The immensely talented British singer-songwriter has had his own successful singing career in the 90s but has also written for huge artists such Michael Jackson. I was lucky enough to sit down with him and have a frank conversation about being black in the UK and in the music industry, what it was like to write for Michael Jackson, and mental health within the industry.
What inspired you to get into music?
It’s not so much what inspired me. But, I suppose my mum and dad had an old radiogram. It’s a kind of little sort of cabinet with a turntable on it and radio on it and on the bottom were double doors where you can put your drinks, for occasional drinks. I used to play this thing all the time and I just was in a world of my own listening to music.
From the age of 4, I knew I wanted to do it. So, it’s sort of, I don’t know whether I was inspired, it feels like I’ve always known. It was a no brainer.
And how did your upbringing in the UK, as a Caribbean-British person, help define who you have become and get you into music?
Wow! Being Caribbean was, in the UK, has never been helpful. I see people that I’ve known carry the things that go on in the UK, they carry it in a bag on their shoulder. And I didn’t want to do that. I had my hope and the light side of me, not destroyed, but affected in that way. So, I decided that I was just gonna follow the things that I wanna do and not to, not put my head in the sand, cuz that was impossible, but just to go, you know what, that might make me push a bit harder.
Being Caribbean, you are inadvertently forced just by the way society is into being looked at as being somebody who has to either sing soul or RnB, rap or reggae. And I didn’t want to do that. That wasn’t really wholly the thing that I was interested in. Of course, I’m interested in it but it’s not my main thing. So, I found that to be quite difficult because no one particularly took that seriously. They took it seriously for a while and then, ‘oh actually’, you know. I found that to be quite tricky.
But, in somewhere like Australia, I’m still an oddity. I’m an oddity. Full stop. And actually, instead of trying to kind of conform and trying to move into and be part of the mainstream, it’s actually quite good to be an oddity because people are not sure of your vibes. They’re not wholly sure of you. And actually, that can be very helpful. I find that living as a, little bit of an, as an outsider is really useful to me.
Why do you find being an outsider useful?
Because you can see things a bit more clearly. Sometimes. Not all the time. Because you can look at things, you’re not in it: I feel like I’m a bit one foot in one foot out, and mostly out. And you can have a little bit of distance and kinda have a look at situations like, ‘Ah, okay! I don’t think I’m going to get involved in that’ or ‘I think that might be really good’. And, it just allows me to be able to do the things that I wanna to. I know that sounds like a dichotomy that you know A) people of colour; people don’t know how to address ‘black’- I’m not black. ‘Coloured’ – we’re all coloured… But you just find yourself, you know, even now I walk in a supermarket and people turning and are looking at me. ‘Really? You’ve never seen one up close?’.
I’ve had people say, ‘Where are you from?’, I go ’from the UK’, ‘But what’s your ancestry?’. But, why do you want to know that. I’ve just told you – I’m from the UK. My ancestry, of course it’s Caribbean, but what relevance does that have? Does that make me a certain kind of person? Or does that kind of fit labels? Does that all of a sudden go ‘*noise* I thought so’.
>Do you kind of feel they’re trying to say you’re not British?<
Laughs. Yeah. ‘You can’t be British’ because, you know, there’s…’Have you noticed it, your skin’s not the same’… Being an outsider, even without the ethnicity conversation, you’re not rolling with everyone. You’re just able to just separate yourself off and look to see “Do I actually want to go with that?”. There’s a little space to go, “Erm, I’m not sure about that”.
Did you face any racism when you were younger or in the music industry?
No, of course not *!* I’ve never experienced any racism at all *!*
Yes, I did. Loads. There was this thing called a Suss Law in the late 70s which gave police the power to stop and search anyone that looked suspicious. And 99.99999% of them were Afro-Caribbean. I got stopped. Twice. I know countless people who got stopped. For nothing.
The music industry was wholly, or was at that point, I’m not sure if it’s changed, racist in that they expected you as someone with Caribbean parents that you would do the stereotypical soul music or reggae and rap. That’s what they expected and if you didn’t fit there, they would be like “hmmm, what do we do?”.
I spent a lot of my time trying to chase what the record companies wanted me to do. And I got myself hoodwinked and in the end, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
How has all of this influenced your song writing?
I spent quite a lot of time just writing about ‘things’. What I mean by that is more relationships. I didn’t really tackle those issues. I was – from being an artist, wide-eyed “oh my God, this is great, I’ve got a record deal! This is amazing!” – I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had no idea. And it took me quiet a long time to get a handle on “what is it that I’ve gotten myself into?”. I though, naïvely, “do your music and if they like it, they put it out. Simple as that. Off you go and all a sudden you’re in the charts”. Completely naïve, of course.
I didn’t really tackle these issues – being stopped in the streets and the issues that my mum and dad went through as the first wave of the Windrush.
>You must of heard of the Windrush Scandal?<
I just feel anger. I just go ”what on God’s name do they think they’re doing to make such a mistake”. *Stutters* I barely have the words to explain… these people who have lived in the UK all their lives or are British citizens but came over on their parent’s passports but their parents have passed away so there’s no actual papers. But to then just eject them from the country and not allow some of them back. It defies logic. It defies believability. It’s one of those things you go, “did that really happen? Is that a television programme that you’re watching there?”.
I’m so glad that my mum and dad took out citizenship early on cuz they might have been in that boat too.
In the last two years, I did a choral extravaganza with the help of a company called The What and also a lady called Stella Savvy who’s a choir leader. I wrote some songs about my mum and dad’s migration. Their life in the Caribbean. I had long chats with them and wrote some songs and did this big extravaganza at Hammer Hall which was great. And that was the first time that I really addressed any of those issues, you know talking to them about the things that they went through. And to have done that two years ago and this thing is still going on is kind of shocking.
What do you think is the power of music in addressing these issues? There are quite a few artists singing about such issues?
Look, I think that we – I – I need to do more. It’s finding a way to do it in a way that is – It’s great that there are artists talking about these things and actually making music directly addressing it. I think that there are so many things going on now that we need to be talking about it much more. Music is a great way of consuming it in some ways. You can actually take on those….
My thoughts are… When you write a song, one of the first things you get first is the melody and hook and it’s only after that you read through the lyrics and go, “ah, actually I didn’t realise it was saying that”. But you can get the vibe of it. I think that that can be a really good way of downloading some angle on an issue: to listen to a song and be singing it and you think “ooh. This song is about x. I didn’t realise that”.
What kind of artists did you grow up listening to and how did they influence you?
A) There were all the records that my mum and dad bought. Lots of early reggae, before Bob [Marley]. That was a little bit of scat and also rock steady blue beat just before it came into reggae. So there’s Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker. And also 07. And there’s Elvis Presley. My dad absolutely loved Elvis. It was the background of our lives. And then, the music that I really loved. I loved punk, the original. And yes, I did, I really loved the original wave of punk. I thought The Jam and all those kinds of bands, and The Clash, The Specials I loved.
But vocally, the person that I listened to most was Stevie Wonder. He was the one that I wanted to be. I wanted to be Stevie Wonder. Of course, that’ll never happen, but I wanted to be him. I wanted to be Marvin Gaye. It’s endless. The Beatles. Beachboys. Tony Mitchell. Aretha.
How did Stevie Wonder influence your singing?
So, Stevie… I actually did meet him once… I just listened to his music. I see it as chemistry. There are certain things that you are just drawn to and you have no idea why. And that doesn’t matter. And Stevie Wonder’s music was just a music that I was drawn to. And I still am.
I’d listen to his music and desperately wanted to sing like that. He was one of those great singers. Aretha, she just sang too high. I could never sing like that. I would just listen to Stevie’s records over and over. If there was a vocal licking, I thought “oh my God, there’s one”, and I’d go over it and over it and over it until I thought it got it. I don’t know if I got any of them, but there’s a few moments you go, “ooo, I got that one!”. He was the kind of guy I tried to sound like the most. But only recently, I discovered he’s a tenor and I’m a baritone so I’ve been trying to force my voice up there… to no avail.
You’ve written for Michael Jackson (Whatever Happens). How did that come about? Is this one of your proudest moments?
Did you meet him?
No. I wish I had.
I wrote this song with a friend of mine called Gil Cang in the UK. We write this song and I sang it. It was a demo. We didn’t know who we were writing it for. We just wrote it. Gil had this grove going and I had some lyrics I had written and it was like “oh, yeah great. Let’s put it together”. It appeared and then a few years later, a year or so later, an artist came and he recorded it. A guy called Mario Vazques and then he got dropped by his record company. He and his manager went searching for another record company to put this record out. He went to Teddy Riley, a huge producer in that he produced some many big artists and Michael Jackson was one of them.
I’ve heard since that he got the recording and did a recording for Michael saying “look I’ve got this song”. Michael recorded it. And then finally 9 months after finding out this was going to happen, the record came out. We were actually on the album. We nearly got dropped from the album.
It’s sort of surreal. I know that it actually did happen, but still a part of me thinks, “did that actually happen?”. One of my big huge heroes, and I could never sing like Michael because he’s voice in too high compared to mine, but he is one of my big, big, big heroes in terms of that dance music when I was out clubbing. That first and second album, Thriller, Off the Wall, they’re just great records that I danced myself stupid to.
And to see the videos, and to see someone with African descent being as huge as him gave me hope that it can happen.
For him to actually record my song was speechless.
Why didn’t you meet him?
It’s always your people deal with my people. You just deal with the business people. Especially with someone like him. The whole industry that builds around him. He’s so huge and so unattainable, and untouchable. Unless you’re actually in the studio physically doing it, and even then I heard a story from a bass player that I know and he was talking about doing some bass for this track and then the producer would go, “okay, hold on a minute”. [He’d] go behind a little curtain and then come out and say “can you do this blah blah blah” and he’s [bassist] would go “okay” and he figured out that it was Michael Jackson hiding behind the curtain.
I would have loved to have shaken his hand. That would have been great and say “thank you” for doing the track. When I first heard the track it was just unbelievable that the track that I had been sitting in the first car I ever owned where I wrote the lyrics sitting waiting for someone and I was just watching people go by and I just made this up and those words ended up as this song. That experience, just sitting a room listening to this final thing with Michael Jackson singing the words that I wrote in this old beaten-up car, and singing the melody you’re going “wow!”. Still, still wow.
It’s ‘Whatever Happens‘ on the Invincible album. Track 15. And my name, there’s five names on there, only two people actually wrote that song… my name is there at the end.
Mental health is a huge within the music industry. And there are a lot of university students trying to create music and enter the music industry and there are many students struggling with mental health issues. Did you experience any mental health issues while you were within the industry and how did you deal with them?
That’s a very interesting question. I think that you need to have a think skin for the industry. Cus there’s been many times when things have worked out badly – like getting dropped from a record company – and you have to pick yourself up after you’ve been knocked down.
I have been depressed in that sphere thinking, “oh my God. How am I going to do it?” but because my attitude it “well, I’ve just got to get up and get on with it and just do the next thing” maybe I’ve avoided anything too debilitating, let’s put it that way. I definitely, there’s been many many moments where conversations about your material, you write this song – maybe I’m too sensitive, and if you’re very very sensitive then maybe it’s better to have someone act for you and going into those meetings and not go yourself. If you know what you want to do, and you’ve got a clear picture, then I think you’ll be alright.
Then there’s the other side, well when you become successful there’s the pressure of continuing that success because you have become a commodity. And, of that commodity, there are things expected of you as an artists. If you’ve done a hit record or a slightly hit record, you are expected to continue that and the pressures can be very very big.
I know a few people who kind of crumbled under that because it’s what you want and not what you want. It’s a very double edged sword to being in the industry. I think that when you become that successful, there’s so many stories, a long long list of stories as long as both our arms and legs and longer, of artists that have become successful and then get destroyed because of the money and the chasing of money. Elvis Presley destroyed by his manager. Worked to death nearly. Fed, fed, fed. Kept going. Died.
There’s Sly Stone. When you’re that famous, when you become big there’s access to anything because you’ve got money and you can do anything you like to a certain degree. So you’ve got access to drugs. So if you’re predisposed to the possibility of having an addiction, all the games begin. The playing field in on. It’s all on.
So, it’s treacherous, I reckon. And you need to be really strong and you need to have really strong people around you and people that you can trust. And if you don’t have that then, then it’s tricky.
What about the fame side of things? Dealing with the fans?
Well, there’s that too. It’s an interesting thing. Dealing with fans, I mean, I don’t know if it’s lucky or not, but I haven’t had to deal with that level of fame. I’ve been successful in several avenues but never that kind of huge thing that I’m actually very glad that I didn’t. So, all my interactions with fans have always been good.
But, not only does the record company have expectations, but your fans have expectations. It’s like a tug of war between the industry on one side, the fans on the other, and you could be in the middle. So, you’ve got to really know what you want.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to have bad press. But lots of it. If all of a sudden the press are after you, it must be an absolute nightmare. And I just don’t know how you would cope with that. Switching off and how you deal with it. How do you deal with it?
People like Madonna, she must be an extremely strong person do deal with that because she’s deal with all kinds… She’s probably dealt with the further end of that, doing something that she did. Against gender, against sexuality, all kinds of things. But she dealt with it: “that’s what I’m doing. Shut up”.
It’s in the public eye. And that’s hard, I reckon. I’d like all the success, but without the public eye, thanks. That would be nice, but I don’t think that’s possible.
Do you have any advice warnings or tips for those wishing to enter the industry?
You have to go with your heart. Every time. Do the thing that you really want to do. Keep the shape of what you want to do.
Is this, don’t sell out then?
This thing about selling out is interesting. That’s what all artists want ultimately to some degree; is to become successful. And when you become successful, obviously we want success on our own terms and that’s not selling out, but at the same time sometimes you have to lean towards… bands like Coldplay. First album, I just loved the record. It’s all preference, it’s all taste. And the second album was cool. After that, they kind of lost me which is fine. They’re not trying to chase me. But they became a hugely successful band and so they’ve got to keep that rolling.
One of the only bands I think that have managed to keep that integral integrity, maybe, or not even integrity but they’re creativity is Radiohead. They have managed to after a few albums say, “right, we’re doing this”. You’re going, from Paranoid Android to Kid A is like “what happened there?”. A whole change. It’s amazing.
You just have to do the thing that you want to do. Always. Be happy because that is the ultimate thing. You’re never gonna regret doing something that made you happy, are you? No one’s going to regret that. I think that’s what everyone needs to do. Do the music that you want to do.
And now because you can have a studio in your pocket, or a studio in your house with just a laptop and software, try and do it yourself. There’s loads of people doing it themselves. You don’t have to become the next Beyoncé or the next Ed Sheeran to be a successful musician. You can do it, not under the radar, but you can do it a completely different way that really really works. And it can put food on your plate. Buy a house. Roof over your head.
*****I would just like to say a huge thank you to Geoffrey Williams for taking the time to be interviewed.
by Memoonah Hussain