MOBO-award winning rapper, author and broadcaster, there isn’t a lot that Isaac Borquaye – AKA Guvna B – has turned his hand to that he hasn’t found success with. But there’s a certain success that he craves yet has no power over – that of his beloved West Ham United.

Growing up a stone’s throw from Upton Park, West Ham was part of Guvna B’s life from an early stage. Whilst life blessed him with a set of talents that were never going to see him performing on the pitch, the Hammers have nonetheless stayed close to his heart. We caught up with the multiple award winning rapper to discuss the club and his affinity for them, the benefits of boasting Di Canio, and his broader outlook on life and what success can really look like.

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Talk about that first love of football, you could have picked so many clubs in London, what made West Ham the one?

It was actually more about community. That was my main connection with West Ham. Custom House was where I grew up. I was just down the road from Upton Park. I was about 14 years old when I moved to Chadwell Heath in Essex. The training ground was behind my house basically. In addition to that my best friend was playing for the youth team so he got us free tickets to the games and I just thought it was a sick community. Being an East Londoner being around other East Londoners, I know we get a bad rep for the hooligan stuff of the past, Green Street and all that stuff, but when you’re a fan of the club and you see what it’s like, you soon realise that the negative side is only a very small minority. It’s a very loving club in reality.

On the pitch, Paolo Di Canio was the person that basically gave you clout in the playground as a West Ham fan. Obviously everyone back then was talking about Henry, Van Nistelrooy, Ginola – all these flair players. You couldn’t really join in with any of the “top four” conversations [laughs] but we could say we had Paolo Di Canio.

You’re a creative minded guy, did you naturally gravitate towards players that showed a bit of character and flair like Di Canio did?

Definitely. The beauty of football is that there’s so many touch points to it. There’s so many ways to fall in love with your club. Like for West Ham, the East London connection being huge but then on the field, you’ve got someone that knows how to express themselves with a football. It wasn’t just “442, pass sideways” same old, same old. You could see that Di Canio was enjoying himself while he was doing it. As a performer, you want to put on a show for the crowd, he was someone that did that on his own stage. Later down the line I think Dimitri Payet was probably the closest thing we’ve had to that. That 2016 season was one of the most memorable as a West Ham fan, I think.

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Speaking of memories, the training ground at the back of your house, kicking a ball against the wall at home – how precious are all those nuances of childhood and football for you?

It’s true, all those little moments are so special. They’re always special in hindsight. I’m very much a live-in-the-moment kind of person, but when you do stop and think about them it makes you feel very blessed. For me, I feel blessed to have grown up so close to such a sacred place in the shape of the training ground. Some of those memories are amazing. Me and my mates used to go down there on a lunch break at school and just wait for the players and get autographs. I was a bit of a cheeky kid and I remember one time seeing Nobby Solano driving out of the training ground, I said to him “Nobby, can I have a fiver please?”. I don’t even know why I said it but he laughed, rolled down his window and gave me £2. I was like “I just got £2 from Nobby Solano!”. Memories like that were super special.

Did you instantly spend the £2 or did you hang onto that as the £2 you got from Nobby Solano?

[Laughs] It went straight away. That was a one-piece chicken and chips and two wings deal right there. Precious memories.

It’s a very real and raw club as well. While the modern era might be pushing towards the polish and shine, it’s still  got that harder sentiment. It doesn’t have to be exclusively tied to Green Street and all that kind of stuff. Do you like that it's seen as a bit more of a club of the people?

I love that. I’m a big fan of paying respect to what has gone before and the people that have toiled and worked hard to get to the level of what we see today. I think it would be really sad if we ever lost our soul or our DNA of the club. I’m not completely against all the bigger stadiums, big PR. hospitality and all that kind of stuff but I think it would be a shame if we lose that charm that makes us who we are. Also, if you are a fan that is coming to the games, if you’re a fan who came to Upton Park, you’re not just coming to watch a game for 90 minutes of football. You’re popping in to all the places on route, having a chat with people on the street, speaking to the person selling the programmes, the guys who work at the train station and all that kind of stuff.

When we moved stadiums and you saw how it affected those real people who you’ve built those relationships with, it’s obviously very sad. We’re still in East London though and there’s still a chance to keep that vibe alive. We’re here walking around where Upton Park was. All the houses are being developed around here but if you go down to Green Street it’s still the same. I like that. It’s important to move forward and progress but you shouldn’t delete your history.

The rollercoaster of football, emblematic of life isn’t it…would you agree?

Yeah definitely. I think I’ve connected with that sentiment probably more in the last year or so. I’ve had a challenging few years with my dad passing away, the pandemic and then it’s obviously been really hard with work and not being able to tour and that kind of stuff but there’s also been highlights like having my son. It’s made me realise that even on the worst of days, there’s always a blessing you can count, whether that’s family being healthy, just being alive and there’s stuff I can be getting on with.

When you look at football, obviously not being able to go to the games was terrible and the Premier League season was pretty much put on hold. But when it all came back, when we had the Euros and all that excitement, the way it brought people together was huge. Those ups and downs of football, you can really relate them to the ups and downs of life in general.

Being a supporter of your own club is so unique to the individual. When you think back to big moments for you as a fan, can you remember the sounds and the smells of those big games?

Oh definitely. There’s so many to choose from. I know some would argue that as a West Ham fan there’s probably not as many as I’m imagining. My all time favourite memory was going on the train to Cardiff for the Playoff final against Preston North End. The train was packed full of West Ham fans. I didn’t actually pay for a train ticket, it was that busy. It was so rammed they were just letting everyone through at the station. Getting there, the atmosphere, it was just crazy. Bobby Zamora scored the winning goal and it became one of the best days of my life; this road trip with what felt like every single West Ham fan to Cardiff. That’s probably my all time favourite memory.

I’ve spoken to other fans like Arsenal fans about their move to The Emirates, I’m still waiting for that feeling of what the right matchday looks like at our new stadium. It takes a while for those smells and sensations to come along with new stadiums. With Green Street, it was always there – the smell of food, the chicken shop, the aromas and the atmosphere and the diversity of it all. It’s more of a feeling than anything. All those feelings are what we’re waiting to discover with the new stadium

Everyone has to find their own routine don’t they. It might come as a new generation starts going to football…

Yeah one of my favourite phrases is that you’ve always got to try and find the new normal when there’s extreme change. If you’re just waiting for things to fall back into how they were before, you’ll be waiting for time. This is a new era and we have to put our own stamp on it.

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Parallel that with your career, there’s always so many crossovers between music and football and the respective journeys – what are your proudest milestones that you’ll cherish in your career?

I think, as a West Ham fan, you’re not used to winning all the time. In fact you’re more used to the ups and downs. Even more so, you’re probably used to more of the downs. That kind of theme of never giving up and having that mindset that is driven by aspiration, driven by being the best you possibly can, regardless of what’s gone before, I can relate that to my career. I’ve been doing music for fifteen years now. I’ve always had that mindset. I’ve won MOBOs and that kind of thing but the highs have been really few and far between in comparison to the biggest artists in the world. I’ve always thought that if you’re doing something you love, just be as good as you can for as long as you can and it’s not always about the trophy or the award. When I look back and can say, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years and I can pay my bills, I can support my family and I’m doing a job I love, that’s the real achievement.

Such a healthy perspective but amazing how casually you say, you’ve won a couple of MOBOs.

[laughs] Yeah, but you know what I mean. I wouldn’t say I’m never satisfied but I’m always striving. There’s always levels to what you do and it’s so important to appreciate each one.

Sometimes the pace of life means that you never take stock or enjoy the moments when they’re happening…

What’s dangerous about that is that sometimes all the wins can feel really shallow. So you’ve got to take yourself out of your environment. That relative look at what you’re doing and what you have is so important. You’ve got to have that gratitude.

You’re an eclectic talent. 10 albums, two books, all written and produced by you – you’re not short of ideas. Where does that drive come from?

I think it’s a few things. I didn’t have a big brother and I grew up in a council estate. There were actually a few good role models around my estate but I viewed success very differently back then. Success was always viewed as who has the best car or the most money, no matter what those people did to get it. That’s what success would look like – Air Force 1s, Air Max 90s. Meanwhile, there’s a guy who works at JP Morgan who is probably doing quite well and who is probably very successful though I wouldn’t look at him that way as it wasn’t how I measured success.

I just recognise that there’s probably a lot of young people drifting through life like I was, trying to find validating through things that won’t last very long. Any way that I can communicate whether that’s books, music, broadcasting or presenting, and representing people from that background, putting out a positive message, I recognise that it could possibly change the trajectory or their lives. For me it was a teacher in primary school showing faith in me. She wasn’t from the ends, she was probably in her 50s and she believed in me. She was crazy positive with me and that helped me. Whatever touchpoints I can find where I might be able to inspire people younger than me, I try and do that. I’m almost not living for now, I’m living for when I’m old or gone and I’m leaving this content for people to connect with.

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So much is about visualisation – until we see others doing something, you don’t realise that dream can be a reality – were there role models for you that helped pave the way?

I definitely recognised that I was different from a young age. The person that I saw that made me feel like anything is possible was Kano. He grew up down the road from me. He was on MTV Bass, Ps & Qs was a massive song and I was just like “rah, that’s someone from the ends that is making music and doing so well, maybe I can write some lyrics?”.

I guess I got a bit annoyed because in the ends there’s not all that much positivity you can write about and I didn’t want to just be writing about negative things. There’s so many rappers that can rap about violence and girls and all that. I don’t want to stay in that environment though, I want us all to aspire for better. So I started changing my subject matter to things that were more positive. It wasn’t all that intentional but I soon realised there weren't that many people doing that. Most importantly I just want to enjoy what I do and be true to myself. I feel like we all have a passion and a talent. Sometimes it takes a while to find it and there’s a lot of trial and error but you’ll land at, you’ve just gotta keep trying.

How good has it been to be able to merge passions in the way you have? Taking music and crossing it into football as an example…

It’s actually mad. I’m living my dream. I feel so blessed. If someone said to me that I’d be doing stuff for West Ham or SoccerBible and to still tour and rap and write books, I wouldn’t have believed it. I think that’s actually the way the world is going. Back in the day, your parents may have said to you, “what’s your occupation?”, but now I feel like it’s about what you’re carrying as an individual. If you’re carrying positivity and a fluid mindset, you can do anything you want.

I think that our generation has made the ‘Jack of All Trades’ thing a positive – it’s OK to try and be good at lots of things. It’s sick to explore many different things and it means you can connect to lots of different people in different ways as well. [laughs] The world is so shit – all you’ve got to do is turn on the news and see so much bad stuff going on. The beauty of being fluid means you soon realise that we’re not alone on this planet, we’re all in it together, you know?

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Definitely. As you said about West Ham and the community aspect, part of why we all felt so good about the Euros is probably because everyone in the country was unified and on the same page for once…

That was the beautiful thing about the Euros. It galvanised people. The positivity could be felt far and wide. The one thing it taught me about community is that we’re quite good when it comes to winning together, but we have to learn about how we lose together. As soon as that dream went out of the window, we all went off back into our own lanes. It was back to that divided nature that we’ve experienced over the last few years. You’ve just got to look at Denmark: when they lost against England and you saw their players going over to the fans and they’re all there still standing together, it makes you realise that we’ve got a bit of a way to go to get to that point. That’s the dream. I think football can be a catalyst for that. I think genuine friendship travels as well. The England squad now seem like genuine friends. You’d hear stories in the past of how each of the clubs would sit together so you’d have a Man Utd table or an Arsenal table or whatever. It’s a lot different now which is great.

On that point of things coming together, merging grime with gospel – do you like almost breaking convention in that way and seeing where it’ll lead?

I love doing stuff that hasn’t been done before. I think there’s also so many misconceptions with music. The word ‘Gospel’, people probably think about Kumbaya and black robes but then they listen to my stuff and they’re like, “oh, he’s got a song with Wretch 32 and done stuff with D Double”, that shouldn’t work, but it does. That area of intrigue is where I sit. Whenever I hear you can’t do something, it just makes me want to prove people wrong.

Now that the prospect of touring is back, the thought of getting back out there and physically interacting with people through your music – how excited are you about 21/22 on the pitch as well as musically?

Very excited. You can't beat face to face as you get a realness that you can’t get elsewhere. Online has and is great for open opportunities to expand what we do and reach more people but it does lack that real story. I’ll give you one example: someone came up to me and said, “yo! I listened to that tune and because of that I stopped self harming” at a show. You might get something like that over an email which is incredible but to have someone say that to you is so real. I haven’t toured in so long and I feel like I know what songs people like and react to but you don’t know until you get them in front of an audience. Getting that reaction will be special.

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In terms of milestones and what we talked about there, to have got that reaction and positively changed someone's life, no matter what you achieve going forward is remarkable...

I think it puts things into perspective. I don’t know what you’re like with goal setting but I would think about MOBOs and GRAMMY’s and you don’t think about actually touching lives. When you hear you’ve done that, it’s way more rewarding. I think sometimes people look at rap music and football as just a bit of fun but I’ve seen the power of it. I’ve seen people crying at matches and concerts.

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