Who’s the real Professor Green?
Last month, on a crisp, bright morning at a studio in east London, Professor Green faces the camera for his first Balance cover and, contrary to typical celebrity behaviour, he isn’t fussed about inspecting the images. But Professor Green – or Stephen Manderson to those who know him best – can’t escape feedback. Praise comes at him from all directions. First from the photographer, who weighs up which side is his best, and then from his music publicist, who nods approvingly at the images. ‘You look really happy,’ she enthuses, prompting a rueful smile from the 32-year-old rapper. ‘I am,’ he says, before pausing momentarily. ‘Weird, innit?’
It’s certainly been a tumultuous year for Stephen. He started out married to former Made in Chelsea star Millie Mackintosh and ends 2016 as a single man. The couple were granted a ‘quickie’ divorce in May, after two years of marriage. Ongoing legal matters force us to adhere to a one-question line of enquiry. We ask what Stephen has learned from the split.
‘I didn’t get married to get divorced. Neither of us did,’ he says, stretching out a leg from beneath the stool on which he is perched. ‘So all that really comes from it is, it’s quite sad that it ended.’
LOVE FROM A DISTANCE
Stephen – who has since been linked to model Fae Williams – still believes in true love. ‘Definitely, because I love people I’ve had relationships with. I love friends – even friends I’m not friends with any more. And family members. I can’t tell you that I don’t love my mum, because I wouldn’t be here without her. So even though we don’t have a relationship, she’s still someone I love – albeit from a distance.’
Stephen’s mum – who he no longer speaks to – was just 16 when she gave birth to him. She walked out a year later. With his dad, Peter, only ‘an occasional presence’ in his life, Stephen was raised by his grandmother Patricia – ‘Nanny Pat’ – who worked three jobs to put food on the table, and great grandmother Edith – ‘Nanny Edie’ – who cared for Stephen like a mother until she died when he was 13. Although their house was ‘full of love’, Stephen’s unconventional family life made him a target for school playground interrogation by the other children.
‘When you’re a kid, you get asked all the questions,’ he says. ‘You know there’s something different about your family in comparison to everyone else’s. Stability is important for kids. My friends who had stability – their lives have tended to be more linear; less up and down.’ Stephen describes a ‘chaotic’ childhood on the Northwold estate in Clapton, Hackney. He lived on a notorious stretch known as ‘Murder Mile’, because of the prevalence of drug and gun-related crime.
Highly intelligent (‘I built my first PC’), Stephen had dreams of being a lawyer. He was invited to sit the entrance exam for a scholarship at St Paul’s School in south London, an independent school open to gifted boys from all backgrounds. But he turned down the opportunity, such was his fear of enrolling without his friends.
Within a year, Stephen had quit school and by 16 he was smoking marijuana and selling drugs, yet he isn’t too hard on himself about this chapter of his life.
‘Hypothetically, I would have done everything differently, but in reality I wouldn’t change a thing otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now,’ he says. ‘Fate takes away choice. Look where I am now.’
Look indeed. The rise and rise of Professor Green is an inspiring story. From listening to hip hop at the age of nine to discovering jungle music, and then stumbling across a hidden talent for freestyle rapping in his friend Kidulthood actor Adam Deacon’s bedroom, Stephen soon began entering and winning rap battles.
His profile grew and eventually he traded a graphic design apprenticeship to sign with The Beats record label, set up by Mike Skinner of the Streets. Heralded as an English Eminem, in 2009 Stephen signed to Virgin Records.
Now a world famous rapper and song writer signed to Sony Records, he has two gold albums and a string of chart hits to his name. He’s also enjoying a burgeoning television career and last year ventured into investigative waters, presenting three successful BBC documentaries – on male suicide, homelessness and dangerous dogs.
Plus he co-hosts Channel 5’s Lip Sync Battle UK with ex-Spice Girl Mel B. ‘I’m really happy with work at the moment,’ declares Stephen.
Off duty, happiness comes in the form of comfy domesticity. ‘Sunday roast with my best friends, the people I don’t get to see all the time,’ he says. ‘And a cuddle on the couch with my dogs. I don’t really let them on the couch but…’ He shrugs apologetically.
So what did he mean earlier when he labelled his happiness as ‘weird’?
‘Because happiness is not consistent. It isn’t for anyone,’ he explains. ‘I had this illusion that if I started to do well with music and get out of what I was doing before – selling drugs – then I’d be happy. I’d be absolved of all of my problems. But, of course, I wasn’t. No level of success brings that happiness. You’re happy for moments. I don’t think you’re ever permanently happy. If you were, you’d be f***ing weird.’
Stephen’s struggle with depression is detailed in the lyrics of his 2014 hit Lullaby and in last year’s BBC Three documentary Professor Green: Suicide And Me. A heartfelt investigation into male suicide (it was even shown in Parliament), Stephen explored the suicide of his father, Peter Manderson, who hanged himself in April 2008. Stephen had to identify the body.
Stephen sighs. ‘Suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 15 and 45. The figures are at an all-time high,’ he says. ‘A friend of mine tried to kill himself a couple of weeks ago. It’s so commonplace.’
A TRUE AMBASSADOR
Stephen, who is a patron of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide, believes the rate of male suicide will be reduced only if men are encouraged to talk openly about their feelings. He led the way in his documentary by bravely baring his own emotions about his father’s death.
‘It was impossible not to be emotional, and that was scary – but that’s the problem most men have. They don’t want to be perceived as vulnerable. But accepting that you are vulnerable is a strength. It’s better not to tuck things away.
I don’t have my dad, but grief means that love transcends, so there is a positive element to it.’
If you listen to the lyrics of Read All About It, Professor Green’s 2011 number one hit with Emeli Sandé, you’ll hear how he felt about his dad’s absence and subsequent death. It’s very moving. But pity Stephen at your peril. Despite the challenges he’s faced, including being stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle in 2009 in a random attack, he believes his ability to keep strong stems from ‘drive’, a trait inherited from his Nanny Pat. ‘She was always a grafter, and you take in what goes on around you,’ he says, acknowledging that he is ‘juggling everything’ right now.
Following a two-year hiatus from the music industry, Professor Green is back promoting his new single One Eye On The Door. He is also shooting two more documentaries for BBC Three and recording in the studio.
Working hard, Stephen explains, leaves him less time to over-think, something he is prone to do.
‘It’s a gift and a curse. It’s the reason I’m so addicted to what I do, but it’s also the reason that when I’m not occupied I worry about things I have no control over. I wake up in the morning in knots for no reason. I had them this morning.’
The biggest giveaway that Stephen is stressed is the extreme tidiness of his home in south London.
‘I don’t notice myself doing it,’ he says. ‘I take control of one thing to counter being unable to control something else. When I was a kid and people were talking, I’d twitch a muscle with every word and count the number of words.
‘I definitely need to do stuff that reduces stress. I talk a good game and I’m great at giving other people advice, but I don’t do enough for myself.’
Presumably he’s not squeezed in a spa day lately? Stephen laughs: ‘A spa day would be lovely, but I’ve got s*** to do.’
Like today’s shoot – just one part of a full day dedicated to promoting his new single and the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man festival, where celebrities including Stephen, and actors Sir Roger Moore and Ashley Walters address the pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century.
On the subject of what it means to be a man, Stephen asks: ‘Have you seen that clip of Grayson Perry where the guy says “you’ve got to be hard” and Grayson goes “Do you?” That was a brilliant response.’ Which begs the question – who exactly is Stephen Manderson?
He’s street wise – he’s had to be – and he’s experienced more horrors than most in life. But beneath the gritty lyrics and body ink, Stephen displays none of the bravado so commonplace among his hip hop peers. ‘It’s nice to eat in good restaurants,’ concedes Stephen. ‘I don’t try to be a man of the people. If it was contrived, people would smell it. It’s about being comfortable, which is weird in this industry.’
He’s guilty of the occasional mistake – there was a drink-driving charge last year – but Stephen seems to be a good egg. He respectfully arrives 15 minutes early for our shoot, he’s articulate, honest and mild-mannered. Standing 6ft4, there’s an air of gentle giant about him. In one way, he’s a tough cookie, a boy forced to grow up fast. In another, there’s a vulnerability to him and a childlike gaze to his expression – a man who yearns for tenderness and the time to better himself.
So what does the future hold? Until now, children have been off the agenda because his life has been too ‘unstable’. However, he knows from experience that families come in all different designs. It seems there may be room for manoeuvre on this front.
‘We’re pressured into doing things “the right way”, but what does that mean? My mum was 16 and my dad was 18 when they had me. My mum left when I was a year old and I never lived with my dad. My life has been pretty chaotic, but I haven’t had a bad life,’ he says.
‘Does it have to be 2.4 children? I don’t know.’
So, what is Stephen looking forward to in 2017? That’s simple: ‘More of the same. More music and more documentaries, which are teaching me about things and more about myself.’
He nods, an accomplished grin creeping across his face. ‘I’m liking the challenge.’ A dedicated professor, indeed.
SO, WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A MAN?
‘It’s about being emotionally strong, as well as physically strong. Who you are as a person is completely up to you. What makes you a man is open to interpretation.’
Umar Bin Hassan, Last Poets
‘Being a man to me means to ratify the struggles in one’s life. I do this from the perspective of how my family see me. That might be by justifying my mother’s decision to have me or becoming a better example to my grandson. It is about being responsible for him, loving him and hugging him as much as I can.’
Simon Sharp, artistic director of London Gay Men’s Chorus
‘Being a man is all I’ve known. I feel fortunate being comfortable with who I am and proud of the role I hold as artistic director of the London Gay Men’s Chorus. The choir is a beacon of excellent male role models and our place in the community is a celebration of identity, with the broad spectrum of masculinity cocooned within its membership.’
Ashley Walters, actor
‘Being a man means being there for your family, and being a consistent role model for your children.’
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