Ms Dynamite: Mother courage

Having a baby might mellow some artists. Not Ms Dynamite. She's keener then ever to tell us what's on her mind - and get something done about it. Fiona Sturges meets her
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The Independent Culture

Daley watches approvingly through a monitor a little way up the street. Fresh-faced and petite a in white vest top and jeans, she looks even younger than her 24 years. She is instantly warm and giggly, the antithesis of the super-cool, bling-drenched hussies usually associated with hip-hop. Over the course of the afternoon, a succession of teenage girls sidle over and ask if she will listen to them sing. In each instance Daley responds with patience and encouragement. To my mind, she's a little too encouraging. After two hours of listening to their migraine-inducing Mariah Carey impressions I'm all for telling them to put a sock in it, but not Ms D. The only time she loses her cool is when a lad sticks his head out of a window across the road and, imitating the chorus of her first single, yells "Dy-na-mi-tee-hee!"

"Oh God," she sighs, rolling her eyes. "Every day of my life, that's all they ever do."

It could be worse, I say. You could be Joe Dolce and get "Shaddap You Face" instead. "That's true," she replies, cheering up at the thought. "I've no right to complain really. Plus, I reckon that after all this time, if they stopped doing it, I'd feel invisible, a bit lost even."

Disappointingly, I'm shooed away before the car goes up in flames. "It was pretty cool, though the film turned out very dark, much darker than I imagined," Daley tells me when we meet again a week later at a photographer's studio near her home in Kentish Town. This time she's all woman, striding around in knee-high suede stiletto boots in readiness for the photo shoot. Her eyelashes have magically grown an inch and her ponytail has been teased into a perfect corkscrew. She's also lost some of the good cheer of the previous week, a situation that she attributes to being told to smile all day for no good reason. "I feel so stupid standing here with a fake grin on my face," she grumbles. "I should be used to it by now. It's all part of the job, isn't it?"

It's been three years since Ms Dynamite erupted on to the scene with "Dy-na-mi-tee", an unfeasibly catchy slice of hip-hop that crept into the consciousness uninvited and then set up home there for the duration. Daley's combination of good looks and lyrical directness made her an instant hit with the critics, who proclaimed her the saviour of British hip-hop (one called her "the hip-hop equivalent of Ella Fitzgerald", which even she agrees is pushing it a bit) and hung on her every utterance on poverty, drugs and gun crime. By the end of 2002 her debut album A Little Deeper had earnt her a Mercury Prize, a South Bank Show Award, two Brits and a fistful of Mobos. She has made inroads into the American market too, earning praise from such luminaries as Nas, 50 Cent and Diddy. It's no wonder that, as far as her record company is concerned, her return is somewhat overdue. Eager to capitalise on her status as multi-platinum-selling artist, Polydor had a second album pencilled in for early last year - though that was before Daley revealed that she and her then boyfriend Dwayne Seaforth had decided to have a baby.

"I think a few jaws dropped," she says, recalling her announcement. "No one came right out and said, 'You're crazy,' but I knew that's what they were thinking. You can't blame them. Anyone who cared about my career had to question the timing. From a business perspective it made no sense at all." Even Seaforth expressed reservations when she first said she'd like to start a family.

"He didn't want to be responsible for putting a halt on my career," she says. "I was, like, 'Is that the only reason, because if it is, forget it, we're having a baby.' I knew it was what I wanted to do. Once he could see that I was completely sure, he was cool."

For another artist, the transition from tripping the red carpet to mopping up baby sick might have been too great an insult. But for Daley it presented a perfect opportunity to step away from the limelight and take stock. Looking back, she realises she wasn't entirely ready for the post-Mercury, post-Mobo bun fight. In interviews she would struggle to articulate herself while photo shoots were sheer torture. Even live performances, which she had been doing happily since her teens in underground clubs and on pirate radio, had stopped being fun. "I didn't believe in myself as an artist. I didn't enjoy 80 per cent of what I did because I was so scared I would mess up. If I had continued the way I was going, I think people would have seen that in me. Now I'm much more focused and I have total self-belief. If you said to me tomorrow, 'We're going to break America, you're going to perform in front of 50 million people,' I'd say, 'Right, let's go.'"

Her son Shavaar is now two years old and is "stubborn and cheeky just like his mum". Daley assumed that having a child would mellow her though she has found the opposite to be true. "Having my son has really cemented my desire to help and speak out and change things. I feel even more emotionally attached to young people and what they go through. I would say that my outlook is less angry - I see past the anger now and look at what I can do to help - but I still feel it just as much."

Daley is now almost as well known for social campaigning as she is for singing. The £20,000 she got for winning the Mercury Prize went to the NSPCC. During an anti-war demo last year she delivered an impassioned if somewhat barmy speech in which she reminded Tony Blair that he was "not God" and that "he who preaches war is tarnished by the beast". On the opening track of her new album, Judgement Day, she takes on world leaders, abusive priests and pharmaceutical companies with the ferocious refrain "How you gonna wash the blood from your hands?"

Yet Daley refutes the idea that she's politically motivated. "I know why people put me into that box, but I just see it as writing songs about how I feel. A lot of these songs on my album come from conversations I've had with my mum or my brother about things I might have seen on the news. There are millions of young women who sing a million times better than I can, that can dance better than I can, that look a lot better than I do, and who are the whole pop package. There's no point me joining them. It would be a waste."

Daley is wilfully indifferent to the actual workings of politics. She couldn't care less about the Tory leadership or the future of the EU. "What changes the world is people and action," she says. "If you want to change things, say for young people, you come out of your nice house or your nice office and you go and speak to them and see how they live. The Government decides 'this is what young people need'. But how can they know what's best without actually talking to them? I don't see them doing that. I don't see anyone in the Houses of Parliament who represents me as a person, as a young black woman from a single-parent family and an underprivileged background. If they really want things to change, it doesn't take a politics degree, it takes common sense."

The daughter of a Scottish schoolteacher mother and a Jamaican plumber father, Daley was born in Crawley in West Sussex. Following her parents' split she moved with her mother to north London (her mother was pregnant with her brother Kingsley at the time). She hardly saw her father after the divorce. He stayed in Sussex and started a new family while her mother went on to have two more children with another partner. (Daley now has seven siblings and three step-siblings.) When she was 13 her mother developed cancer and Daley took charge of the running of the house.

"My mum couldn't do anything at that time," she says. "She was physically and emotionally very low. She had chemotherapy and lost all of her hair. It wasn't a nice experience. I can remember my little brother running home from school every day asking, 'Is she still here?' It got to a point where he didn't want to leave the house at all."

Doing the cooking and the cleaning wasn't a problem as the children had always been taught to fend for themselves. "It was knowing that the buck stopped with me that was hard," Daley recalls. "But once it was over my mum got very protective. She was, like, 'You're not doing this, you're not doing that.' I said, 'Hold on a second. I've been doing everything for the past two years and now you're telling me I'm not responsible enough to have any freedom?' That was where we clashed. The older I got the more I thought I knew it all and the more frightened my mum got."

Relations between the two of them got so bad that, at 15, Daley left home. After a spell with her grandmother she moved into a hostel where she developed a taste for drinking and started to cut herself. It was another four years before she was able to heal the rift with her mother and move back home. Amazingly, throughout the whole time, she continued going to school and managed to get all her GCSEs and A levels.

"That was out of defiance," she says. "I may have gone off the rails but I was not going to be what people expected me to be. I knew that once I'd left home my teachers had written me off. I wanted to prove them wrong."

Now she is close to her mother again, and lives just around the corner from the family home. She credits her mother, who sent her children to weekend classes in African and Caribbean history, with giving a positive sense of racial identity. Now that Daley has a child of her own, she is also a lot more understanding of her mother's protectiveness.

Judging by another song on her new album, it is her father's absence from her life that has been the dominant source of pain. "Where were you at six, seven and 11?" she spits in "Father", "I've spent 23 years trying to be the fucking man you should be."

Pretty strong stuff, I say. "It is," she agrees. "But I'm not being vindictive. The bottom line is that it happened and I've always been taught - from my dad more than anyone - that however you feel you speak out. That's why I am the way I am. The song could hurt my dad's feelings, but that's not what I want to do. Everyone's entitled to make mistakes and being a parent has given me new insight. On one hand I feel I've made excuses all my life for the way things were; how he could have put a bit more effort in. On the other hand, it's hard being a parent. Every decision I make with my son, I'm like, how may this affect him in years to come?"

She says that she and her father finally put their differences aside two years ago, though the fact that she doesn't know whether he's heard the song suggests that there are still unresolved issues. She sent him a copy of the song with a note saying that she hoped he would understand that it wasn't out of anger.

"I hope he can be proud in knowing that what we went through could help others," she reflects, a little uncertainly. "That's really why I do what I do. If I couldn't help people, what would be the point?"

'Judgement Day' is out on Polydor on Monday