February 23, 2012
Jazz Café, 5 Parkway, Camden Town, London, NW1 7PG
When Speech Therapy, Speech Debelle’s debut album, dropped in 2009 she received mixed reviews and, despite winning the Mercury Music Prize, was dropped by her record label for poor sales. 3 years later Speech emerged with her sophomore album, Freedom Of Speech, which honed the laid back delivery of her debut into something more confident, mature and political, whilst retaining the warmth and honesty that made her debut album so endearing and immediate.
Having seen Speech Debelle support old label mates Basement Jaxx in support of Speech Therapy, I was curious to see if this new found confidence on record would translate to the stage. As with most album release gigs, the set comprised mostly of her new album in order opening with ‘Studio Backpack Rap’, the lead single. Being the hardest and most uptempo song on the album, it hits hard live, and Debelle commanded the audience instantly. Dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of combat trousers, she bounded around the stage, not so much with energy, but with purpose. She was here to get her message heard, and no one was going to leave without getting that message.
“Does anyone know what it means to blaze up a fire?” she asked the crowd, before launching into an explanation of the highly controversial track ‘Blaze Up A Fire’, which was released after the London riots last year. Recorded early 2011, Debelle felt the message conveyed a voice for not only the people who led the peaceful march that turned into the violent riots, but also the rioters themselves. With its refrain of,
Sometimes you need to blaze up a fire,
Let it be known for the record, your honour
the media assumed she was condoning the behaviour of the rioters, but the truth is simply that she was trying to make us understand. So genuine is her message that when she she spits,
I’m not a ‘popstar’ –
I’m a Motherfucking thug
you believe her, without feeling scared or intimidated. This isn’t a thug of modern commercial hip hop, and she isn’t about to start rapping about bitches and 40s, but one thing is for sure – she’s not Tulisa Contostavlos.
This intensely raw and emotional side to her music extends not only to the political but also the personal, and seeing her perform both ‘Go Then, Bye’ from her debut and ‘Elephant In The Living Room’ from her latest album, you realise how deep a lot of this music really goes. These two songs are very similar and her openness about the breakup of a relationship over strings on ‘Elephant…’ harks back to the acoustic heartbreak of ‘Go Now, Bye’, and we get a glimpse into the life behind the musician.
The biggest surprise of the gig for me came in between those two, with a track called ‘Similar Stories’, written using the voices of Britains ‘excluded youth’. In 2010, in conjunction with charity User Voice, Debelle travelled the country talking to young offenders who didn’t have a voice. The conversations were formed into the film ‘Similar Stories’ and their stories form the basis of the song of the same name. Some of the kids were there in the audience, which made the first listen to this song even more moving. As she rapped,
Their stories are similar,
But they ain’t the same
I realised the gravity of the project. This may be the best way to get the stories of the young heard by the people who can make the change, and if not, at least it has brought the conversation to public debate. And this is why artists such as Speech Debelle are so important – songs like ‘Blaze Up A Fire” and ‘Similar Stories’ articulate the voice of an unheard generation to a wider audience.
In explaining these songs, it’s clear Debelle’s audience interaction has become more comfortable over the years too, maybe something that has come with the constant touring that the modern music industry forces, and she reminds me of an British MeShell Ndegoecello, someone I’ve seen command that same stage twice. Debelle shares MeShell’s softly spoken approach – she doesn’t shout for your attention, you merely give it to her, and the politicised tone they share would alienate some people, but not me. I like my artists with bite. When I emerged from the Jazz Café I was covered in political bite marks – and I loved it.
In fact, such is Debelle’s appeal that when trying to go back to her dressing room for the obligatory “That’s it – ok, it’s not really” encore, both couples sitting on the tables in her path asked to take pictures with her and, by the time she had obliged, it was time for her to come back to the stage again. Her devotion to her audience even extended to performing a request that hadn’t been rehearsed – an acapella version of ‘Buddy Love’ from her debut album. With its chorus of,
I think I’ve fallen for my buddy
it obviously had special meaning for the two women that requested it. After, we still got the intended encore of ‘Spinning’ (a song that has been hideously ‘reworked’ by Tinchy Stryder and Dionne Bromfield for the Olympics) before she blew kisses to the audience to rapturous applause and cheers, making her way up the stairs to the dressing room.
Speech Debelle, like Dizzee Rascal’s early career, isn’t for everyone, which is largely why the sales of her debut album didn’t improve despite the Mercury panel considering it the best album of 2009. This gig, and this album, may not change that but I find her a fascinating and surprisingly genuine artist in a sea of marketing and money hungry big wigs. The political nature of Debelle, not only in her music but also her work with Chuka Umunna (my local MP, coincidentally) and her charity work makes her a refreshing force in the modern music industry.