younger self, is there anything you wish you had known before it happened?
I would say don't get gassed because you're doing well. I grew up on a council estate, working class - actually, the class thing is weird. I wouldn't even call myself middle class now, but I'm kind of flirting in between the two. Done all right for myself, I've moved to the Borough of Greenwich. So I'm walking out my house without the same worries that I had on the estate, where I was thinking “I got to be on guard, someone might be out to get me, there's a guy from another area, stay on your P's and Q's.” So in Greenwich, when I'm leaving a coffee shop, and I'm seeing these guys, I'm not expecting anything to happen because I'm in broad daylight in a nice area. If that same situation happened in Custom House, I’m ready. And so in 2021, I told myself because of the way I look, because I'm a six foot two black guy, don't ever get gassed by your success and think that you're going to be treated the same as everyone else, just because you live in a nice area. Always be prepared for something to go left. Which is sad, because it takes some of the shine off life.
One track that I wanted to speak about specifically is “Suits and Shirts.” That hook of ““A time to weep / A time to laugh / A time to mourn / A time to dance” kind of encapsulates the whole album.
I started writing that one after my goddaughter’s funeral - she was just over one year old. I realised that because life is so busy when you get into your late 20s, early 30s, you don't see your friends as much. The main time where a lot of us are together is christenings, weddings, and funerals. And it just brought out all of these thoughts about progressing through life, going through different experiences, a lot of them positive, a lot of them challenging. But when we're together, we have to protect this space, and be honest and vulnerable with each other. So that song was a super reflective one, and not really related to what happened to me, but was an observation of us all getting older and not seeing each other as much. At these weddings, these funerals, these christenings, let's make sure that we're all talking and looking out for each other man, because life’s real.
“Don't lose hope” is the last line of the record, is that the message you want people to take away?
Yeah, 100%. I actually don't enjoy living life without optimism. Even when it's really difficult, knowing that better days are ahead is what gives me the courage and the strength to keep going and to keep making good decisions, so that “don't lose heart” thing is saying that we have no other choice but to keep going even though things aren't perfect, because that's the only way things will get better.