Jordan Stephens is singing me the first song he ever wrote, aged eight, which he called The Simple Beat. The lyrics are mainly “boom and dum” but the tune is jaunty and inspires him to bop around on the sofa at Soho House White City. It’s easy to see how this evolved into Rizzle Kicks, the rap-pop duo Stephens formed with his BRIT School friend Harley Alexander-Sule. They described themselves as “your mum’s favourite mixed-race double act” and their 2011 debut, Stereo Typical, won fans including Stephen Fry and James Corden, who appeared in the video to their song Mama Do the Hump. These boys from Brighton were just the right level of cheeky — they drank rum and tried to impress girls but they also loved their mums.
Stephens, aged 27, feels proud when he hears Rizzle Kicks songs now but, he says, “it took me a while”. Before we broach that, Stephens is hungry. He ran 5k around Wormwood Scrubs with his dog this morning and wants pancakes and a banana smoothie. He’s wiry, in high-waisted baggy stonewashed jeans, a pretty necklace with a large square pink jewel on it and a matching pink ring made for him by “a mate”.
Since Rizzle Kicks recorded their last single in 2016, Stephens has turned his hand to a vast array of projects. He’s acted, playing a rebel soldier in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (“I thought my part would be cut so I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it,” he says) and starring in an as yet untitled film about coffee with Kate Nash and Florence Pugh’s brother Toby; fronted a mental health campaign called #IAmWhole; and has just signed a six-figure deal with Bloomsbury for three children’s books. Rizzle Kicks isn’t over: “I want to make more of that music,” he says. “But Harley’s being a dad.”
We’ve met to talk about Big Tent Ideas Festival, in the Isle of Dogs, where Stephens is speaking about #IAmWhole tomorrow. It’s known as “Tory Glastonbury” but is non-partisan. “I was intrigued by being asked to represent in a political context,” says Stephens. “Our goal is to normalise mental health, without being preachy or overwhelming. Government funding for mental health is poor. I’m a patron of a charity called AudioActive and they’ve just had their third suicide in a short space of time. It was a young boy and when the charity tried to get help there wasn’t anyone available because it is so underfunded.”
Stephens is open about his own mental health. He saw a counsellor at school after being diagnosed with ADHD at 15. “I got more time in my GCSEs, which helped,” he says. “But they also gave me biscuits, which was the opposite of what I needed.” Three years later he was touring with Rizzle Kicks. He didn’t feel able to talk about his feelings, so instead, he says, “I just got really mashed up”. “Drinking is numbing, removing yourself and not having to think about yourself. Sex does that too, going out and sleeping with a bunch of people.”
What made him realise that he needed to stop? “I went through a hard break-up and decided to stay sober. I’d been making the same errors and was in a destructive cycle to do with intimacy. I find love difficult. Men can fall into a place where you are bigged up for being emotionally detached but beneath that is a deep fear of rejection and abandonment.”
Did anyone notice he was struggling? “I’m a strong character,” he says. “If I want to do something it’s hard to stop me. I was very functional, a lot of people are when mashed up. London is a mess — there are a lot of messed-up people. And there’s a perverse celebratory energy around young stars going out and losing themselves. That behaviour is encouraged, especially for males.”
He continues: “Men have an element of competition based around strength or being impenetrable. I question why we are brought up in a society where men don’t feel it is within our means to build emotional resilience. Rejection and heartbreak are important in growing up. I’ve had those pains in wild bursts. It was hardcore. I’d have preferred to learn gradually.”
Schools are one place to address this. Stephens has been reading up on a school in Harlem where detention was replaced with meditation and discipline improved. “Children should be equipped with the right emotional tools to use for the rest of their lives. It’s a long-term investment. We need to implement changes to make sure we are not continuously paying for plasters.”
His pancakes arrive, soaked in cream, and he tears into them, balancing the plate on his knee. Antidepressants can be another “plaster”. “My girlfriend recommended a therapist and we worked together so I didn’t go on antidepressants when it was bad.”
His mother is a therapist too. She trained while Stephens was growing up and now practises part-time, supplemented with Uber driving. “You should interview her, she’s an interesting woman,” he laughs. What’s his Uber rating? We check his app and he relaxes when he sees it’s a respectable 4.56. “I’m always late to the car,” he explains.
In his mental-health work he’s been researching psychedelic drugs. “There is going to be a psychedelic revolution,” he tells me. “I’ve experimented with DMT and mushrooms. I’m a fan of Professor David Nutt. If [psychedelics] are allowed into the medical circuit legally I think we’ll see a decline in people struggling with anxiety and depression.”
Last year, #IAmWhole launched its Music4MentalHealth initiative with a four-hour concert at the Camden Roundhouse. Stephens’s mate Ed Sheeran played first. “He’s caring,” says Stephens. “When we meet up we order Nando’s and talk about funny videos. He has two cats who have funny ears.” Stephens’s usual Nando’s order is extra hot. Is that part of proving himself as a man? He’s dismissive. “My girlfriend [actress Amber Anderson] is addicted to extra hot sauce. I know a lot of my male friends who get f***ing medium.” He also likes watching YouTube clips of Dragons’ Den and his favourite is Deborah Meaden. Then he looks guilty: “Actually, I can’t say that because I performed at Peter Jones’s daughter’s birthday. I can’t pick a favourite, I need to keep my mind on business.” In fact, he’s about to release a song. “It’s taken me three years to come to an EP I like,” he says. “I’m sober now and am not fighting so much, externally I mean. I’m definitely fighting myself.”
It was Stephens’s grandmother who got him into writing and his children’s book is dedicated to her. She came over from Guyana during Windrush and was an English teacher in Finchley for 25 years. “The story is about multiculturalism and being social instead of wrapped up in the need to achieve. The girl in the book is obsessed with finishing jigsaws but she doesn’t look at what they are. Then she learns that life isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.” Does Stephens like jigsaws? “Metaphorically I do.”
The Windrush scandal was “the most insulting thing”. “I have zero compassion for Theresa May. She is far too removed from the general population. I don’t think she has ever spoken to a black person before so it’s no surprise she is putting them on planes.” Is Boris Johnson any better? Stephens wouldn’t consider going into politics until he is in his late-thirties. “I don’t know that much. We confused confidence for competence. I believe in choices based on compassion and if you’ve never experienced hardship how are you going to represent 80 per cent of the population? Brexit is an example of what happens when overconfident men are allowed to make decisions.”
What does he make about the discussions around a lack of male role models and a rise in knife crime? “There is a straightforward parallel between youth clubs closing and an increase in crime,” he states. “What do you expect people to do with their time when they are not learning to love each other? The breakdown of community is awful.”
Football and supporting Arsenal was his community when he was younger. He gave up a professional career when “my hormones kicked in and I started smoking weed. It’s a good thing music worked out or I’d be kicking myself.” He says his new music is “funky”, adding with a grin: “It turns out if I’m not totally drunk I have a nice tone of voice.
Big Tent Ideas Festival is at Mudchute Park & Farm tomorrow, bigtent.org.uk