When it comes to British black music, Shola Ama is pretty much the cream of the crop.
After being discovered at the age of 16, the budding singer enjoyed a whirlwind of success with songs such as You Might Need Somebody, Taboo and Imagine, all of which became so prominent they took on a life of their own. .
Shola has seen and done it all – won the biggest awards, signed to a major label and made a name for herself in the United States.
She also did it in another era, when being discovered on social media and selling herself on apps such as TikTok was far from a thing.
Even more back then, it required talent, connecting with the right people, and good old-fashioned luck.
Shola, now 43, had exactly that melting pot.
As Black History Month draws to a close in the UK, metro.co.uk recently spoke to the woman herself to reflect on her stellar songwriting career that continues to keep the masses on their toes today.
Hi Shola! It’s been nearly 30 years since your breakout, did you think songs like Need Somebody would be so timeless?
It’s a bit of a double edged sword for me because I’m so grateful to have timeless classic songs that I can still perform and people still love, but at the same time a lot of those songs can feel bigger that me and people won’t let you overtake them, so I’m trying to do something new and people will say we want to hear You Might Need Somebody or Imagine.
It’s a blessing and a curse in many ways, but obviously I’m very grateful to have created songs that have stood the test of time.
The Imagine remix took the song to another peak of popularity, how was it to see the song snowball hit?
I think at the time I was really happy with the remix of Imagine, just because when I was recording my second album, I tried to talk to the label to get more British influence on my sound.
The second album was really rushed and I wanted to work on my sound and there were a lot of cool and exciting things happening here in the UK and I wanted my music to represent that. Even though I got to work with some amazing American producers, I didn’t feel like there was enough of my culture here, as a young woman growing up in the UK, in my music.
So when the Imagine remix came out, I felt like it represented the music my friends and I were listening to.
I was really proud of that one.
Have you ever felt pressure to crack America?
Yes and no. For me, it wasn’t so much the pressure to burst there as the focus was always here first. There wasn’t really any British R&B here, for me it was that they were trying to market me exactly like Americans and then compete and compete against the more massive American artists.
It seemed a little strange to me because I was so young. I had just turned 18 at the time and so for me to see my album competing with some of my idols at the time felt very strange.
But I was so genuinely happy doing what I loved I just felt like what I said was the right thing because I was so young and when you’re a teenager and you listen to the advice from record labels, you just think they know what they’re doing.
I remember having conversations at the time about working with more British producers and artists, but for them it was more about breaking me in the States.
It was never discussed with me but judging by the producers, I’m sure it was probably at the top of the list.
You were there along with other amazing artists like Gabrielle and Beverley Knight. Have you ever had the impression of having been confronted with other black female artists?
I never really felt a rivalry with anyone, Kele Le Roc came right after me but we were friends. We accidentally became friends because we were both in Los Angeles at the same time and I went to the club, I was in the bathroom and I heard an English accent and I walked out and she said “I know”, and we just fell into this friendship and used to hang out all the time.
So, even if in the industry or people outside tried to create a kind of rivalry, it never made itself felt, certainly not on my part anyway.
I just wasn’t that kind of person either because of the way I was raised. I was raised in a family full of strong black women… they’re all women and we’ve never been this competitive family, it’s always been a very strong, supportive family – women who build you up and build other women and that’s how I was lifted.
It’s not really in my DNA to compete with other women.
In 1998, you won the Best British Woman award at the Brits, becoming one of the few black women to do so. What was that moment like for you at such a young age?
I was really shocked to get it because I thought I might get something that night, but I didn’t know if I would win that one because it just seemed like the huge one, and everything was still so new, so somehow I felt like I hadn’t earned my stripes yet because it was my first year of success.
I felt really proud. I remember that in my speech, I just thanked my mother and my grandmother. I was supposed to do this big label/management and thank everyone who took care of me.
I remember feeling very proud, but there are also so many positives in the way the music industry has changed now. It’s so much richer than when I was there and when I think back to my time, if you didn’t have a major label deal and you weren’t subscribed to certain formulas, there was just no chance that your music will be heard.
Great Britain [music scene] is so much richer than when I think back to 25 years ago, you had to whitewash your music a lot back then and it had to follow semi-pop guidelines and then you would be more creative with remixes.
The singles were always a bit dumber whereas now I don’t really feel like that.
It’s more advanced, it’s different. Even though it was a long and slow change, it changed.
Your music didn’t sound whitewashed back then, it was still soulful…
Thanks. I thought more about the music I was listening to at the time than the music I was making because at that time it was hip hop and R&B – in terms of R&B coming out of America, it was much tougher and bolder.
On my second album there was more of a lean towards that sound because I felt like I really wanted to have a bit more of the hard sound [sound].
There’s also been more open discussion about colorism in the industry, how have you absorbed the experiences of dark-skinned women as a light-skinned woman?
I’m aware of that anyway because my mom is a black woman. I was raised in a home of strong black women in a very Dominican home. I remember going to Dominica when I was four and they said “white girl” because my hair was really light and my skin has always been pretty light.
I get it and understand it from the perspective of being the lightest skinned in the family, but also seeing how the world reacts to each of us individually and the subtle differences.
I understood this before entering the industry. I’m not saying that someone who’s mixed race and raised by a white parent doesn’t understand that, but I’m just saying that for me, it’s something that I’ve been aware of all my life.
Is there an album by another artist that you would like to record for yourself?
There are so many ! I Love My Life by Mary J Blige. For me it was the holy grail when I was a teenager. She was everything to me – her, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston growing up were like the three lead singers that I absolutely revere.
Amy [Winehouse’s] Back To Black album – I just think this is going to be one of the most timeless and incredible works from the UK. There will never be anything like it again. It will stay with me.
I also love Tiana Major9’s second album.
In your Instagram bio, you described yourself as a “living legend” and it was a relief to know that you recognize that in yourself…
It’s funny because I had a “living legend, apparently” because everyone always says that when I do gigs. Then I had so many people message me saying, “You need to remove this ‘apparently’ from your bio right now.”
I didn’t want to take it off, but one day I was like, okay, I’m taking it off. I’m comfortable with it now.
Do you feel your contribution to black British music is widely recognized and respected?
I hope. Sometimes not because I probably haven’t released as much music as I would have liked and should have in the past 25 years. Sometimes you’re never as good as your last record and time is a very interesting thing, it passes.
Even though I came out in the late 90s I’ve always been considered a 90s artist, I haven’t quite done the 2000s. It’s just the nature of the industry and thankfully the way I feel about myself isn’t justified by my career.
I’m really proud of it but I’m also super happy and fulfilled in my life anyway.
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black history month
October marks Black History Month, which reflects the achievements, cultures and contributions of black people in the UK and around the world, as well as educating others about the diverse history of people of African descent and Caribbean.
For more information on the events and celebrations taking place this year, visit the official Black History Month website.