I was a bad girl. I didn't fit in. I lied to mum, bunked off school - on the way to jail I got discovered

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The time: May 1994

The place: Hammersmith Tube station, London

The woman: Shola Ama, singer

At 15, I was a bad girl hanging around with a lot of criminals. My boyfriends were stealing cars - I never got involved myself but when you're young, you're attracted to the excitement. I had a lot of trouble at school because I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I would often get sent out of class for swearing at the teacher. I did some sad, sad things like getting drunk on cider and throwing food in restaurants - I hope those people won't remember me.

My mother is Dominican / St Lucian, she's black and my dad's Scottish and white. It was difficult growing up mixed race. I remember when I was really young, looking at the mirror and wondering if my skin colour would change when I'm older - will it finally decide what it wants to be? It felt like a really nothingness race to be - a blank. I felt really alone, I had cousins who were mixed race but they all looked Italian to me. I was the odd one out. People would ask, "Are you black or are you white?". I thought: "Why do I have to decide? I'm both."

My mum would play jungle and drum and bass music while I locked myself in my room with Mariah Carey - so she was listening to far hipper music than me! Pop music was a form of rebellion for me, because I've always wanted to be different. I used to get tapes and sing over them, forgetting completely that anybody else was on the track. That was how I started writing my own music.

When I was 15 I looked at my room and thought it was time for a change. I had Madonna everywhere: on the ceiling, on the chest of drawers, a bed cover, towels, cups and everything. It was so embarrassing, so I took the lot down, painted the room pistachio green and started to seriously get into music for the first time.

It is such a terrible story, but I can't lie; on the day that changed my life I bunked off school to go and see a guy in prison. My mum said: "If you miss school to see that criminal, that will be it. You will not go out for two months!" I got up and left the house at the normal time but went to see this boy's sister. I dressed up and she fixed my hair because I really fancied him. It was a real proper visit with me, his mum, sister and best friend.

I was so excited about seeing him that on the way I started singing: "I'm going to see my boyfriend." As we went through the barrier at Hammersmith Tube station, I changed to "Anytime You Need A Friend" by Mariah Carey and the acoustics in the station meant my voice went round the tunnel. I wasn't showing off, I just loved the way it sounded.

A guy in a bright purple shirt, with dreads and chains came up to me and started looking down at me. I thought: "Who is this weirdo?" He stood there with his personal organiser, he bit his finger and was really unsure of what to do. He asked me to sing something else, but I was certain that he was a pervert who was trying to get my number! However, when he told me his name was Kwame and that he played with a group called D'Influence I felt more at ease. I had seen them playing live at Wembley Arena as the support band for Michael Jackson, so I felt I could give him my telephone number. It might have been too trusting but I thought he couldn't kill me over the phone! I got on the train and forgot all about it.

I was more excited about visiting my boyfriend, because I'd never been on my own to a prison to see somebody. However when I actually sat there, it was really sad - especially saying goodbye, knowing he was going back to his cell while I was going home.

I couldn't tell my mum that I met a guy who liked my voice because she would have quizzed me about why I wasn't at school. So I went to visit Kwame at his house and I still didn't tell my mum! I got round to telling her, three weeks later, when I recorded a demo. She was really shocked and couldn't believe it was me singing my own song.

Kwame and I started making demos and doing small showcase concerts. He wanted to call me Little Shola Ama. I told him I wouldn't stay little for long so we ditched that idea. A few people were buzzing about me and I was having meetings with record companies. On the very day I had a meeting with one of the important ones, which was just around the corner from my college, these girls happened to start a fight with me. It was so petty, it was over a chewing gum wrapper being thrown and hitting one of their legs. Before I knew it I had six people jumping on me and hitting me with keys. So I went to this meeting with scars all down my forehead. My manager was anxiously lying about it: "She had an accident in drama class - she fell off a ladder."

Finally there was a deal on the table for me at WEA, we signed it on my 17th birthday. Nothing happened for so long, it seemed I was never going to get anywhere. It took until I was 18 before I had a hit with "You Might Need Somebody". It's just as well it took a while from when I was discovered to becoming successful because I had a lot of growing up to do.

Kwame is like a dad to me, and when I won best newcomer and best R&B at the MOBO [Music of Black Origin] awards and told him I loved him, tears welled up in his eyes and he cried. We are very close.

I don't really have a relationship with my real dad. He saw me as a tiny baby but he hasn't done much for me since which is a bit of a disappointment. It would have left a big hole in my life if I hadn't understood when I was still quite young that I couldn't rely on him. You don't miss tomato ketchup if you've never tasted it, it's only when you've been used to having ketchup on your chips that you worry when it runs out. It makes me proud of what a good job my mother has made of bringing me and my sister up on her own. I know if the same happened to me, I could do it myself.

Fame has made it hard to have a relationship; it's hell. There's a lot of things people can't handle about my success, and a man wants to be a man. If he knows there is nothing he could do for a woman that she can't do for herself he feels insecure. The only thing left is to treat her like dirt. I have been in a few very bad relationships. I've just come out of a relationship and that was quite a sensitive one because I was opening up a bit. I cried a lot, I'm genuinely quite gutted because everybody can have a lover but me! But I suppose at this stage I don't need a someone in my life who is sick of me not being there all the time. I can't go out with my boyfriend and just be myself, I have to be aware that there are people who might want to stop me for an autograph. Which would you rather have: a top 10 album and two top five singles or a boyfriend?

I never dreamed in a million years that I would have hits all over the world. Doing all of this has helped me find myself, I know what I want from life. I think my mother is genuinely happy that I bunked off school that day.

Interview by Andrew G Marshall

Shola Ama's new single is "Who's Loving My Baby?" and during the last week in November she is headlining the Radio One sponsored Rhythm Nation Tour.

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