When we meet, Stefflon has just returned from a two-week multistate trip to promote “Hurtin’ Me,” culminating in her U.S. TV debut on The Late Late Show With James Corden. “A lot of Americans take to my sound,” she says. “They were like, ‘So what made you come to America?’ I was like, ‘You lot want me, bitch! You love this tune, innit!’ My music wanted me to be there, so I was there.”
Stefflon is succeeding where many talented British MCs have fallen short. The uncut London accents that made grime Britain’s first truly homegrown form of hip-hop are a tough sell for American audiences, thwarting scene leaders from Dizzee Rascal to Wiley. Stefflon’s performing voice, however, is a fluid, frictionless blend of London, America and Jamaica that gels seamlessly with hip-hop, grime, dancehall, R&B and house. The range of her guest spots (Lil Yachty, Tinie Tempah, Charli XCX) and collaborations (Sean Paul, Jeremih, Skepta) during the past 18 months speaks volumes.
That global perspective, says Stefflon, comes from her upbringing. She was born in Birmingham, England, to Jamaican parents, the middle child of seven, but spent a decade in the Netherlands, where she acquired an American accent and influences from Rotterdam’s immigrant communities: Moroccan, Turkish, Antillean, Surinamese. “Seeing all that has given me a love for all types of people and an insight into how things can be done differently,” she says. Moving to East London at 14, she made a rough landing but quickly turned her outsider status into an asset: “I didn't have a choice. I was automatically really different.”
Since elementary school, Stefflon has been singing and writing songs. She first entered a recording studio as a painfully shy 9-year-old to sing a “Hard Knock Life” style hook for a rapper called Unique. The track went nowhere, but when she heard the playback, she thought, “Oh, my God, I shouldn't be shy because I sound so good!” Later, the fearless charisma of 1990s female MCs, especially Lil’ Kim, inspired her. “I used to think, ‘I want to be that girl on the track that says whatever she wants and just kills everybody else.'”
Never entirely comfortable solely as a singer, Stefflon started hybridizing song and rap -- Jamaicans call it “singjay” -- when she was 18. She spent years honing her craft and identity in free community studios before going public with remixes of tracks like Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type.” By the time she released her brash, commanding remix of “Lock Arff” by London rappers Section Boyz in 2015, she had no doubt it would blow up. “I didn't care what no one said -- this was lit. That’s the difference.” She laughs. “I discovered the litness.” Section Boyz were so impressed that they shot a new video starring Stefflon, establishing her ability to dominate any track on which she appears.