Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting OXFORD NEWS to 80360 or email us
TIM HUGHES talks to a rapper with real ‘art’ and soul – Mercury Music Prize winner Speech Debelle AS a rapper with soul and a social conscience, Speech Debelle was always an artist worth listening to.
But it took the award of the music industry’s most coveted accolade to turn her into hip hop’s equivalent of a household name.
In 2009 she beat the likes of Kasabian, Florence & the Machine, Friendly Fires and La Roux to clinch the Mercury Music Prize – the first rap artist to take the award since Dizzee Rascal six years before.
Her winning album, the then-little known Speech Therapy, has gone on to become a hip hop classic, and Speech – real name Corynne Elliot – has been lifted from virtual obscurity to one of the most listened-to hip hop artists in the country. She is so admired, that her single Spinnin, featuring featuring Tinchy Stryder and Dionne Broomfield, is one of the official anthems of the London Olympics.
So did Mercury success come as a surprise? “No. I wasn’t surprised,” she says, oozing bravado. “I knew I was going to win.
“When I was recording it, I knew then it was going to win!”
Even for a rapper, her confidence is impressive.
“I’m of Jamaican heritage, so it’s not part of my culture to be modest,” she laughs.
“I don’t delve into mass narcissism though,” she goes on. “I see a lot of pop stars who have fallen into that, but I haven’t; I don’t need people to like me.”
Speech’s punchy follow-up, Freedom of Speech, was released earlier this year to wide acclaim, and the artist is now embarking on a summer of festival appearances, including the lovely-looking Greenbelt, which runs from August 24-27 at Cheltenham Racecourse.
Clearly things are going well for the 29-year-old mouthy South Londoner, who started writing poetry at the age of nine, before finding musical inspiration in the likes of Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman and Enya.
And she rejects suggestions that she has had a tough life.
“Nothing I went through in my teenage years was any harder than what lots of people have had,” she says. “Rap is always associated with coming from the ghetto and making good. But that wasn’t the case for me. I came from a comfortable family background and performed well in school.”
And, she says cheerily, life is pretty good. “I’m in a very good place right now. This is the best part for me.
“I now want to make an uplifting album, to show that things are going to get better.
“I started writing the first album when I was 18, and nothing made sense. The second was made when I was 27, and is about looking outwards at the world.
“This next one will see me close to 30, and having asked all the questions, I’m mature enough to know I’m not going to get all the answers. I now just want to be happy.”
While Speech enjoyed the whirlwind which accompanied her Mercury success, she is equally relishing the chance to slow down and do things at her own pace.
“After the first album I didn’t get a chance to think about the next one,” she says.
“It took me a year-and-a-half to even consider it. This second one was different. It’s a lot of fun now. And it stops me having to get a day job, if you know what I mean!
“It has changed me as a person though. I’m a business, and the name of my business is me – so it can’t not change me. However, it hasn’t changed my relationships, which is a good thing.”
Speech has never shied away from politics. She has been a UN ambassador for women and is a supporter of the Uservoice campaign – engaging with young offenders and exploring ways to reduce youth crime.
Her Mercury win has also enabled her to pursue issues close to her heart, and means that she is listened to. Hence her frequent visits to Number 10 and Parliament.
So has she considered a career in politics? “I don’t think I could,” she confesses. “If I did, they would do an in-depth search of my background, and I don’t think they’d find me ‘not inhaling’ if you know what I mean! But if a black man can become US President, anything is possible.”
So what next for an artist who already has a mercury Prize in her back pocket? “I’d love to win an Ivor Novello,” she says. “That’s what I have always wanted. Though I know I’d only be happy for the day - then I’d be on to the next thing. ”
* Speech Debelle plays the Greenbelt Festival, which takes place from August 24-27 at Cheltenham Racecourse. Tickets are £99 for the weekend. Call 020 7374 276 or go to greenbelt.org/ festival/tickets
Comments are closed on this article.