Speech Debelle is a rapper and musician from South London who came down to the University for SMILEfest 2017. Her debut album “Speech Therapy” (2009) won her the Mercury Music Prize beating albums by artists like Kasabian, Florence and the Machine, Bat for Lashes and The Horrors. Speech was interviewed by our BA (Hons) Popular Music Journalism lecturer Fiona Sturges.
Speech talked about the highs and lows of being a musician and the music business, how she manages without a manager, her DIY approach, and being able to overcome bad experiences while still loving what you do.
On how she got started in music, Speech says, „For me, music started off as writing. Writing was a place of solace for me. Back in the day there were a lot more studios than now, so I chilled out in studios, watched everything, took mental notes and at one point I just said that I could rap and asked to record something.“
„The first time I rapped I as 13 years old in a school bus. The whole bus whooed!“
Talking about her troubled teenage years, „I always wanted to experience things, which made me see some dark sides of London and things that were troubling.“
Before her rise to success Speech says she made the classic mistake of signing a label deal without a lawyer. „I was very naive. I didn’t think I would get a deal but then it happened, so I showed it to my mom and my family and that was it. I did look at how much lawyers cost but it seemed like too much. When I signed the deal, everybody was happy and no one from the label asked where my lawyer was. I found out later that if you can’t afford a lawyer, the label should provide one.“
„..no one from the label asked where my lawyer was.“
Coming back to the Mercury Prize, Speech says, ’“The best thing about it was that the room itself was filled with the biggest artists and music people and we just came in and made the album with £3000 budget. That made it important. It also meant that the industry needed to shift.“
Speech was signed for three albums but got dropped after the second one. After many bad experiences in the music industry, Speech took a much-needed break in 2013. She helped curate arts programmes for prisoners at the Southbank Centre, set up a food truck in Brick Lane and went on Celebrity MasterChef. She has also been politically and socially active with a number of charities and movements, and hosted the BBC documentary Hidden Homeless.
Her other adventures helped her realised that she needed to make music and somehow keep loving it. That’s how Speech decided do go DIY and realised she could produce music as well as write.
Speech’s third album tantil before i breathe. was released on March 17th and accompanied by a cookbook and a memoir about the highs and lows of her journey through life and the music business. Speech’s new music is about not being overly polished and is inspired by Kojey Radical, Mahalia, Little Simz, and Loyle Carner .
„It can be difficult to look at yourself and say, ’I know what I’m doing. I can do it.’“
„If I was able to have the confidence I have now, I would’ve been able to move in the business differently.“
The advantages of going DIY are clearly visible when Speech talks about a video shoot some years ago, „There was a music video shoot that I couldn’t be creatively involved in. I had a stylist and heels and didn’t feel comfortable at all. Since that video I’ve always made sure that even if it’s not my idea, I need to work with the director and understand their vision as well as make them understand mine.“
When asked about her thoughts on the music industry essentially being run by white men, Speech says, „Every now and then something shakes the industry and grime is doing it now. It comes with youth and new generations. It isn’t better until it’s a questions that doesn’t have to be asked. I prefer to be overwhelmed by my own black magic.“
„Every now and then something shakes the industry and grime is doing it now.”
Speech’s best advice is, „There’s going to be some kind of fear at some point along the line. You’ll always have fears and anxieties but you have to take that leap and do it.“ She also strongly advises artists to get a lawyer.
„It’s okay to believe in yourself.“
She also advises artists to look into publishing deal, which she says are a lot better and more lucrative than record deals.
When asked about the advantages of going into the business via education, Speech says, „There are absolutely some advantages. You already know things that took someone a long time to learn, but then again you do learn through your mistakes, too. It’s also easier if you have friends on different courses and a network of people.“
„Sometimes I do get afraid because it’s not a ’real job’ and I worry about things like pension. I did a 9-5 job when recording my first album.“
Speech doesn’t have a manager, so how does she manage?
„I’m not that stressed and I can go to all the meetings. With my grandmother and mother coming from Jamaica and making a life for themselves here, I have a ’I’mma handle it’ vibe. I’ve been learning the whole time and I can now make decisions for myself.“
„I’m able to delegate. People don’t appreciate a woman being concrete and saying people to handle something, but that’s how I handle things.“