Ed Sheeran: Why did he top Radio 1Xtra's power list?

How did an ordinary-looking boy with a guitar from Suffolk conquer the music industry, let alone a black and urban power list? Gillian Orr tracks the rise of Ed Sheeran

Few were pleased when Radio 1Xtra, a station dedicated to black music, named Ed Sheeran number one on their "Power List" this week. Grime artist Wiley called it "the saddest list in music history". Newsnight even covered the story, with Emily Maitlis asking: "How did middle-class, white boy Ed Sheeran get named the most important act in black and urban music?"

His new album has just gone to number one in the US, he's won two Brit awards, he'll play five nights at London's O2 Arena later this year, and he counts Elton John and Taylor Swift as friends, yet the 23-year-old from Suffolk still manages to have the air of a geology student who might eat Frosties for dinner.

Perhaps a more pertinent question that Maitlis could have asked is: "How did middle-class, white boy Ed Sheeran conquer the music world?" In today's image-obsessed climate, the global success of Sheeran is something of an anomaly; a glitch in the entertainment matrix, if you will.

The son of an art historian father and a jewellery-maker mother, Sheeran left home at 17 to couch-surf and gig. He has described himself as being "technically homeless" for the next three years. But the more he played, the more people listened. He sold CDs out of his rucksack and played open-mic nights all over the UK (as well as a stint in LA). His unique sound quickly gained a following.

According to Tim Ingham, the editor of Music Week: "Ed Sheeran's industrial-level work ethic and adoration of hip-hop brought him great respect from the UK's rap music community in his early days. He was particularly embraced by urban online music broadcaster SBTV, who were wily enough to know that a ginger kid from Suffolk rapping over looped guitar would immediately get their audience's attention."

By the time the record labels came calling in 2011, he was already selling out shows and had a sizeable fan base due to an astute use of social media. But had he turned up to Atlantic Records before then, you have a feeling they would have laughed him out the door. Sheeran went on to release a number of sappy ballads ("The A Team", a laughably po-faced song about prostitution, particularly springs to mind) and today he is known as a bit of a punchline, something he is only too aware of. Last month, he told a national newspaper that he realised much of the public thought of him as "an acoustic balladeer who sings soppy love songs to teenage girls".

The likes of Ingham, however, insist that there is more to him than that. "Whatever you think of Sheeran's sappier Capital FM-friendly ballads – which admittedly now tend to make up the majority of his output – I defy anyone to watch his SBTV performance of "You Need Me Man" – rapping, loops, self-percussion and all – and not come away a bit dazzled."

For Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills, it is precisely this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach that has allowed Sheeran to have such a diverse fanbase. "There's something for everyone," says Mills. "He rose to prominence because of his rap skills but since then he's covered R'n'B, still does a bit of hip-hop, does folk, big pop songs. He's one of those artists who seems comfortable with all of those styles."

Underestimate Sheeran at your peril. The guy even managed to get Pharrell Williams to collaborate (well, at least stand around and look cool in sunglasses in the video) on his new single "Sing". And while he leads an increasingly starry life, he remains the everyman; your hungover little brother in a hoodie.

"You can't really see him stepping out of a limo; you can imagine him getting the Tube," suggests Mills. "He's not arrogant, he's very likeable. It's a weird kind of mismatch. He's in that world but he doesn't appear to be that kind of person."

He might be the butt of music snobs' jokes (and this week be under fire from angry urban artists), but, when he has everyone from Williams to Rick Ross to Paul McCartney cooing over him, it's pretty clear who is having the last laugh.

Read more: Ed Sheeran named 'most important act in black and urban music'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing