words: Jesse Bernard
It was 1997 when a young Shola Ama first appeared on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops to perform “You Might Need Somebody”, wearing an all-black suit with a group of backup dancers and a live band to boot. Originally recorded by Turley Richards in 1980, the song had previously been made a classic through Randy Crawford’s 1981 cover. To watch Shola’s performance on Top Of The Pops as she oozed a subtle coolness felt like a breakthrough moment not just for her, but for R&B itself.
Although this was the singer’s second single release on Warner, it had propelled her to new heights after being discovered performing in Hammersmith tube station by former D’Influence member and record producer Kwame Kwaten, in 1995. Mark Morrison and Gabrielle had already proven that British R&B-pop artists were able to sell records—not just in the UK, but Stateside too. The late ‘90s was generally a refreshing time for black British music; the nu-soul (or neo-soul) movement had already been popular for almost a decade, with artists such as Omar and Lynden David Hall flying the flag at an underground level, and UK garage was at its peak. In 1998, Shola Ama won a BRIT Award for British Female Solo Artist, in a category that featured Lisa Stansfield, Beth Orton, Louise Redknapp and Michelle Gayle. In fact, Shola was among a special crowd as her win followed Gabrielle’s in ‘97 and Des’ree’s in ‘99, making them the first black winners of the award since Dina Carroll in 1994 and Randy Crawford in 1982. It wasn’t that they were just making pop either—their respective sounds were undeniably R&B and soul at their core.
When an artist isn’t in the spotlight or in the public’s consciousness, there can often be a belief that they aren’t creating or have simply disappeared. In 2009, Shola featured on Giggs’ “Cut Above The Rest” and later on “Blow ‘Em Away”, which appeared on his second album, Let ‘Em Ave It. In many ways, both features were a testament to the reputation and legacy she had created for herself as a garage vocalist some years before. Shola doesn’t seem to hold any regrets, even when her second album, In Return, didn’t perform as well as her debut Much Love. She was just seventeen when she appeared on Top Of The Pops, and life as an artist was still new and exciting. However, in hindsight and like many artists, she wishes she had more control over the development of In Return. It can be difficult to recreate the magic of a first album, particularly when the bar has been set so high. Despite its impressive roster of credits, which included the likes of Babyface, Angie Stone and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, Shola laments the album not having a more homegrown sound which, at the time, she likely would have benefitted from due to the success of neo-soul and UKG.
Almost 25 years since busking on a platform at Hammersmith station, Shola Ama is working on new music and a book, while also contemplating a move back to London from Bournemouth. As she does so, she calls into question the idea of relevance—which can be a fickle virtue—and causes us to ponder on what it means to establish career longevity in an industry where your window of fame can sometimes only last five minutes.
In what ways do you look back on your career?
I haven’t stopped performing in 20 years—I’m doing so pretty frequently—but I’m just not in the public eye as I used to be. I achieved everything I set out to do quite early on. I wanted to win a BRIT Award, be on Top Of The Pops, have a top ten album, and I did all that before I was 20. It was really intense and I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, like going out on public transport, and I had to figure out if that life was for me. I’ve always loved the music side of things but not necessarily the celebrity aspect; I have a presence in the industry, but I didn’t want to go down the path of being in magazines and TV shows. It was never a comfortable fit. It was the best thing I did, if I’m honest—especially for my mental health.
I made choices that weren’t always beneficial to me, financially. I turned a lot of things down that could’ve really helped me stay visible and current. But, at the same time, I made decisions that I’m proud of. Although people know me for the stuff I made 20 years ago, the music I worked on with Giggs, Wiley and Toddla T kept me in people’s minds and I’m happy with that. If I could go back and change something, I probably wouldn’t.
And how did moving away from London help you creatively?
I wanted to get away for a while and, without sounding cliché, I needed to find myself. I was born and raised in London but, sometimes, you don’t know whose energy is whose because there’s a collective consciousness in the city and it can be really heavy, so I needed space to breathe and shut out all the noise. I fell in love with the peace and quiet and that happens when you get older—you find that being in the mix is very draining.
Back to the BRIT Awards, at the time, that must’ve been a massive deal to win considering it was 1998.
It was early on in my career; the first album had only just been released and I’d had a few singles out, but it all felt so fast. It was overwhelming because I was 18 when I won the BRIT and now I look back on it, it was an amazing thing to happen. At the same time, though, it puts pressure on you to consistently deliver and if you’re still figuring out yourself, it can be difficult. My second album was really difficult because people wanted it go in one way and I wanted to take my time on it and do my own thing. Every big success has the blessings and the curses which follow.
Is there anything you wish you did differently on In Return?
I would’ve dug my heels in a bit more and spent more time on it. The first album was heavily produced by D’Influence and, at that point, I was really focused on trying to create something that sounded homegrown. My heart and soul was always in R&B but I wanted to do something similar to what Mica Paris and Omar had done which had roots in Britain, especially as garage was big then and I was already on a few remixes. At the time, I was being pushed to work with a lot of big American producers and writers, which was amazing working with Rodney Jerkins, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Angie Stone, but it didn’t feel like it was me. It felt as though I’d just been given a bunch of songs to sing.
That must have been a daunting experience, even with an album under your belt.
There was an element of me feeling as though I had to prove myself. I remember being quite intimidated when I worked with Ali Shaheed because I was a huge Tribe fan but he made it easy for me. Working with Angie Stone was one of the most beautiful experiences I had in a session because she was easy-going and helped to pull the best out of me, but I was young so I felt I had to show them why they were working with me.
Do you reckon artists suffer from that R&B identity crisis as much these days? I remember it being a concern among fans of Craig David in his early days.
It’s changed a lot now, and I don’t think artists suffer from that identity crisis as much these days. With people like Amy [Winehouse], Adele and Emeli Sandé, who make soul, you can still hear the Britishness in the production. In my time, when I was making R&B-pop music, the only other artists at the time were in America and that’s where the crisis came for me—was I supposed to sound like Brandy? There just wasn’t much room to manoeuvre. I wanted to carve out my own lane, but it was really difficult.
Do you feel as though there was a big enough audience for R&B back then?
There was, but I think it was mostly pop-R&B, not in the way it is now but there was a market for it. You have artists now and the average person on the street wouldn’t know who they are but they’re selling out venues. Whereas before, you had to be a household name to do that which is mind-blowing to me. There was a neo-soul movement happening at the time which wasn’t as big commercially, but a lot of those artists are still around today. They had a lot more of harder time breaking through but there came a moment when that all started to change. Before Beverley Knight had become mainstream, she was a part of this movement that was making classic soul—but her sound became more pop as her status grew.
How do you feel about the genre nowadays?
There’s still not a massive R&B-pop scene, but there are artists keeping it alive and when I look at guys like Angel, he encompasses everything that’s great about the scene in the UK because he acknowledges its roots while keeping things modern. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that R&B has been underground here. Even though most of the black music scenes here are underground, we’ve had the MCs running things for years and it makes me happy to see kids being able to make music in their bedrooms and thriving off of it.
What do you enjoy most about music these days?
I’ve always enjoyed being around new talent and witnessing people’s journeys. I’m working on a new project and I really just want to put out music that I love. I feel as though I can do that now, and I don’t have to think about radio or chart success which gives me a lot of the freedom I didn’t have early on. When I first started working, we were recording on DAT tapes and you had to record the chorus, then wait for the producer to spin it back in—which would take a while, and you often couldn’t listen back. Things were so much slower back then, whereas now you can post the song, minutes after recording if you really wanted to. It was a long process back then and people were spending four years making an album, which doesn’t happen these days.
Has your writing process changed much over the years?
It hasn’t changed much, no. I still need to listen to some music before I start writing. The only change now is that I enjoy working with other people; I don’t really like writing by myself because when you get a bunch of creative people in a room together, you’re bouncing ideas off each other but everyone is also coming with their own perspectives which is where the magic happens, I find.
I guess when you’re writing in isolation, there can be moments where you need that.
Other people can give you another dimension and perspective to work from. I’m always learning, even with 20-plus years in the industry. I can work with a 16-year-old and learn something new, and there’s always value in that.
What’s the most important lesson of all?
Honestly, patience. I wanted to do it all when I first started out but, looking back, I wish I had taken my time developing and growing as an artist.
Shola Ama performs live at Noon ’til Moon on Saturday 29th June at 10 Castle Street, Wimborne.