There are dozens of professors advising the government at the moment, but Boris Johnson might consider finding room for one more. Stephen Manderson – the rapper, songwriter, television presenter, designer, restaurateur, mental health campaigner and modern renaissance man better known as Professor Green – smiles ruefully at the thought.
“Oh mate, yes,” he says, throwing his head back. “How lovely would that be? To have a working class voice like mine in the Cabinet?”
Manderson, 36, isn’t about to announce a run for office, and while he doesn’t have any academic qualifications to his name (he left school at 13), he does have a lot to say about the pandemic – particularly the inequalities involved.
“Covid-19 has just exposed how protected some people are and how vulnerable others are,” he says, before applauding the work of Marcus Rashford in speaking up for children who receive free school meals, as Manderson did.
“You know what though? It shouldn’t just be Marcus Rashford, it shouldn’t just be me. Anybody who’s from that background and done well for themselves should be using their voice, rather than just sitting around thinking, ‘Oh, I’m glad to be here.’
“I think there’s a real issue on both sides [of the class divide], in that they don’t think our problems are theirs, and we don’t think their problems are ours. For as long as that stays as it is, nothing’s going to get much better. You can’t just have conversations with people who agree with you and expect to change the world.”
Manderson often thinks about what his life could have been like if his career hadn’t saved him. Left as a baby by his teenage parents, he was raised by his grandmother, great-grandmother and uncles in a three-bed council flat on an estate in Clapton, East London, once referred to as “Murder Mile”.
As a teenager he was in and out of trouble, had “big bags of weed” under his bed and was once stabbed in the neck; his father took his own life at 43, leaving a 25-year-old Manderson to identify the body. But in the years afterwards, talent and a formidable work ethic meant that, helped hugely successful singles with Lily Allen and Emeli Sandé, Manderson became one of the biggest-selling British rappers of the last decade.
“I narrowly avoided falling through the cracks. If I was still in the flat I grew up in, Covid would be a very different situation. I still know a lot of people in those situations and it’s not pleasant, these large families living in very small spaces without a garden.So when you introduce a lockdown, things get very difficult,” he says. The pandemic “has revealed a lot”.
Manderson is spending Lockdown 2 at home with his partner, the actress Karima McAdams, and his dogs, Arthur and Ethel. But the couple did all 13 weeks of the first in Morocco – where they were stranded after visiting her father in March, when the airspace was closed.
“It was intense. The furthest we could go there was 50 metres to the supermarket and back. And it rained, electrical storms, for eight weeks. But no one there was getting into fist fights over bog roll.”
There too – as well as starting a food business with Gizzi Erskine – he and McAdams decided to observe the month of Ramadan.
“I’m not Muslim, but did the fasting. And do you know what? It’s possibly the first time since my late teens that I’ve done one thing that’s good for me, consistently every day, for a month. It reminded me I can be quite disciplined.”
His fast included no water for the first two weeks, until a stomach bug left him severely dehydrated (among other health worries, he has previously broken his neck and suffered an extremely rare allergic reaction to the mesh used in a hernia operation, leaving him with pneumonia and a collapsed lung). But he loved it, and might even make it an annual thing.
“It will be interesting to see if I can do it with everything I am used to around me. But I would like to… You get a lot of clarity.”
Gaining that clarity has prompted Manderson make changes – not least removing all the unnecessary clutter in his home, cutting ties with “toxic” people, introducing a rule that he won’t go to an event if he feels he’d need to have a drink to be comfortable there, and donating around 30 bags of clothes to charity.
“When I made my own money in music I spent it on expensive clothes. To me it was status,” he says. “I’ve done a whole 180 on that.”
Such a 180, in fact, that he’s launched his own sustainable menswear line with George at Asda – providing affordable (unlike a lot of clothes marketed as “sustainable”, things start at £8), well-made clothes made in an environmentally-friendly way. Yes, Professor Green’s gone green.
“Cost doesn’t always represent quality; I’ve spent a hell of a lot of money on clothes that fall to pieces, but people will be pleasantly surprised by what Asda’s selling. I’ve given it to my friends who wear designer clothes and they haven’t known,” he says.
Keeping his products cheap was imperative. “People say I’m middle-classed now, but how can I be? My sensibilities haven’t changes, nor my work ethic, even if my palate has. We’re obsessed with class in this country, but it’s all just social construct.”
Manderson remains fascinated by class, and even made a BBC documentary (among his others on mental health) about it. Having grown up with little, he saw the extreme other side during his three-year marriage to Made in Chelsea star and Quality Street heiress Millie Mackintosh, which ended in 2016.
He lived in Chelsea only for a little while, but it left him with the feeling that “people my age [there] were like pretty little ghosts: they look good from afar but you go to touch them and there’s nothing there.”
After what he understatedly calls “a colourful life”, Manderson has now found relative balance and serenity, despite insisting he’s still not “the finished product”.
He gave a talk recently at a university, where a student asked him what he’d have studied if he could: Manderson said “child psychology, because it’s something I could have benefited from – knowing that the pain in my stomach wasn’t a belly ache, but a physical manifestation of how scared I was.” The university consequently offered him a place on their course, which he’s now considering once the pandemic is over.
But before that, his concern remains the mental health time bomb that could be set to implode among young people left adrift by the virus.
“It’s really scary, there’s going to be a hell of a lot more Covid-related deaths long after this, because people who have never had mental health issues will be suffering just through being stuck at home. We need to look after the country,” he says. Those tasked with doing so, he reckons, “don’t have any conviction in what they’re saying… The problems are societal. People are desperate.”
Maybe that run for office isn’t so far-fetched, after all.
ADAPT: Professor Green’s sustainable clothing collection with George at Asda, is available from November 12th