The traffic light flickered from red to green, then British rapper Speech Debelle pressed down softly on the gas and continued her drive home. It had been less than a week since she released her third album Tantil Before I Breathe, but as she crawled through the battered back roads of Barking that lined the edges of east London, she seemed no more excited or animated than usual.
An American podcast babbled on in the background. She steered the silver hatchback down the blank empty streets, and the steep rows of tower blocks and low-rises that distinguish this small, dormitory town, became a soft blur in her passenger window. The roads were slippery and wet and grey tones smudged the horizon like volcanic ash. Despite the mist, it was mild out. The conflicting climate stirred Debelle’s memories of Gran Canaria, where she had recently been on a short break. Now 34, Speech had reasoned that for the sake of her mental, physical and spiritual health, it was neither smart nor healthy to burn herself out with the constant motion of a vigorous launch week. So her flight departed the day Tantil dropped, the week of her birthday.
“It’s different for me now,” she said, still driving. “It’s… it’s… this is a young person’s game… not a young person’s game… a new person’s game; when you’re new and you’ve got the glow there’s a level of excitement about what could happen. But me? I’m three albums in this ting, there’s not really a wonder about what Speech is going to do.”
The third album was a well-rounded, honest offering – not too dissimilar from Debelle herself. It explored race and class and identity, reflecting on stillness and love as she often liked to do, and came with a cookbook detailing her favourite meals (we’ll get to that in a bit). It seemed to be the ideal portrait of a woman who, two albums on from her Mercury Prize-winning debut, was not so much concerned with pleasing those who were not close to her.
Debelle almost never made album number three. After winning the Mercury Prize in 2009 for that first album Speech Therapy, an accolade that is a blessing for most musicians, one that usually brings increased levels of publicity and album sales, her dream turned sour. There were contractual disputes with her record label and Debelle, until then well-adjusted to a quiet, relatively normal life, was suddenly the centre of attention in the music business. Eventually, after living out her early twenties in public, she fell out of love with music, and after the troubled release of her second album three years later, she withdrew from the spotlight.
After some time off regrouping and realising new dreams and following a serious interest in cooking, she decided to make a third album, reigniting her love for rap and for hip-hop but never for the music business. So, instead of press and interviews and fretting and worrying, in the week after her album release she unplugged from social media and got lost abroad.
“Oh travelling is absolutely everything,” she went on as the car chugged along. “Get lost by yourself because you get lost, you find yourself and then you realise that you’re not lost; you just think you’re lost and then that becomes something that you can use in your life when things become difficult. You’re not lost – you just can’t see yet.”
But then a week passed and she was back in England from Gran Canaria, and with me in east London. She stopped off at a supermarket, picking up ackee and onions and peppers. Then she hit the road again, eventually driving through the tall steel gates of a communal car park and making the short walk to her first floor flat. In her home, she was met by her girlfriend’s nervy black cat Onyx and a quiet apartment, so neat it looked as if she had only recently moved in.
The calm in her home seemed so different from how her life had been ten years ago, when she was fresh into the music industry; when she was new and had the “glow.” Her Mercury win, at the age of just 22, was an achievement that surprised nearly everyone but herself. The album was made on a small budget of around £3,000 at a time when Speech was still fresh from south London and had yet to encounter many other professional musicians. Nevertheless, months prior, while recording the vocals out in Australia, she had made a prediction that she would win.
“And then I won it,” she said, casting her mind back. “Nobody around me thought about getting that far but why not sit there and imagine yourself doing something that you’ve never done before? That’s what makes artists people who can see the future: they imagine it and then they create it and then other people can see it and believe it and it becomes a real thing.”
But she’d not anticipated what would come after: the journalists and magazine reporters queuing for interviews, the ripple from the recording contract she had signed without a lawyer, the gruelling tour schedule that left her little time to record and write personal music, the pressure to live up to the expectations of being a “Mercury Prize-winning artist”. So she started saying yes to things she should have perhaps declined, chasing a version of herself that perhaps never really existed in an attempt to keep the money coming in.
“I was scared if I said no it would all just fall away,” she said. “That was a fear I had; that it would all just go away. I didn’t have an understanding that I could be me without compromise, I wasn’t aware of that, it wasn’t something that… I didn’t know how to be real. I don’t think that I had examples close enough to me to show that you can just be you.”
Her second album Freedom of Speech came and went with little fanfare in 2012. Then she parted with her label, and at 30, Speech Debelle decided that she was finished with the music business. So only two albums in, but still wanting to express her creativity, she trialled a passion for food, cooking briefly on Celebrity MasterChef and operating a food truck in east London’s Brick Lane. After that she briefly left England to cook at a refugee camp in Calais, an experience she said she learnt much from when she came across mothers who had carried their children through the sea, and fathers who had gone hungry when rations were tight. It was also in this period that she quit drinking and came to realise that for years, alcohol had numbed her nerves in the moments she felt overwhelmed or stressed and that without it, she would have to face her anxiety alone.
“I just felt a bit broken for a while,” she said, clearing her throat. “Sometimes we’re shouting at the world because of what we haven’t been able to heal within ourselves; we’re just being angry at the world when you’re really just angry at yourself. When you hit 30, I think you start to unravel in a mature way. It took me 30 years to stop looking at things as situations somebody else had put me in and to finally take responsibility for my actions. I started to think, ‘when was the last time I called my gran?’ That’s what this life is really about. I’m here, alive, I’m not supposed to spend all this time sitting on this couch considering me, maybe I should spend some time and go out and go and see my gran and go and see my goddaughter. Those are real, tangible things.”
Now it was midday: time for her to cook. She lit a cigarette, finished it and moved into the kitchen. Soon she was dicing onions and tomatoes, chopping garlic and peppers and seasoning the ackee. She looked at ease, standing over the hob.
“Eventually I would love to go around hostels,” she said, “And do like cooking classes, help the people cook things that are healthy you know. Then I envision myself farming and shit like that you know. I’ve done the rest; I drank all off the liquor.”
Her grandmother, who’d boarded a ship to Wales from Jamaica in the 50s, had been a vegetable farmer, owning plots across London. Half a century later, Debelle was now thinking of doing the same. It seemed to be the next unpredictable step for the woman who seemed always primed to pivot; who, despite everything, had been able to travel the world; who was now enjoying one of the happiest periods of her life; who was at last in a stable relationship; who had published her own podcast; who had curated exhibitions with prisoners and who had won a Mercury Prize; who had broken down – “it was a beautiful breakdown I guess” – but who had also rebuilt herself new and happy and mature; who was now sat in an apartment on the borders of east London and Essex, waiting for nothing much except for her lunch to finish cooking.