Speech Debelle rises from streets of London to win Mercury Prize

Rap artist's gritty take on urban life scoops prestigious award despite selling only 3,000 albums
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The Independent Culture

The rapper Speech Debelle, who brought her wayward teenage experiences of life in London hostels for the homeless to her debut album, last night confounded the verdict of the record-buying public by becoming the lowest-ever selling artist to win the Barclaycard Mercury Prize.

Despite having sold less than 3,000 copies of Speech Therapy since its release in June and never having troubled the mainstream charts, the 26-year-old walked off with the prestigious if famously unpredictable award for the best album of the past 12 months. It is an accolade which in the past has proved as much blessing as curse to the long-term career prospects of the winner, despite the well-established initial sales boost afforded the previous 17 acts to have received the accolade. She beat opponents, including Bats For Lashes, Kasabian, Glasvegas, The Horrors and Florence + the Machine.

At a packed awards ceremony at London's Grosvenor House, Debelle – real name Corynne Eliot – said she took her inspiration from 2002 Mercury winner Ms Dynamite and thanked her mother and grandmother who were there to enjoy her triumph. In contrast to the other 11 acts competing for the award – regarded as the music industry's equivalent of the Booker Prize – the singer showed early intent to win the £20,000 prize, telling the audience that she was planning on taking it home.

The album, a confident blend of smooth rap and accomplished musicianship, has brought comparisons to Lauryn Hill and Lily Allen among others. Lyrics such as "2 am in my hostel bed, my eyes them red, my belly aint fed, I got butter but I aint got bread and I'm smoking on my last cigarette. I aint got creds I can't make calls, got no papers I got no jewels. Got debts up to my eyeballs who made these rules, it's a catch 22," have earned her admirers for her gritty take on modern urban life.

Speaking after the award, she said that she intended to invest the money wisely and set up her own record label.

"There's a lot of music that sounds the same, all day on the radio, and my album doesn't sound like their album and it's still won the Mercury Prize," she said.

"Hopefully this will throw a wrench in the system and people will hear this album and realise they don't have to make music that sounds the same – they can make music that sounds good.

Mercury judge Charles Hazlewood, the broadcaster and conductor, said: "She's just quietly telling her stories in the most beguiling way."

Since the Mercury shortlist was announced all 12 albums have seen their sales improve. A spokesman for the Official Charts Company said Florence + The Machine's Lungs has seen sales rise 141 per cent. La Roux's La Roux has risen 77 per cent, while Kasabian's West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum saw sales increase by 33 per cent. Debelle's sales had doubled in the seven weeks since her nomination. One of the shortlist's lesser known albums, Twice Born Men by Sweet Billy Pilgrim, has seen sales increase by more than six-fold, he said.

Official Charts Company managing director Martin Talbot said: "It is one of the least-established albums in the history of the Mercurys and an album which still has great potential. The Mercury recognition will play a big part in helping achieve the broader public recognition which it deserves."

Speech Debelle was 19 when she was asked to move out of the family home in Crystal Palace, embarking on a four-year odyssey through the druggy underbelly of the capital's dispossessed. But Debelle's troubled back story and glowing comparisons with Lauryn Hill and Tracy Chapman made her an early candidate for the prize, despite the initially lengthy odds.

Speaking after her unexpected nomination she told The Independent: "I think [the album] deserves to have this because it is a good album and all the musicians are excellent and everyone had an understanding of what we were trying to achieve from the outset."