Detonating a Dynamite

The Guardian


Anyone want a Wine Gum?” hollers Ms Dynamite with a muscular swish of her pony tail. “Green? Red? Yella, yella, yella?” We are in a recording studio in south London where the 22-year-old R&B star scoffs sweets and has her make-up done while out in the hall, Tyrone, her manager, leans against a wall and scowls in my direction. “What are you going to ask her?” he says. “She’ll say what she wants, but the political stuff makes my life difficult. It’s a can of worms.”

“I honestly feel there is nothing on earth apart from my son that makes me more happy than to help other people and to see other people smile because of something that I might have done. Especially since within this industry there is so much of that, people keeping each other down and being negative with each other. That’s just not the way I am. I just feel like there’s so much talent out there, it’s a big world, a big industry, there’s space for everyone.”

Daley refers to herself as a “save the world hippy” and also “little old Niomi with the big mouth”. At a demo she made a dotty but heartfelt plea for peace, in which she reminded Tony Blair that he is “not God”, and also that “he who preaches war is tarnished by the beast”. She doesn’t have the patience to read round a subject, but in any case she believes that too much thought interferes with action.

In person, her earnestness is tempered by a playful energy, a levity that doesn’t always survive in her lyrics, and her status as the “radical” face of pop benefits from sheer want of alternatives: from the fact that most female artists in hip-hop succumb to the Missy Elliott model of aping the misogynistic lyrics of their male counterparts. Ms Dynamite, by contrast, sings winsomely about a woman’s need to stand up for herself, particularly against violence, a cool, urban heir to the Spice Girls naff rendition of feminism.

She has only released one album, ‘A Little Deeper’, in 2002, which thanks to its occasionally drippy, soft-soul lyrics (in Afraid 2 Die “Where there’s no evil and no greed/ No sign of war coz everybody’s free/ Where only joyful tears are cried/ There’s no pain/ No tears/ No lies), was embraced by the sort of listenership whose taste spans the chasm from Coldplay to Dido. Her status, in the two years since the album was released, has gone from radical chic to something strangely depoliticised. Daley gets her social conscience from her mother, Heather, a teacher from Scotland who, when she was little, sat her daughter down in front a film about Nelson Mandela and “talked about the way the world is”. Her Jamaican father, Eyon, left the family when she was a baby. Although she was brought up solely by her white mother, who still lives next door to her, she considers herself to be “a young black woman — and weirdly”, she says, “it’s my mum who has instilled that in me. I don’t even know where to begin. She looked at it like she had two black children and that because my dad lived miles away, we weren’t going to know about our history or our culture unless she taught it to us, which a lot of people in mixed relationships don’t do.”

So Heather McLean went to university and did a degree in Caribbean and African history. She sent her children to a Saturday school that specialised in black history. Not that they didn’t fall out when Daley was growing up. It’s a loud family. An almighty row broke out during her teenage years when her mother found and read her diary. For a while the teenager moved into a hostel, before peace resumed and she came home. She can’t remember precisely how she got into music. She thinks that it began when a friend of the family’s asked her to MC on his radio station. The campaigning quality of her lyrics marked her out from the start.

Writing was the one subject at school that she approached with any enthusiasm, although she hated reading. At the age of 18, having passed her high school exams, she won a place to read social anthropology at Sussex University in south-east England, which she turned down to pursue her music career. Her mother was “very, very upset”. Her father, who “is a DJ and a little rebel”, thought it was funny. So she went off to America to make the ‘A Little Deeper’ album, which was to reap all the awards the following year. “I came back much more focused and responsible and... happy.” Daley has a bee in her bonnet about the state of popular music too. It’d be great, she says, if there were a few pop stars who were “not exactly ugly, but not really pretty, either”. She finds politics equally bland and conformist. It’s wrong not to vote, but then “politics is just full of old white men who have nothing to do with us”.