Trinidad and Tobago-born London-based Berwyn Du Bois never envisioned being a musician growing up but discovered a love and aptitude for it in his teenage years. Two years ago, realising his life on the streets of London was reaching a dangerous point, he made a fateful decision to fully dive into music.
Now this rapper/singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer has sights set on winning a Grammy award, "saving" soca – and eventually becoming prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
The young artist, known professionally as BERWYN, has been setting fire to the British music scene since releasing his debut mixtape Demotape/Vega on September 25, 2020. On it he uses deft, resonant lyrics to chronicle the struggles of living on the fringes of London life.
The mixtape led to a record deal with Sony; he sold out his UK tour in December 2020; racked up two million Spotify streams in 92 countries last year; and ranked third on BBC Sound of 2021 in January. British Vogue called him "One of the most prodigious talents of 2021."
Berwyn is originally from Diego Martin and his father was a DJ in his early years, but stopped to work on an oil rig.
"And then when I came along he decided to retire and not work at all."
His father had a stack of vinyl albums, but would never let Berwyn touch them. The albums were all pre-1990, with a lot of funk, soul, and calypso, including Sparrow. Asked what he thought about the calypso music, Berwyn recalled he did not pay attention to it.
"It's calypso. That weren't for kids. They talking about big politics and oil. It was above my head."
He did, however, enjoy listening to pan and his father had him play it as well. He played in Panorama once or twice with his school, but did not have much of an interest in music.
"Apart from (playing pan) and singing in the fan once in a while," he laughed. "I wouldn't say I was a big lover of music (growing up).
"I was constantly around it. My dad's obsessed with it. Every evening I'm on the porch on his lap listening to some different song on the radio.
"But in terms of me wanting to be some big musician, nah, not really."
A few years ago, when he visited Trinidad, he asked his father about the albums; he was going through his own "vinyl phase."
"And he said he gave them all away. And I was like, 'What the r--s!'"
His musical family also extends to his cousin soca star Kerwin Du Bois, though Berwyn said he has not spoken to him for some time.
He recalled good memories of living in Trinidad, including playing marbles and the game red light, green light, but added those memories were slightly tarnished by other people's experiences.
"My life was all right, but in my conscious mind I know there was a lot of kids getting kidnapped, there was lots of guns in the place. Things were crazy. My friends were bringing guns into school at young ages. In terms of everybody else's influence, I guess it was a little bit dark."
Life in London
At nine, Berwyn moved to the large town of Romford in east London.
"(In terms of crime) there were people doing what they were doing, but for the most part the biggest problem you had to worry about was racism, really, because of how disproportionate the ethnicities are that live in the region."
Berwyn said he was personally affected by the racism "all the time."
"But I ain't going to sit here and play the fiddle for myself. I'm a lucky, I'm a very privileged boy. Anybody who didn't love themselves to be a lovely person, that's them. That have nothing to do with me."
It was at school in London that his love affair with music took root.
"I didn't even really care too much about music until I went into year ten, year 11 over here (in London). That's when you're all 15 and 16. I wanted a lesson to pick to not give a f--- about a lesson. A lesson that you could mess around with."
There were only six students in the music class.
"And I ended up falling in love with music through that."
And what made him fall in love with music eventually? Du Bois said at that point he started expanding his horizons and with the internet began understanding the purpose of music – the feeling part of it, and not just the hearing part.
"And obviously, getting an interest in that, I started doing it myself and I realised I was quite all right. I was pretty decent at it. And it made me feel good to be good at something."
In an interview with the BBC, Berwyn cited his music teacher Di Russell as making a crucial difference in his life. He also recalled her taking the students to a folk club on a Wednesday evening. There is a video of a 17-year-old Berwyn singing a folk song and playing the guitar on YouTube; he is self-taught on the guitar as well as drums, piano and violin.
But while his love for music was growing, life in Romford was on the decline. He explained there was a gradual wave of depravity, poverty and crime in East London.
"So when I first come here in 2005...I witnessed it make its way to the left like an actual physical tidal wave. That has now reached Romford in the last four or five years.
"It was, once upon a time, a very normal place. But today, not so much. My biggest agenda, which I've managed to do, is get all of my loved ones out of the area."
The light of Vega
Despite good grades, his immigration status prevented him from going to university. Among his odd jobs was a stint making sandwiches at Subway in a hospital, all the while dreaming of being the next Dr Dre. He stressed, however, he has had "sh--tier jobs" including cleaning windows on a building, a car wash, and doing charity for a "dodgy" Bangladeshi company. There were times he slept in cars.
Berwyn also found himself drifting from the straight and narrow. He stressed that he never followed a wrong crowd, though, as he was always good at holding his own.
"I never had an appetite for a lavish life or to be a big alpha-male gangster. So when I was doing the things I shouldn't have been doing, I was still me.
"The things I did and really didn't want to do, I definitely didn't want to do. It was just more of necessity."
He said his activities were more focused on his immigration issues and his illegal status than anything else. In the song Glory he raps: "And Immigration sent a letter, said they're grantin' me bail. So really time is of the essence, you feel me?"
His mother was also in and out of jail. But Berwyn said that was a separate narrative to this one.
"It did impact it a little bit. But not so much. I'm a big boy."
Du Bois said he was "playing the fool by necessity" but there were little indications, like a car driving past him and him recognising it, that it was getting too late for him.
"It was a tough time. I was making music but I couldn't even put it out because I didn't have my papers."
So over two weeks, while sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a “sh--hole flat” and on a diet of toast, weed and insomnia, Berwyn wrote and recorded his debut mixtape, Demotape/Vega.
"That was fun. That was me in my happy place, innit?"
He said it was nice being the engineer, writer, producer, singer, rapper. He also recalled it was a rushed process.
"That's just how I work, I guess."
The tracks range from the head-bopping beats of Ashtray to the touching melodies of Heartache and Chest Pains. Asked if exploring his struggles was cathartic, Berwyn replied, "I think the English dictionary is missing a few words. Definitely one for that."
He recalled while writing a freestyle recently the euphoria and emotion of the instrumental suggested he would want to cry about his emotions, while if it was a house record or soca record he would have taken the "cryable" situation and "tarnished it" with bass and his favourite grooves.
"And before you know it I'm smiling, laughing and boogieing to my biggest problem. And there's definitely something there. But there's no word for it."
Dances around the universe
What about the depth of his lyrical content, which is at times missing in modern music?
"All in all, I'm a writer, and when (we talk metaphor) I don't fit it in a way where (I'm looking) for punchlines. But if I'm sitting at a nice table and I say something like, 'Reserved tables with bridge view, lights to shine on the city that I am soon to be king to'...it's not something intentionally where I say, 'I have to write a metaphor because I'm a rapper. I'm writing."
Berwyn was also rare in that he both raps and sings.
"I feel like singing, I sing. I feel like rapping, I rap."
Asked to put his style into words, Berwyn said he is still in an experimental phase, though he will eventually have to decide on a description.
"It dances around the universe in terms of identity."
When asked to create a playlist to get a feel for Berwyn as an artist, he recommended: Lauryn Hill and Bob Marley's Turn Your Lights Down Low, Amy Winehouse's Love Is a Losing Game, Drake's Look What You've Done, and Roxanne by the Police. He described Drake and English singer Ed Sheeran as his musical idols and dream collaborations. He described Drake as a friend he speaks to on occasion, while Sheeran contacted him to say he liked Berwyn's new track, 100,000,000.
"Between Drake and Ed Sheeran, that's it. I don't give a f--k about anybody else. "(Also) Frank Ocean.
"I mean, I care about (other musicians) as a person, but in terms of my idolisation, that's as far as it stretches."
He wrote many songs in the last year and says these will explain the last few years of his life.
"Mine started as a moment of solitude and then the whole world jumped on board with that one (with the pandemic). So it is just exploring all the corners of solitude."
He noted that solitude included his immigration situation, which none of his siblings faced, his love life (he lives on his own), and being the only one of his friends that "made it."
"So there's solitude in every nook and cranny of your life. So I'm just using my eyes to see and my mouth to explain."
Berwyn said he will be releasing new music soon and more music later in the year. He is also taking a three-week hiatus from music to write a television show, a light-hearted British comedy called Milk, and is also working on a "beautiful" novel called Vega, which he described as a modern take on Romeo and Juliet.
Mr Prime Minister and Mission: Soca
With all that writing, one may be surprised to find that Berwyn's end goal has nothing to do with the arts, but is to become prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
"And before I do that I need to be a very, very, very incredibly wealthy man. So that demands a bit of commercial attitude in terms of my music."
While he is in London, his heart is in Trinidad and Tobago "most of the time" – he calls his father regularly and reads local newspapers online. Berwyn explained his love for his home country had a lot to do with his illegal status in London.
"Being told they will send you home...just makes you appreciate your home even more. And the inability to go back home increases the homesickness."
He returned once for his grandmother's funeral (he missed the funeral itself, but was there for the grieving process) and spent a month in Trinidad after having not been back for ten years.
"Going back there, I had come from a different world, and I was revisiting this world I had originally come from."
While in the country he saw how easily some of Trinidad and Tobago's issues could be fixed. He said Berwyn Du Bois as prime minister would focus on tourism, a curriculum rewrite, update schools so they don't look like prisons, upgrade infrastructure, implement IKEA-esque factories building affordable veneer furnishing for state buildings like hospitals, schools and nurseries.
"And before you know it you could get started on domestic properties. The operation we are running now is a reminder that we were once slaves and we were set free. And we need to get rid of the shanty towns and build empires."
Berwyn said he was also on a personal mission to bring advancement to soca music. He explained while dancehall had its time, from 2012-2016, the world was waiting for the next thing. He believes that can be soca, and he was on a "tiny mission" to save it.
"When I say 'save' (soca), at the moment I feel it is just a bit happy-go-lucky. It came into the world for that reason, to emancipate the slaves. But I feel like the lives we live now demand a bit more substance. So I don't know what that means, but we're working on it."
He says he has been working with some of the best producers in the country on this mission and he believes with a little bit of substance, soca can take the world by storm.
"It needs to be able to play when you want to cry sometimes – not just when you want to wave your rag in the air. There's just such a space it hasn't touched yet in terms of the world and who has heard it and who hasn't. And it will always still be soca, but it can transform and take different phases. So we'll see where it goes.
"The rhythm that holds soca together is a rhythm that was played by warlords and villagers and cavemen all through human history on the way into battle or any significant event that humans have to gather into groups. And so for that reason, it's an innate human rhythm that will click and resonate with the entirety of the human population."
In terms of his own musical career, Berwyn said he has accomplished almost all that he hoped for.
"All of my 'its' already happened. I always wanted to do this for a living and be a producer, and that's happened. I've spoken to my favourite people on the planet. My face was on a billboard the other day that I didn't pay for. So that's another one off the list.
"I'm good. So I think I've had everything. I dunno, maybe a Grammy –a Grammy might be nice. But I could die today and my 'its' have already been done."
Berwyn added that neither his mother, his father, nor anyone else worries about him. When asked if he would like to thank anyone he recalled his mother and father were recently arguing about who was more responsible for him.
"I was saying he would get 60 per cent and she would take 40. And I love him ever so much from the bottom of my heart and soul. And you know that I ain't going nowhere."