Thursday, 29 September 2005

total:spec - Ms Dynamite

"If I was Prime Minister," says Ms Dynamite, "the first thing I would do is take a trip around the country and talk to young people about how they feel, what they want, what they need, what they like, what they dislike. I would just find out ways in which I could help them to be everything they can be, to feel that they count and their opinion counts and to let them know that they are important and that they are the future. They’re everything, basically. That would be my first thing, to focus on young people and what they want and not what I think they want or need. That's a big problem at the moment, young people don’t get enough attention.”

Ms Dynamite, real name Niomi McLean-Daley, might not be Prime Minister, at least not yet, but she is a very powerful young woman. The London-born R&B singer is a refreshing voice in a period when most pop stars monitor what they say carefully and are so media trained they have made sitting on the fence a fine art. But Niomi is happy to wax lyrical on subjects that very few of today’s pop stars would dare to talk about. And people listen to Niomi. Whether she's talking, or singing, about gun crime, or domestic violence, or racism, what she says is guaranteed to go in print and without all the snidey remarks that accompany the worthy ramblings of the likes of Bono or Chris Martin.

"You think I get more respect? Really?” Niomi laughs. "That’s very funny. No one's said that to me before. I feel like they do take the piss. That people go, 'Oh here she goes again, like, shut up.’ But I just don't care. Honestly I have no idea if what you say is the case, why there might be a difference between me and another artist. I guess all I can say is that I hope people do take me and my music, and my feelings and stuff, at least half seriously. Just because it comes from the heart, it really does. I put it out there in the hope that it is helpful to someone. If nothing else I hope people can maybe have a bit of respect for that. And if they don’t, who cares? No, I do. I hope that can be appreciated because otherwise what’s the point? If it doesn't do what it I want it to do then I might as well not do it. Do you get what I mean?"

You don’t say things without thinking it will make a difference.

“Yeah," she says. "With some specific songs I sometimes think, actually should I put this out there? Things that are personal and things that I know someone’s going to come back and say, 'What did you mean when you said this?', whatever it may be. I hope the thing that will override my decision is that this might help someone out there. I hope that it does otherwise it’s just pointless.”

Niomi, who is just 24, is very aware of her power. Although it's just in her nature to state her opinions on social and political subjects with passion and whenever the mood takes her, she does it knowing that she can make some sort of difference. Of the many awards she won around the release of her 2002 debut album A Little Deeper, one of them was the non-music related Telegraph Woman Of The Year award, which she was given for her stance on gun crime. Despite all this, she doesn't set out with an agenda.

"It sounds like I have this checklist of things I want to talk about," she says when asked if she'll be talking about gun crime again. "It’s really not like that. I talk about what I feel. I talk about whatever is in my heart at that time and whatever I’m going through or seeing or whatever. It’s just what’s natural to me. So who knows? I wouldn’t like to say, ‘I’m going to raise this issue and that issue’. We’ll just see how things go I guess.

"It’s never my intention to do it in my music either," she adds. "Every now and again I’ll come across something and I’ll write about it and I’ll look back and think, oops. It’s always a case of, are you sure you want to say that? And instantly this thing kicks in that says, [aggressively] yes I do. It doesn't give me a chance to second question it. And that part of me is the part that says, yes I do want to say this because it needs to be said. I want people to think about it. I want people to, I don’t know, be a bit more aware I guess. So yeah, I don’t go out with that in mind, but when it comes up I will override any sort of, should I say that or shouldn’t I? I go with my first instinct.”

Gun crime is one of many issues Ms Dynamite tackled on her recent album Judgement Days, on the track Put Your Gun Away. The song included the lyrics: 'Put your gun away, ease your stress and just chill. Put your gun up in your waist and everything will be just fine.' But nowhere did Niomi stake her claim as the queen of issue-driven pop than on her comeback double A-side single Judgement Day/Father. While Father tackled the thorny issue of Niomi's dad leaving his family when she was just two, Judgement Day went all out. It was anti-war, anti-big companies, anti-pervert priests, anti-wife-beating husbands - all in a three minute pop song. Niomi obviously seems happy to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders, but sometimes it must get too much?

"I can’t say I get depressed," says Niomi. "But honestly I have had to teach myself how to switch off, because I do carry everything around with me. I have to switch off more than anything now for my son. My brother is such a person who’s into everything, he loves to know facts, figures and information about everything that’s going on across the board. He’s like a walking encyclopaedia,” she laughs.

“But he’ll come in and say, ‘Guess what happened’, and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t want to know, don’t tell me’, because it will affect me. And he gets so annoyed with me. He just wants to chat and I have to say I don’t want to. But that’s how I stop it getting depressing. A lot of stuff there's nothing I can do about it, and I get this feeling of feeling someone else’s pain but feeling helpless. They’re going through it and there’s nothing I can do to help them out of it. That is the bit that I can’t get my head round. It’s really frustrating but if I let it affect me too much it doesn't just affect me, it affects my son. I have to find ways of dealing with it. I don’t want to sound like some morbid person, but I do get sad.”

What gives you hope?

“Children," says Niomi immediately. "Young people. I would say my son but that is just so obvious,” she grins. “Just kids in general. They totally give me all the hope in the world. They’re just what it’s about really. They are the point.”

Niomi became a parent herself two years ago, to her son Shavaar, which prompted a lengthy career break. It seemed like bad timing - she was on a roll after the success of her debut album A Little Deeper. As well as selling half a million copies. the album garnered Niomi a slew of awards. A Mercury Music Prize, three MOBOs and two Brits, as well as that Telegraph Woman Of The Year award now weigh down her mantelpiece. Niomi was one of Britain's brightest new talents and it seemed like a bad move to take a break with only one album under her belt.

"I thought the timing was perfect," counters Niomi. "On a personal level it gave me time out, which is bad, really, because I should have just had a break,” she laughs. “But it gave me time out to reflect on myself, what was going on. Just my son being there has given me something that nothing else on earth could give me - a sense of strength that I can’t really explain. Then that has filtered out into everything else, so now I’ve come back and I feel a million times stronger, a million times more confident. I know what I want to do and how I want to do it. Just all round I feel that the timing for me, and for Ms Dynamite, couldn’t have been better. I don’t know if the people around me would agree, but I felt like it was perfect.”

Were there any worries from any quarters that you taking time out would ruin the momentum of the success of the last album?

“Not really," Niomi replies. "At least, no one ever said it to me. But I’m sure for anyone with any care for the project and Ms Dynamite and the success of things from a business perspective, that must have crossed their minds. But no one came out and said that at the time.”

That's very nice of them.

“Well I just think, what could be done anyway? It doesn’t matter. They could have expressed it as much as they wanted. Even I said at the time it might not be the best thing for the project, but at the end of the day I’m not just a project, I am a human being that has a life, a personal life, as well. I just felt that I had done a lot for Ms Dynamite and was ignoring Niomi and what was right for Niomi at that time. I just thought, this is what I want, this is what I’m ready for. There is a a life and a world outside of this and I shouldn’t feel pressurised or allow it to dictate something as important as my child. I was ready and that was what I was going to do.”

Inevitably going back to work was a wrench. Having spent 18 months purely focusing on bringing up her child (she split from Shavaar's father Dwayne Seaforth this year but he remains heavily involved with the upbringing of his son), Niomi found it hard being away from Shavaar for the long hours she had to spend in the studio.

But he makes it really easy,” says Niomi. “He was just like, ‘Bye Mum, see you later’. He wasn’t bothered in the slightest, whereas if he was a bit more upset I don’t know what I would’ve done. I don’t know if I’d be sitting here right now. But he’s just like, ‘You going work now Mum? Okay bye, have a nice day.’ I just go, ‘Aw! My baby!’ He makes things so much easier.

"At the end of the day he is my motivation. When it gets hard and I get tired I just think, right there’s a bigger picture here. Really the bottom line is no matter how much I love what I do and all the other things I'm involved in, and why I do what I do, no matter how much I want to help others, if it ever effects him in a negative way, that’s the end of it. He is the No 1 sole priority in my life."

Motherhood has certainly softened the edges of Ms Dynamite, and with the release of her reggae-tinged new single Fall In Love Again you may be forgiven for thinking that the singer is slowly becoming more like the female singers she has long stood out from. But this is not the case. The tattoo across her right wrist, which says, 'Without Struggle There Is No Progress', keeps her mind on the issues that mean so much to her. But despite being one of the most politicised singers to come out of Britain in recent years, she says the actual world of politics wouldn't suit her.

"It’s not something I want to do," she says. "I want to be a part of making things better and, yeah, if I have to go into politics to do that then I’m willing to. But it’s not something that appeals to me. I mean, what does appeal about politics? Let’s be serious here."

Well, like you said, you could make things better.

“If I thought I could make more of a difference by becoming a politician then I would do it. But I feel that I am able to make more of a difference in the way that I want to, saying the things that I want to say and how I want to say them, through music. By doing what I'm doing now. I’m allowed to be creative and say what I want to say and do my thing. There’s not really any limitations, but in politics there are. People are silenced and they’re not always allowed to say what they want. Sometimes if they do they’re punished for it. That is not the place for me because I wouldn't last very long,” she laughs. "They’d be just like, get her out of here! I’m happy with what I’m doing now. I feel like it is making a difference. Not necessarily in the way or to the extent I want, but give me time.” She smiles. “I’m working on it.”