Music Stars Making A Social Impact: How & Why Wilko Wilkes Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan


I know how it feels to be bullied, depressed, in debt, feeling hopeless, criticized unfairly, you name it, so I do my best to lift others up. Even the people who probably think I’m a self-indulgent sanctimonious bell-end I don’t blame them and I want the best for them! Most of the causes I’m fighting for though involve mental health, poverty or injustice. It’s a cruel world out there at times and we’re all in it together so I want to spread the message to people that whatever they’re feeling they’re not alone.

As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Wilko Wilkes.

Wilko Wilkes is an alternative rapper from West Yorkshire, UK. An articulate and thoughtful artist, he is making a splash in the music industry with his authentic style of pacy, heartfelt verses. His music has received over 100,000 streams on Spotify and can be heard on radio stations around the world.

Wilko released his first single in November 2019 aged 31 with the aim of penning a full set and performing live. He achieved that goal in August 2021 with a successful set at Bradford Buskival and he has all the attributes to go from strength to strength. On a personal level, there is a lovable warmth to Wilko Wilkes; he is an engaging speaker with a playful nature and a desire to leave a positive legacy with his art.

Passionate about mental health, he talks openly about his own struggles with depression and anxiety in his music and in interviews. He holds several volunteer positions in his local community including facilitating at Andy’s Man Club, a UK charity that offers talking groups for men to open up in a supportive, non-judgmental environment. Throughout his tracks are messages of hope, solidarity and tenacity, which made him a perfect choice for this series.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

Thank you for having me! I grew up in a small village called Menston in Yorkshire, the most glorious and picturesque county in the UK. I went to school in Ilkley and had a good life, one of four boys, I had a stable family life and a solid group of friends. I was never very studious but I had a very good memory and could learn new concepts quickly so I navigated school without too much trouble on the grades side of things. I lacked application though and didn’t really take anything seriously. I feel like even from a young age I had a kind of existential dread and an unease about the world, I had a million questions and worries but I diverted it all into humor. Internally I was sensitive and fragile but externally I was confident and a bit ridiculous at times! I loved being silly and making people laugh. I feel as I’ve got older, gained more life experience and weathered a few storms that the balance has redressed a bit, I’m not as boisterous as I used to be but I’m a lot calmer and more composed in my mind, more comfortable in myself. I remember it used to frustrate me so much being a teenager and constantly being told I was immature when I thought I knew it all, but looking back they were right! I had deep angst within my soul and a reckless attitude at times, I used to regularly find trouble or get into scrapes. It made for some great memories though and I treasure those times when I didn’t know any better.

Music-wise, it was always around me. Both my parents love music and it was always on in the car or the house, my dad is a prog wizard who plays keyboards to a very high standard and used to take me to gigs most weekends at the Classic Rock Society in Rotherham. I watched music channels a lot — Kerrang, MTV2, Q, The Box, VH1 Classic, I liked a bit of everything and took inspiration from passionate and raw performers. Live music was always the pinnacle for me — the huge speakers thumping your chest, watching the crew setting up the stage, that moment just before the main act walks on where the music stops and the lights go down, it all gave me chills of excitement and made me feel alive in a way that not many other things could. I’ve never lost that love and that adrenaline of hearing a great tune, some of my happiest moments in life are when I’m just driving or running listening to a song that I love.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

The music was always in me, I’ve always loved to sing or rap along to music but I never had the confidence to do it in public. I felt too vulnerable really, it was too nerve-wracking, I’d grab a mic after a few drinks when there was karaoke on but apart from that I never really did anything public. Around mid-2019 I was suffering from my mental health and started a course of counseling that changed my life really. My counselor was great and at the sessions, she helped me work through a lot of things that had been bothering me for years. When you’re on that sofa and you’re talking freely sometimes it’s surprising what comes up, I never meant to start talking about music but I did. I talked about how it performing was something I’d love to do and had thought about loads but was too nervous or worried about what people might think — I could hear the voices of dissent and see the faces of those who would be taking the mick, and I’d let it deter me. I’d never really talked about it before with anyone and once I’d voiced those feelings that had been swirling around my head for so long it felt like the ghost had been exorcised. I came out of that session with new steel knowing that I was going to start pursuing the dream of doing some gigs and I started to write, set up my Wilko Wilkes Music page on Facebook and went from there. I also got advice in the session about thinking about the worst things people could say and using that as armor, which is a mentality that works for me — if you’ve heard it all before then nothing can really hurt you.

When I started I didn’t know I was going to be a rapper, I thought I might be a singer or in a cover band of some kind, but I’ve always loved to rap and when I started writing my heart just led me down that route. I’ve always loved fast flows from artists like Twista and Eminem, Busta Rhymes, Plan B, I like rappers with skill and technical ability which I think differentiates it from something anybody could do to being more of a discipline. I also don’t feel as vulnerable rapping as I do when I’m singing, instead, I feel on top of my game and in control and I can explore topics at a more in-depth level than I could if I was writing songs. Some of my tracks have over 1,000 words in them so they’re almost like essays at times and I enjoy that freedom to be able to explore a subject and include a beginning, middle and end to my stories. I just thought it would be really cool to be able to rap some verses that I’d written myself and I really buzz off it whether I’ve got an audience or it’s just me in my car.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?

Funniest was probably in the video for my track Daddy Shark where I have a line “I’m jumping over obstacles like Evil Knievel”. I thought for the video it’d be great if I jumped over something then did a comedy fall onto the ground for that line, so I went round to my parent’s house whilst they were on holiday as they have a garden and I don’t, and I wanted to land on a soft surface. I found a wooden two-seater bench in their garden and thought it was perfect, set up the camera and went to work. My plan was to jump over the bench and catch my foot on the way over, ending in a tumble forward, but instead, the bench went one way and my body went backward. I had a fleeting moment where I knew I’d got it wrong and then felt my back and shoulder twinge as I crashed through the bench. I might not have described it the best there but if you watch the video for Daddy Shark it’s in there, it actually made for a better shot than what I had originally intended. My dad wasn’t over the moon when I told him about it but my mum had been hoping for a new bench for a while so it gave her a good bargaining chip. I was actually lucky that it didn’t do more damage because in hindsight it was a stupid thing to do with nobody around, I probably could easily have been paralyzed or something. I think the lesson I took away from that is to leave stunts to the professionals.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

First and foremost enjoy it! Find something you love and put some time aside to give it some consistent effort. Try and get organized in whatever way you can — make lists, use the calendar and the notepad on your phone, plan ahead. Break down big tasks into small tasks, doing lots of small things consistently will get you wherever you need to be. You might have a million ideas in your head but you can only focus on one at a time. Don’t pressure yourself. Do what you want to do and not what you think others want you to do. Don’t second-guess what anyone is thinking as it’s futile. Be kind to yourself and encouraging to others. Don’t waste any time worrying about what other people think. Don’t worry about or try to predict the results, just work on planting seeds — not all of them will grow but some will end up blooming into mighty oaks. The others will be eaten by the pigeons and go back through the circle of life. Be grateful for everything you have. Be true to yourself.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

On the subject of being true to yourself, my favorite quote is a poem by Dale Wimbrow called the Man in the Glass which goes:

“When you get what you want in your struggle for self and the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself and see what the man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife whose judgment upon you will pass,
The person whose verdict counts most in your life is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fella to please, never mind all the rest, for he’s with you right up til the end,
And you will have passed your most difficult test if the man in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years and get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartache and tears if you’ve cheated the man in the glass.”

For me, it’s about being true to yourself and following your gut. Taking an occasional look at yourself in the mirror can be a powerful way to ground yourself and see where you’re at. For me it helps me in a lot of the bigger aspects of life where you worry if you’re on the wrong path or you don’t know which way to turn. The answer is always in you somewhere.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’d have to say my wife on this one as she gives me the platform to do everything I do. She’s got a fantastic long-term vision and I’m more of a short-term thinker so we balance each other out brilliantly and we’ve been able to build a good life together. Before I met her I really struggled to keep on top of my life and was often living out of a bag, spending more than I earned, anxious all the time and I often felt unsettled like I was constantly living on the edge of disaster. It makes me anxious just thinking about it. My wife is such a calming presence though and she gets me and how I think, I’m able to talk to her about anything and take some pressure out of myself, I need that as I’m a troubled soul at times! She’s a great woman and I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without her. She’s always supported me and I’ve always been able to bounce ideas off her whether it’s music, Andy’s Man Club, work or any of the other stuff I do it would all be a mess if she wasn’t there to keep the band playing. I’m grateful to everyone though, I’m mindful of the impact that everyone you meet has on your life, there are so many people I wish I could spend lots more time with! I’ve got everyone’s backs and I know who is there for me and I’m very lucky to have a great support network, all of whom mean a lot to me.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

Thank you for your kind words! I think for me it’s important that if I have any sort of platform to use it for good. I facilitate at Andy’s Man Club, an organization that runs talking groups for men where they can come and open up in a supportive, confidential and non-judgmental environment, that’s every Monday in over 60 locations throughout the UK and online and that gives me a lot of satisfaction. It’s amazing seeing men progress as they get some stuff off their chests and you can see the weight lifting. I first attended the same as everyone else just as a guy who needed a change and felt the need to reach out and it was one of the best things I ever did because I’ve been involved for 18 months now and I look forward to Mondays to help other men who are struggling with whatever storm they’re going through. I raised some money for them and the housing charity Shelter in April with my single Poverty in the UK, it’s not going to change the world but I try to give back wherever I can.

I’ve got a few plans in my head to do a project around mental health and music, possibly to help younger people express themselves through using music as a conversation starter. In my day job I work with a lot of small charities and throughout my career I’ve worked with the most vulnerable people around, I really see the impact that small gestures or a bit of cash here and there can make. Also, I think having been to some dark places in my mind before I just want to make other people’s lives a bit more pleasurable. I don’t want to see myself as some sort of messiah because there are so many people who do a lot of fantastic work and I just think it’s an honor to be a small part of that wherever I can. I know how it feels to be bullied, depressed, in debt, feeling hopeless, criticized unfairly, you name it, so I do my best to lift others up. Even the people who probably think I’m a self-indulgent sanctimonious bell-end I don’t blame them and I want the best for them! Most of the causes I’m fighting for though involve mental health, poverty or injustice. It’s a cruel world out there at times and we’re all in it together so I want to spread the message to people that whatever they’re feeling they’re not alone.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

For the mental health stuff, it was a lifetime of putting myself last and struggling with my inner thoughts. Beating myself up for all the failures in my life, going back over things a million times, ruing my decisions, unable to think straight. I feel like I spent a long time trapped in my own head and never had an outlet. I taught myself not to cry and to just suck up the pain and it was so bad for me. Even today I’m still working on stuff as I get physical pains in emotional situations whilst my demeanor remains the same. But I know the pressure of not talking to people about how you’re feeling, not reaching out, trying to deal with everything alone because you think you can solve it. And through Andy’s Man Club and counseling, I know the power of speaking out loud, verbalizing your problems and working them out. Even if you can’t work them out you take some of the pressure off yourself by just speaking about your thoughts. It’s not easy but it works.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

I think for me it was the counseling session where I first talked about wanting to pursue being a music artist. It wasn’t something I thought was realistic at the time and I mentioned it in passing as an example of something I’d always wanted to do but could never get over the fear of. The very thought of it plagued my head with dissent and criticism from unknown voices. We worked through it and talked about the worst that people could say, the worst that could happen, and I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a good enough reason not to do something. From that day onwards I’ve been committed to taking the weight off of other people’s opinions. You can’t control any of it and the negatives aren’t worth listening to anyway, they’re flippant and of no consequence, and usually behind your back anyway haha! I try to practice what I preach, I don’t judge anyone and I don’t want anyone to have to feel like I did where they have a lack of courage. I’m always impressed by anyone who puts themselves out there and I’ll support them in whatever they do because I have felt the effects of what it has done for me.

Another moment just in terms of time was when I decided to stop playing phone games. I would get really addicted and put loads of hours into just mindlessly playing games on my phone and whilst it started as a therapeutic thing it ended up at the point where I felt it was stealing hours of my life because I wasn’t being fulfilled by it and I wanted to spend my time on something that would have more of an end product. I decided I would use the time I would normally spend playing games on doing music stuff instead and it’s been a very healthy change for me.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’d take this opportunity just to give another plug to Andy’s Man Club as they have helped so many guys in the time that I’ve been going and before. It’s an honor to see some guys grow and come out of themselves and having seen all the great work Andy’s Man Club does up close I am always in awe of every man who walks through those doors for the first time, it’s a brave and a wise step to try it and I know there are so many men out there who struggle to talk about their feelings or don’t take the time for self-care, which is why I wanted to raise some money for them with Poverty in the UK so I could give something back as they’ve helped me a lot. I’d encourage anyone to check out for further info whether they want to attend, support or just learn a bit more about a fantastic organization.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Individuals I think can just look within and try to take responsibility for the energy they put out into the world — are they being overly harsh or critical on other people for no reason for example? It’s an easy habit to slip into but it’s no good for your own soul so I think just being a bit more outwardly positive is a good change for anyone to make. Society I think is the same really as if we all do our small bits then society as a whole will benefit. As for the government, I would like to see more investment in mental health services. There are lots of amazing charities in the UK doing great work but a lot of it is because there is such a massive need and the government systems to deal with mental health patients are often not fit for purpose. Having said that I would love to see the route causes tackled — poverty, abuse, debt and many more things can contribute to the pressure that many people feel and although in general compared to other countries the UK does a great job of giving vulnerable people a safety net I think we can always do better.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

Ok so I’ve had a think about this:

1 — Nobody cares as much as you do. People are so wrapped up in themselves and worrying about what other people think of them that it really doesn’t matter anyway and new things become normal more quickly than you’d think. At first, I thought it would be strange for people to see me doing the rap thing but after the first initial steps it just becomes normal and now there are people I know well who’s only ever known me in this incarnation and it’s nice. Just do what you love and forget about what others will think.

2 — Some people hate to see others succeed and you can’t change that. They are bitter and it’s good to be aware of them and what they could be saying, whilst not putting any weight on it. The people who love you or want to see you do well will keep in touch and encourage you, or even just watch from afar and be rooting for you even if you may never find out! Sometimes I bump into people and they say they love what I’m doing and I didn’t even know they knew! But like I was saying earlier it’s no use getting down about the haters because really it’s unfulfilling for them to carry so much jealousy or resentment around.

3 — Take the pressure off. There’s something around understanding your own insignificance whilst also appreciating your own path and taking time to reflect and relax. In this world of social media, it’s so easy to look at what others are doing and feel like you should be hustling 24:7 and always working harder and harder but you need to just do what you can handle and recognize when you need to take a break. That one takes a lot of practice and I still see myself at times slipping into habits of pressuring myself but I know the triggers now and I live a much more peaceful life when I am kind to myself.

4 — Don’t force it, but don’t forget it. This one relates to just keeping some momentum going, sometimes I’ve sat down intent on writing a new track and the ideas haven’t come and I’ve got frustrated, then other times I’ve started writing because I felt a certain way and it just flows. I think a lot of creatives will say “don’t force it” full stop, but I think you need to keep it on the periphery of your mind that you intend to write, keep trying or coming back to ideas or ruminating on subjects and then something will come. If you just ignore everything and hope that inspiration will strike like lightning then you might be waiting around for a while!

5 — Celebrate small successes. This is how you’re going to be happy! A lot of my idols growing up were sportspeople at the absolute pinnacle of their games and I think this contributed to my unhealthy mindset of never being satisfied because that’s what they were like to get to the top, but I’m not Roger Federer and I can’t sacrifice my entire life to get to the top of the rap game in the same way he can for tennis, so I really don’t need to think like him! Instead, I try to enjoy every little milestone, every step that helps to take me in a new direction, feed my soul and learn more. If you’re stressed all the time it all seems a bit pointless, remember why you started doing this in the first place. If you’re in it for the wrong reasons then get out and do something else which you will enjoy. When you start giving yourself a pat on the back and some credit for the small things you’ve managed to achieve instead of beating yourself down then you’ll be more content.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I don’t wish to get too morbid but I’ve lost a few friends over the years to suicide and I’ve always had this idea nagging at the back of my head for a campaign of some sort to reach people when they’re on the brink. The idea that’s been sloshing around is something like “get some water and go to bed” to try to encourage people that if they’re in a bad situation in their mind to just slow it down, get some water and get some rest. I think it’s a really basic piece of advice that could help a lot of people, especially when they’ve been drinking or taking drugs and they’ve got themselves into a manic state where not even just for the extreme of suicide but also when any number of damaging actions or dangerous thoughts can appear, I think a chunk of it could be prevented if people just take a step back, get some water and go to bed. I’m not quite sure how I’d go about it but I think it would be a useful message where if it could help one person who feels alone or out of their senses at a perilous time and they could heed that advice then it’s going to help. Drinking some water and getting some sleep is so key in turning round your mental health when you’re at your worst and although they aren’t going to fix the root cause of whatever you’re feeling, they might just stop you from making your problems worse or doing something you’ll regret.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised at this answer but I’ll go for Alan Shearer. You guys might not have heard of him but he is the English Premier League’s all-time top goalscorer and also my beloved Newcastle United’s top scorer and he has a great mentality. He’s a hero to many Newcastle fans and it’s not just his goals it’s his character, he’s somebody who speaks his mind without apology yet does it in a respectful way, and even though he’s been retired from playing for nearly 20 years now you can see from his punditry that he still has that fire in him, he takes everything very seriously and commits to his profession whilst still having a laugh. It’d be really interesting to spend some time with him and chew the fat — maybe one day our paths will cross, who knows? If you can make it happen I’ll steal you a croissant!

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!



Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group
Authority Magazine

Specializing in acquiring, producing and distributing films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subjects