Tobe Onwuka

Emma Banks

Impact International: UK/Euro Honors

Tobe Onwuka

Director & CEO, #Merky, Hashtag Merky Management

Weathering Storms & Managing Stormzy, Tobe Onwuka Is Plotting The Future

The rise of Stormzy was one of the most exciting artist stories to watch in the 2010s. A small selection of career highlights includes his platinum-selling No. 1 debut album, 2017’s Gang Signs & Prayer; the launch of Merky Festival that same year; three BRIT Awards, one for the album, two for Best Male Solo Artist (2018, 2020); and headlining Glastonbury in 2019. It was all set to culminate with a world tour named after Stormzy’s second No. 1 album, Heavy Is The Head, consisting of 55 shows spanning Europe, Asia, Oceania, North America, the UK, Ireland and Africa in 2020. It never came to that, of course, and his manager Tobe Onwuka is cautious not to indicate when it might resume, seeing that there’s no streamlined global approach to travel, show restrictions and quarantine requirements.

The tour had sold out before the crisis emerged, and Onwuka has multiple calls every week about potential reroutes. He’s “grateful we had such a low level of refunds,” which is another reason he doesn’t want to keep getting people’s hopes up only to destroy them later.

“Had I plotted some of the tours that were offered to me, they definitely wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “These guys have spent their hard-earned money, they need to plan ahead, a lot of people travel to see a Stormzy show, so I want to make sure I’m giving A1 information.”

Onwuka sounds relaxed and content. He’s found other ways to make the most of his forced downtime.

“What I’ve learned was to take time,” he says. “I know that’s literally all we’ve had, 18 months of time, but I feel like it was your choice how to approach that. I don’t think I realized this until very late in 2020, but sometimes you need to step back, look at what’s happening, and refocus.”

Plus, he adds, lots of things wouldn’t have happened otherwise, like Stormzy’s move to CAA in July.

“I loved my last situation, it felt like family,” he says. “But if you understand our ambition, it was inevitable, just because of the type of company CAA is. We know what we need from our careers. Stormzy has had an amazing live career, and our previous situation would have taken him through all of it. But he’s transcended that. He does need to start thinking about other areas of the business that CAA already has interest in, whether it be films, books, so many different areas.”

Onwuka emphasizes that the move was “mainly about supporting Merky, it’s not a Stormzy thing, it’s not a Tobe thing, but Merky linking up with another team that can amplify what Merky does already. We have a charity arm, we have Merky Books, we have a vested interest in sports – so many areas we could look at ourselves, but my team is made up of five people. There’s only so far it goes.” Stormzy’s philanthropic work has been a focus during the past yearand- a-half. It includes the Merky Foundation and the annual Stormzy Scholarship, enabling Black students to go to university.

“If me and Stormz didn’t do music, we would have both tried to get our degrees,” Onwuka says. “So, when there’s people like us that we can help, why would we not do that? It might sound a bit self-serving, but that brings me my joy, more even than putting out albums.

“We’ve got accolades that have given me joy and I’m not saying that they won’t give me more, but not as much as being able to shine a light on something someone’s doing or reach out a hand and help them. There’s no better feeling. Genuinely.”

Stormzy’s career was never approached in a cookie-cutter way, because Onwuka was never afraid to trust his gut when taking risks.

He cites two major reasons for that: “One, my faith in God. Two, Stormzy’s trust in me. We’re literal friends. We grew up together, our moms are best friends. I always advised, ‘Have you tried that or have you looked into this?’ But never in an official capacity.

“Stormzy’s takeaway from doing the rounds with some of the top managers in the UK was: ‘Tobe’ – and these are almost his words verbatim – ‘I know you don’t have the experience, but I promise you, if you give yourself time, you can do better than most of these people that are mad established.’ I was quite shocked by that take, but it was all the confidence I needed.” Onwuka says touring became “quite cyclical” in recent years, but that’s changed.

Now, “People are thinking way more about the offering,” he says. “And what I mean by the offering is, how do I do those shows? People are taking livestreams, for instance, way more serious, some of those are being put on like full-size productions for people to watch digitally. A lot of people can benefit from that.

“In so many different areas, people are going to have to up their game. For one, because it’s literally going to be a jungle out there. There are so many artists that have grown in their careers in the last 18 months but have not been able to put on the show to match that. When their shows come out, you’ve got to step your game up. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”