Rapping with a Purpose
Award-winning Ghanaian-British hip-hop artist Guvna B seeks to bring hope to the streets of London
Isaac Charles Borquaye, known to Britain’s legion of hip-hop and grime fans as Guvna B, is fast becoming one of the most admired names in rap music. This 30-year-old has picked up two MOBO Awards, published his bestselling biography Unpopular Culture, collaborated with some of music’s biggest names and his latest album, Hands Are Made For Working, topped the mainstream charts.
Guvna B, who lives in leafy Greenwich in South East London, grew up further east in Custom House. The son of Ghanaian parents who moved to England, he was surrounded by music from an early age with Motown, 80s’ songs and gospel often filling the house. Guvna B started rapping in the school playground at the age of 13 as a ‘bit of a joke’ but then realized that he had a talent for it. However, shortly afterwards, everything changed. He explains: ‘Faith was a big part of my upbringing. My parents took me to a Pentecostal church. When I was 15, my mum didn’t put me under pressure to attend anymore. So, I didn’t want to go unless I knew why I was going. This caused me to delve deeper into my faith and whether I actually believed this stuff was true.’ It took a tragedy to convince him, when a school friend was struck by lightning and nearly died. ‘I had a strong feeling in my heart that it was God who came through for him. That was a key part in why I began to take my faith seriously.’
Guvna B's new-found faith transformed his life, including his music. He went from rapping about the ‘usual blingy stuff’ to putting out positive messages which were more reflective of his Christian lifestyle. He says: ‘Sometimes you’ve got to stand up in life and be true to yourself or risk getting lost in the crowd’. This change in tune worked. Guvna B went on to become the first rapper to top the official Christian and gospel charts in 2013 with his album Odd1Out. He has also shared the stage with Tinie Tempah and Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams and collaborated with Kingdom Choir, fresh from the recent Royal Wedding, on the single Cast Your Cares, which won Best Album and Best Song at the Premier Gospel Awards earlier this year.
Guvna B is passionate about using his gift for good and encouraging the youth of today. He explains: ‘The big thing which changed my life was finding a purpose for it, through my faith. For another person, it might be through something else but to have a reason to wake up in the morning is a game-changer. I don’t believe enough young people know that they have a purpose and something to give to the world’. Not stopping there, Guvna B also works with The Prince of Wales’ youth charity The Prince’s Trust, Power the Fight which tackles youth violence and is an ambassador for Tearfund, a Christian charity working to end poverty. His wife Emma, who also works for Tearfund, runs a charitable organisation called Girl Got Faith, which helps young girls with selfesteem issues.
Alongside Guvna B’s music is his urban clothing brand ‘Allo Mate’. He says: ‘I went to New York and as soon as people heard my accent, they were super-friendly. They say hello to people in the subway. So, when I came back, I decided to try this and said ‘hello’ to someone on the tube. They moved carriages. I was like “ah, we need to be a bit friendlier here”. So, I said a line that began with ‘Allo Mate’ from one of my songs, people would often say it back to me so I turned it into a clothing line. It’s a great conversation starter when you are wearing it. People often say ‘what’s happening’ so it’s my little sprinkling of love and light in what can be a very busy life where people don’t interact with each other.’
Despite the British reserve, Guvna B is passionate about London. ‘There are just so many different people from different backgrounds, different cultures. I think it is an exciting time because, yes, there is still discrimination, but more people are calling it out. I feel that is amazing for people on the fringes, people who feel like they don’t belong. Activism is alive and people are really fighting for issues which are important. There is now a freedom in being who you are and having a lot of pride in yourself, where you come from and what you represent. London is a great place to see change and connect with people.’
Although faith is at the heart of Guvna B’s life, family is the backbone. He says: ‘I am proud to be Ghanaian. About 18 months ago, I lost my dad which made me want to get more in touch with my roots. I am married to an English woman so our kids are going to be mixed race. It meant that if I didn’t get in touch with where I came from, I run the risk of diluting my heritage as my kids grow up’. So began a journey of discovery, starting with a trip to Ghana. ‘I went to my dad’s village which was amazing. It’s very important to me to know who paved the way for me, what sacrifices were made, the reasons why I have certain privileges now and can even be a rapper’. It was also his father who inspired the name of his current album. ‘He used to say “Your hands are made for working”. If you work hard then who knows what you can achieve. We had this saying “Pray as if it depends on God, work as if it all depends on you.” That’s the remaining force that I learnt from my parents and one which set me on the path to how I live my life today’. Guvna B is now having the chance to give fatherhood a go himself with his first child due this autumn. ‘Having a son is my way of continuing my dad’s legacy and having the opportunity to do for someone else what he did for me.’
Guvna B is currently working on his ninth album Everywhere and Nowhere. He explains: ‘it’s the idea of feeling that you’ve done so much with your life but still feel you haven’t done enough, talking about imposter syndrome and not feeling like you belong. I am really excited about it as I’ve been working with people like Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, a lot of great worship guys and some cool rappers.’ Guvna B is also launching a podcast, interviewing people about their experience of loss. ‘A lot of people reached out to me after my dad died, who were struggling with grief. There’s not a 10-step programme on how to deal with it, everyone deals with it in a different way but hearing other people’s stories can help.’ Just another example of Isaac living out his own lyrics: I know for a fact we can live better/Do better/Be better.