The deification of Des'ree
If you bump into Janet Jackson, don't mention Des'ree. Last month she was awarded an out-of-court settlement granting her 25 per cent of the publishing royalties from Jackson's song Got Till It's Gone, which Jackson admits is "so similar to" Des'ree's So High that it "could be seen as copyright infringement". The track comes from Jackson's multi-million selling album The Velvet Rope. If it sells millions, Des'ree is set to net at least £2 million pounds from the settlement. However, her legal wrangle with Janet Jackson had more to do with "principle" than cash. "My aim wasn't to get money out of her," she says. "It was purely for justice to be done and a settlement to be reached, recognising that she had `borrowed' from my work and not given me credit. As I've always said, it would have been fine if she'd asked permission first. And this is happening with a lot of other artists' work when it comes to `sampling'. We're not being approached about people using elements of our music, not given a chance to say whether we approve or not and this, to me, is the key issue."
No doubt such comments will lead to Des'ree being deified by bodies such as the Irish Music Rights Organisation. Even so, to the rest of us, a £2 million pounds payment for 25 per cent of the publishing royalties on one song is probably "silly money", if not obscene. Des'ree agrees, claiming "that's why I try not to think about it, just concentrate on writing the music", which, of course, she also laughingly concedes, is easy to say when you have a couple of million extra quid coming in on the side. So does Des'ree ever feel she is living one step removed from the "real" world? "Sometimes," she replies. "Because your lifestyle does change, you travel first-class everywhere, stay in Grade A hotels, can become totally out of touch. But to counteract all that, I made a conscious decision to keep the same friends I grew up with and never flaunt my fame or success. In fact, when I meet them, I'd rather talk about anything other than my life as a pop star. And this is maybe better for them, too, because friends can be made to feel they are under-achievers when people who `make it' come back and slap it in their faces. Besides, I've often looked at my friends and envied their academic qualifications - the fact, say, that they went on to university and studied Law, which is what my parents wanted me to do."
A black singer whose middle-class parents wanted her to become a lawyer is not exactly the preferred model in soul music which, as with rock'n'roll, prefers its icons to be "plebs". Indeed, Urban Radio in the States declared Des'ree wasn't "black enough" to be played alongside the likes of Mary J. Bliggs and the SWVs. And even though she believes such barriers are being broken by artists like Erykah Badu, she still describes this form of, well, "black-listing" as highlighting "how segregated" the music industry is. "The definition of `black music' needs redefining," Des'ree says, angrily. "You have artists like Jimi Hendrix and Tina Turner that Urban Radio wouldn't play. And even Sade and Seal. They claimed they were `too pop'! So, what are they trying to say? That black musicians aren't allowed to express themselves in a variety of styles? As in jazz? Does the fact that I speak from my own experience, as a black and as a female, count for nothing?"
Obviously not. At least, according to those who use the phrase "too pop" as a coded way of saying singers such as Sade, Seal and Des'ree have "sold out" their black roots and would be much better occupied creating the kind of agit-prop you hear in rap, challenging rather than yielding to the white power base in music. "If that's how they see things, that's wrong," the singer responds. "Because this reduces us to a one-dimensional people. Besides, there's two sides to even that story. Some rappers do write that way, express their lives on a day-to-day basis, in terms of the ghetto, guns, violence and drugs. That's all they know. Or have known. "But others say, `okay, we have this ghetto situation, but let's try rise above that'. That would be more my attitude. Because if the only thing black artists project to kids is negative images of themselves and their environment, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby that's all they expect from life. It's the same thing if young musicians are told there is only one style of music we can use to express ourselves. I just can't agree with any of that. And I certainly don't feel I have `sold out'."
The latter claim rings all the more true when one remembers that Des'ree was born not in south central LA, but in south London, to a mother who was Guyanan and a father from Barbados. These are the cultural influences that inform her music. "Life (the most played single on RTE radio, at the time of writing) from the new album, has undertones of calypso, which is the traditional music of Barbados and Guyana, though reggae is probably the indigenous music of the Caribbean, overall," she explains. "In fact, You Gotta Be has been covered by reggae artists and whenever I go to the West Indies they say they love the fact that my music is so `positive' and `vibrant'. But then I was influenced very much, at this level, by Bob Marley, who I listened to all the time, growing up. In fact, Proud To Be Dread is my Marley-ism! That's also the way I prefer to present my politics, as in standing up for Rastas. All this reflects where I come from, who I am." One critic has described Des'ree's songs as "anthems of positivity" claiming that "unlike, say, The Spice Girls", they contain "no aggression. This is girl power, but in a nurturing sense." Des'ree agrees. "Because nurturing is the most positive power of all. It's not about shouting. That's more like `empty vessels make the most noise', " she says, before frantically back-tracking when asked if this means she regards Spice Girls are empty vessels.
"I didn't mean to say that, because I know Mel B! But no matter; what they do is positive in its own way, because it excites and inspires people. Yet the nurturing side is more quiet, more my style, though it is the same thing, I believe." What is Des'ree's response to suggestions that I'm Kissing You brings into soft-focus the sensuality that, until now, she has suppressed in her music? "I agree," she says. "And to tell you the truth I don't know why that is. But I have gone through a metamorphosis over the past two years and am, now, totally relaxed about my sexuality. So the whole thing really has more to do with where I'm at, in my own life, how I feel about myself." Or, maybe more to the point, how Des'ree, who is notoriously secretive when it comes to her private life, feels about someone else. She laughs loudly when asked if this awakening awareness of her sexuality stems from the fact that while working on Romeo + Juliet she had a quick "snog" with "heart-throb" Leonardo Di Caprio. "I haven't kissed him!" she exclaims. And She adds that DiCaprio wouldn't inspire her to write a song, though working on Romeo + Juliet did, and was an experience she gleefully describes as one of the highlights of her career.
"I've always loved Shakespeare so I went back to the play and, apart from writing I'm Kissing You, I wrote another song, which they didn't use, called Sword Of Love, which paid closer attention to the text and that may be a bonus song on a forthcoming single," she says. "As for my movie career, I am receiving lots of scripts and probably will do another movie, eventually. But for now my head still is in the world of music. That's still what gives me the most joy in life. "