THE south-London rapper Speech Debelle, who startled the music world in 2009 when she won the Mercury Prize with her debut album, Speech Therapy, has lately released her third album, the cryptically titled Tantil Before I Breathe. This August she will be at Greenbelt.
Ms Debelle performed at the festival in 2012 in support of her second album, Freedom of Speech, although she did not make the impact that the organisers had hoped for. “It was a disastrously wet weekend, when we almost got washed away,” Greenbelt’s creative director, Paul Northup, recalls. “She didn’t get a big audience, which was heartbreaking.” None the less, Church Times reviewers described her set as “impassioned”, and said “she fitted Greenbelt’s social conscience perfectly” (Greenbelt: Music, 31 August 2016).
Mr Northup had no hesitation in inviting her back this year. “She’s a significant voice: young, urban, and black; she’s intelligent and articulate, and I think she has insightful things to say. Greenbelt believes there is prophetic wisdom in our culture, among artists who might not adhere to a particular faith but who are definitely worth paying attention to.”
Tantil Before I Breathe covers similar ground to its predecessors: love (and lust), life lessons, personal healing, and political awakening; but it digs a bit deeper. Ms Debelle has returned to the confessional style of her debut, although these are songs less of innocence than of experience. The album is also peppered with references to food — in fact, on the launch date she also released a digital cookbook-cum-memoir.
“I speak about the things that are most important to me,” Ms Debelle says. “The same themes run through all of my albums, though each one is somewhat different. Speech Therapy was a kind of teenage-angst album. Freedom of Speech was questioning the world we live in: I was blessed enough to be able to see the world, and I realised that a lot of the questions I had were questions other people around the world were asking. So, in that album, I was more a mouthpiece for the things I was hearing.”
In the new album, she says, she is questioning herself. “I spend a lot of time by myself.” But, when I suggest that there is a tone of uncertainty — “I do feel lost some days”; “I ain’t got the answers”; and “I’m not through and I have still got work to do” are lines that come to mind — she insists: “No, no, no, it’s not uncertainty: it’s humility.”
AFTER she won the Mercury Prize — a victory, she says, that she saw coming, although no one else did — she thought that the world was her oyster. “This award has changed my life,” she told The Daily Telegraph at the time. “I’m going to be a millionaire. It’s not going to take long.”
Soon after that, things began to unravel. Her sales were modest. Her second album, which NME described as “three-quarters of a great album”, also sold poorly. She came to distrust her record label, and parted company with it.
For four years, she “stepped away” from music, finding solace in another of her passions, food, In 2013, she reached the semi-finals of Celebrity Masterchef with what was described as “a wildly experimental style of cooking”. She gave up drinking, and discovered that she is prone to anxiety attacks. Today, at 34 years of age, she manages and markets herself.
The blissful, largely instrumental track that opens the new album, “Ode II September”, declares: “Sometimes you’re broken, so the light can get in.” It sounds like a reference to Leonard Cohen’s lines from “Anthem”, “There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in,” but they are new to her. “I had somewhat of a breakdown”, she tells me, “and realised, with hindsight, that it was more of a breakthrough. I experienced the brokenness and then the light coming in.”
So, where did she find enlightenment? Her lyrics name-check the rapper Tupac Shakur and the poet Maya Angelou, and mention the psychoactive substances ayahuasca and DMT, but to me she talks of something closer to home. “I’ve had a lot of guides in my life, and especially older people. From a young age, I was very interested in older people — the way that they speak and the things that they say — and a lot of the things that have been said to me by older people have become the way I think.”
She quotes a lyric from Speech Therapy: “Rules were made for the obedience of fools and guidance was made for the wise.” (It goes on: “I get advice from those who’ve lived full and colourful lives, and think twice while watching what they tell I on the tell-i-vision. . .”)
“My poetry is deep,” she says in the new track “I Heard Pac”, and yet the life lessons she offers are often simple, even commonplace: everything in moderation, life is for living, real wealth is happiness, everything has a reason. “Yeah,” she concurs, “because we over-complicate things. We’re taught to do that, and it becomes a habit.” Our “child state is probably when, intuitively, we’re the smartest”, she says, and older people find their way back to it through experience.
ONE line, on the track “The Knowing”, is not commonplace, though: “No conscience is clear when we are really living.” I ask her what that means. “I had spent a lot of time after the second album thinking about all the mistakes I had made, and I concluded that the more you do, the more you fall and the more you learn.” So, trying to keep yourself pure is not the way to wisdom? “Exactly. Exactly. If I’m going to live to the fullest, I’m going to make mistakes, and I’m going to do things that are questionable.”
She talks in terms of spirituality rather than faith. “Being of Jamaican descent means that I have a very fractured relationship with religion. The more you understand about Jamaican culture, the more you realise that the Bible has been used as a tool against us; so you have to move away from it if you want to see the truth, and so that’s what I’ve done.
“Therefore, my beliefs are based on the things that have inspired people like me, and made us better people, rather than those things that have held us down and entrapped us.”
HER style may surprise those who associate hip hop with a loud, aggressive beat. Her spirited, thoughtful lyrics — still delivered in what can sound, at times, like a little girl’s voice — are laid over a cool, rich mix of mostly acoustic instruments. She plays no instrument herself, and, on Tantil Before I Breathe, she collaborated with the jazz pianist Neil Cowley, among others.
“I would explain to him as best I could what I was hearing in my head, explain the tempo and the mood, and he would start to play and I would direct him. I hear music in a very physical way, and as he was playing I would say that, at that point, I felt like something taps me on the shoulder, or pushes me gently or something, and he would interpret that in terms of chord progressions.”
“Once the music had got to a point that I was happy with, I would go out for a smoke and write the lyrics, come back in, and record them.”
On several tracks on her last two albums, the music continues long after her words have run out. “That’s for my own listening pleasure,” she explains. “When I’m making music, I enjoy it a little less once I hear my own voice on it, because it becomes so much about me. I wouldn’t want to hear somebody constantly speaking at me without giving them the chance to speak back, if you know what I mean.”
Although on Speech Therapy she said that “words are power,” she does not suppose that she can change the world. “I gave up that way of thinking. I don’t think it’s my responsibility, or in my power, to change the world. I think it’s my responsibility and in my power to change myself for the better.” None the less, like Mr Northup she believes that her voice matters. “I think it’s exceptionally important for women — and the feminine energy — not just to be heard, but to be listened to, and held up and honoured, for balance. Also, black women’s voices need to be heard.”
At Greenbelt, she will be playing on Saturday evening, supporting Joanne Shaw Taylor and Newton Faulkner, and she will be back on the main stage on Monday as part of the headline act, GRRRL: a showcase (says the festival website) of “fierce women artists from areas of conflict around the world”.
If only figuratively, it seems safe to predict that, this August, Ms Debelle will be cooking.
The Church Times is Greenbelt’s media partner www.greenbelt.org.uk/