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Interview: Jahméne Douglas, singer, campaigner against domestic violence

10 October 2014

'I grew up in a lot of dodgy communities'

My singing began before I ever thought of it as being a talent, or as something that other people would listen to and enjoy. It was more of a way to escape the situation around me, a release. I've never really trained - just never stopped singing. 

I enjoy singing anything that I can apply passion and experience to. I sing for everyone and anyone. I think that music reaches all types of people. It's the message and the passion that hits a heart, any heart. 

My mother made my name up. It's always confused with Jermaine, Jerome, Jasmine . . . the list is endless. "Jah" is the Rastafarian name of God, and a shortened form of Yahweh. "Sing unto God, sing praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name Jah, and rejoice before him."

Of course, all my songs have a spiritual dimension. I like to think that, even if it isn't as clear as a hymn, people will still feel that kind of love. 

I draw my inspiration from my life experiences, the people around me and their talents, and, of course, my faith. 

I remember being very young, and my mother was being beaten by my father in the next room. For a moment, everything zoned out - the screams, the situation. I experienced something wash over me in a moment's silence, a comforting embrace. In that moment, I prayed for my mother, not really knowing or understanding much about it. 

Days after, my father was arrested. So, ever since I was young, without it being imposed on me, I've had a connection with God, and believed in the power of prayer. This was even though my father wouldn't let us go to church. I've always spoken to God in my own way. I'm 23 now. 

I stick to music. I do a lot of gigging to pay the bills. Making albums doesn't pay as much as people think. I don't get paid for my ambassador work for Women's Aid. 

Domestic violence is something I've had to deal with; so I'm trying to make it into a positive thing. When I was on The X Factor [he was runner-up in 2012], the media dug up my story. They called it a "sob story", which was annoying, but I tried to turn this into a positive. 

I'm Women's Aid's first appointed youth ambassador, which means a lot of meetings and politics; and the coverage in the media meant that donations went up. We want a change in politics, the justice system, early prevention. I go round schools, meeting teachers and talking to children, trying to stop alcohol abuse, which is one of the main causes of domestic violence.

My motto has always been not to let the situation define who you are, because if I did that, I'd be quiet and beaten down. That's what my father wanted. But I have an untouchable light inside myself. A strong faith is contagious. Always live up to what God wants of you, and you'll have enough.

The traumatising blessing - it's the best type of blessing: one you've struggled for. I lost a stone and a half while I was on The X Factor. People think you're just singing at the weekend, but there's a craziness of expectation and pressure. Never try to live up to an expectation, because you'll always fall short, and be tempted to surround yourself with the wrong people. 

I've seen the extreme side of drink and drugs, and what it turns into: my father insisted on drinking and doing drugs. I've never gone near anything like that. I just go and pig out instead. No . . . I try and stay in shape, because if you want to be in the spotlight, you've got to fit in the spotlight. 

I'm just working on my second album, trying to reach out to those who don't make a difference. We need to reach out beyond the church walls. A strong community where you can leave your door open cuts out a lot of things like domestic violence and drugs. 

I live a very nice area, very peaceful: Berkshire. I grew up in a lot of dodgy communities: my mother could scream at the top of her lungs, but no one would call the police. That was really shocking, because people knew she had five children. I looked around for a few months and deliberately picked a place where there were older people - respectable, good to learn from.

That's another thing we miss in our communities: older people. There are a lot of children having children, and they haven't learned to be parents. And all the churches are turning into youth clubs, mosques, and social centres. There are no spaces to learn. Other religions are much stricter. 

At the same time, I feel that religion needs to move with the times. A lot of Christians shut out things that are wrong. You don't help people by shutting them out. You push them further into their demons that way. 

I've grown up in many different places, from flats to homes, city to country - even refuges. My family is big. I was one of five, born in Birmingham. There's been madness and many, many tests and trials. I feel we have all gone from one side of the spectrum to another. My siblings are all quite close in age, and we are all just as crazy as the next. 

I travel so much on business, and breeze through some beautiful places; so I never get to stop and really appreciate. You see it all through "business" eyes. It's done. So when I travel [for pleasure], I just love spontaneity, and going somewhere I've never been. 

My mother's a poet. She's working on her second book now; so I'm following in her footsteps. I write about love and life and how you get through it. My poetry is testimony, like my song lyrics. 

I would love to release my poetry at some point, and, in the long run, raise a family, and learn a new language and an instrument. I think everyone should be able to speak at least two languages. I'd like to speak Spanish or Mandarin. I tried learning alto sax, one of my favourite instruments, and I'd like to play the piano. We didn't have the money for that when I was young. 

I love jazz and old soul-music, gospel . . . but people get confused about what "gospel" means. It's not just a black woman singing; it means it's anointed sound, the sound of truth, any form of sound - like in Exodus 15, when Miriam played the tambourine. It's a godly sound to lead the people. 

My favourite sound is Whitney Houston's voice, or the sound of a large massed choir. 

My mother is the one who has influenced me most in life. 

My favourite book is the Bible. There's always something to learn. Many, many "Aha!" light-bulb moments. And I like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and Still I Rise by Doreen Lawrence. I love anything T. D. Jakes writes, and Roald Dahl. His innocent imagination reminds me of my childhood. I love reading facts, too: encyclopaedias and dictionaries. 

I pray for others most.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with my brother-in-Christ at the moment, my friend Kayne Rose. He's been an incredible spiritual boost. I believe very much in surrounding yourself with positive, encouraging people who are for you. A lot of people surround themselves with impossible expectations, temptations, and negativity in the people they call friends. It usually reflects a sadness they're holding on to. 

Jahméne Douglas was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Love Never Fails is produced by Sony Music Entertainment, RCA Records. www.womensaid.org.uk 

Correction: the Australian doctor who inspired Klaus-Dieter John (interview, 3 October) was Dr Paul White, not Dr Paul Brand. Our apologies.

Forthcoming Events

15 May 2021
Send My Roots Rain: a poetry retreat
With Pádraig Ó Tuama, Malcolm Guite, Rachel Mann and others.

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
Speakers include John Bell, Noel Tredinnick and Helen Bent.

More events

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