Acclaimed British R&B artist Ms Dynamite, real name Niomi Daley, is highly decorated. With a Mercury Music Prize, two Brit Awards, three MOBO Awards and an MBE under her belt, she is widely recognised as a pioneering force in UK music.
This week’s Guest Editor, Michelle Escoffery, first met Niomi when her life as Ms Dynamite was in its infancy and has since watched her career flourish, with a few hiatuses along the way.
Michelle caught up with Ms Dynamite to talk navigating a male dominated genre, accepting an MBE and what success means to her.
Michelle Escoffery: I’m reaching out to songwriters to find out who they feel had made a significant difference or change to the UK sound, and your name was one that came up repeatedly.
Ms Dynamite: Okay, wow.
ME: I’d like to ask about your journey and what you think about your contribution to the music scene, or if you’ve even thought about it.
MD: I’ve never thought about it. I never imagined 20 years later, I’d be sitting here having achieved some of the things that I have. That was never really my intention. It’s very humbling, I guess because it has been said, it has made me look at my journey like, ‘Oh yes, wow you did that.’
ME: So, did you always want to be in music, or is that something that just happened?
MD: I wanted to be a primary school teacher. I can remember just knowing inside, I’m going to work with children. I guess that came from being a big sister, having loads of cousins and just loving to have them all around and being the responsible one. All the positives that come with being the eldest. I just felt like, ‘Okay, great, I want to do this for a living’, but then I was raised with so much music.
I never thought about it at the time. But on one hand, culturally, from the African-Caribbean side of things which, even though I am mixed, I was raised predominantly by my mum, my Grenadian step-dad, and my Jamaican dad was in my life. Plus, I had an extended family from all parts of the Caribbean, from Africa. When I look back, I can always hear tunes playing in my head. My family would just always have music playing. All my uncles were DJs with sound systems.
From as young as I can remember, we didn’t really have much furniture and what we did have was minimal, the chair was really like a speaker box with a sheet on it, but as long as we could play our music, we were fine. We always had massive speakers in the house. Looking back at it now, I guess music was our lifeline and common language.
ME: Coming from mixed heritage, were you exposed to lots of different styles of music?
MD: My mum is totally into reggae, Studio One, Trojan, and not even Lovers Rock. She’s not girly-girly. She just likes her straight roots and dub. Likkle One Drop. So, if I did get any music that was ‘other’, it was from other family, some of them were really heavily into hip-hop, others more into their rare groove. My stepdad was really into Motown and soul, and my dad was just straight dub.
ME: What was your journey into music? Many people don’t know that I met you when you were quite young. I remember giving you vocal lessons but we lost touch, and then the next thing I saw you on my TV, and I was like, ‘Huh? How did that happen?’
MD: Yeah, when we had vocal lessons, I was living in a hostel. I used to get the train down South. There was a manager who introduced us, and he felt that I was talented. He said, ‘You should meet Michelle and have some vocal lessons.’ I had confidence, like street confidence, life confidence, but definitely not as an artist and no real inner confidence.
It’s been a bit of a cycle in life, my confidence, or lack of, got the better of me. I didn’t think I was a good singer at all. I felt like I was tone deaf. I’d try, but I didn’t have a lot of patience then.
I had a lot of determination, but then it gets to a point where you’ve got to put the work in, but if I didn’t find it fun, and I did obviously find it fun, I disappeared for a bit.
Music kept coming to me. I was going to my gran’s one Sunday and a family friend who had a pirate radio station stopped me on the way and said, ‘I heard you can MC.’ In my mind, I was thinking I didn’t know where he’s heard this from but my street confidence said, ‘Yes, and?’ and he said, ‘Okay, well I’ve got a station and I don’t have any females, and I would love you to come and have a set on there.’ So, I just said, ‘Alright,' but it was my mouth, you know, then I walked off thinking, ‘Why did you say that?’
I would make rhymes because I loved poetry, and when we were having a little dance and we’d had a little drink, my friends were like, ‘Go on, go on the mic.’ I just was really freestyling, but for fun, I never ever thought about it professionally. It was just funny. Anyway, this man had heard that I was an MC. So, now I’ve talked myself into it and I’ve got a set this Sunday on a garage station. I didn’t even listen to garage music line that at the time.
ME: Really? What were you into?
MD: I was so into my ragga. You know, it was ragga then, like dancehall, bashment. I was really set in my ways, and I had two jobs, I had college, I had so much to do, and I thought, ‘And now you’ve got to write lyrics to music too.’
'You have so many unbelievably talented people that were not getting opportunities before, and it’s not to say that everything is perfect now, but, bit by bit, things are shifting.'
ME: How did you navigate being in a genre that’s so male dominated?
MD: You know, it’s funny because I was speaking to someone about this a couple of days ago. I was raised from an old-school or traditional West Indian perspective. We’d be at my gran’s a lot, especially me. As the oldest girl child, there was a lot of responsibility that came with that. When I was younger, I didn’t really understand it. I loved it because there was a respect that I was given and there was something I loved about it, but it was a lot of responsibility.
So, I think by the time I got to music, my character had already been built and I was used to having to work harder. I feel like the strong women in my family prepared me for what was to come. The women ahead of me, none of them were afraid to speak their truth.
I loved and respected the males around me, my brothers and my uncles. So, in the music scene, I genuinely felt like we were a big musical family. So Solid, Pay As You Go, Heartless Crew... there weren't any MCs that I didn't get along with. There was no one from the garage scene that I didn't see as my brothers. We just stuck together and got on with it.
ME: And how do you feel the music business has changed over the years, and do you feel it’s changed for the better or the worse?
MD: I feel like there are so many ways that it’s changed. The first one that comes to me is the diversity across the board. You know, if I think of artists that came before me, UK-wise, when I was a young girl I remember we would just be happy to just see a Black person or a person of colour on the TV, because it really was that different then. I feel so old when I say that because you can’t believe that things have changed so much.
I feel like with every cycle of underground music that has come forth over the years in the UK - it brings things to the forefront. So, with music like jungle, with garage, it brings all types of people together, and then it starts to become a little bit more mainstream, and then you start to see a reflection of how we are as everyday people. You start to see that reflection on the television or on the internet.
ME: So, what I’m hearing you say is that because there’s more diversity now, there are potentially less barriers for people of colour when it comes to our creativity, our sound and the way that we want to put ourselves forward - because there are people on the business-side of music that understand where we’re coming from? Because they come from our community and look and possibly think like us?
MD: Yes, definitely. There’s just more understanding and, in my opinion, more space for conversations that need to be had for people to be able to express from an authentic space.
On that side of things, yes, I feel it is positive. You have so many unbelievably talented people that were not getting opportunities before, and it’s not to say that everything is perfect now, but, bit by bit, things are shifting. There’s a space that’s been opened up where limitations that were there before are not necessarily there in the same way.
ME: I hear you. So, let’s talk about your success. From my observations, you were catapulted into success. Do you feel success was freeing for you or restrictive? What was your experience of success and what people’s expectations then were of you?
MD: I feel like it's about our definition of success really, isn’t it? I went from being in a hostel on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and I say this not as a victim at all. You know, I’m so thankful for my journey, but just to explain some of the challenges that I was experiencing at that time. I had gone through a lot, as we all do. I’m a very emotional person, and I’m also this strong feisty protector. I didn’t have anywhere or even know how to even see that emotion within myself. It would just come out as anger. So, I just got into a really, really deep and dark space. I wasn’t eating, I weighed seven stone. I just wasn’t in a good place. I just didn’t know it and I didn’t see it because I was so in it, and then almost the next day, I was on the front of papers and in magazines, and everyone was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so amazing. Sing that for us again.’
Overnight, I had a massive distraction from what I was really feeling inside. I was given funds and given the space to be creative, but that came with a lot of attention which I never really wanted. I couldn’t cope with the attention, but at the same time, there must have been something about it inside that felt great because I kept doing it and I kept going back.
In that sense, I would say it was amazing. It’s like the success created a fairytale bubble for me to live in. I wasn’t carried away by things like a young teenager who's gone from nada to ‘Wow, now you can do anything you want.’ I just was really happy to be happy.
On the other side, it became a bit of a living nightmare, the success. I’m a very private person and suddenly, nothing was private. Whether I wanted to be noticed or not, that choice was gone. But I was really thankful for it. So, when I’d have those feelings of like, ‘This is too much’, I’d feel like, ‘You haven’t got a right to feel like that. You’ve been given this amazing opportunity. You’ve just got to keep going. You haven’t got a right to want your own space, and you haven’t got a right to complain.’
'At times I would feel so emotional, I almost just couldn’t be creative because I was so overloaded with expectations to keep coming with the goods.'
ME: Was your creativity an escape at that time, or was it stifled because of feeling that way? How did that affect your creative process?
MD: At times I would feel so emotional, I almost just couldn’t be creative because I was so overloaded with expectations to keep coming with the goods. I didn’t know how to handle it, but I would always be writing, whether it was songs that came out or never came out. I realised that it was self-therapy for me. It was part of healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was part of a way of me taking in all this stuff and feeling all of this pain, and then not necessarily being able to have conversations either directly with people. When I couldn’t do that, I would be writing, and it was, like, at least a way of just getting out.
ME: Do you, or did you have, favourite people that you liked to work with? Were there specific people that it just flowed with and you felt safe in that space, and you just wanted to keep working with?
MD: Definitely. Again, from that lack of confidence, I would have to feel comfortable in the environment before I could free myself up a little bit and get over my fears and just let it start to come out. For a long time, I thought it was me and then I realised, no, maybe it’s just not right here, it’s not the right vibe. I’ve only ever worked with people that I feel really comfortable with and have a real amazing vibe with.
ME: You received an MBE for your contribution to UK music in 2018. How was that for you? I remember reading that you felt a little bit torn around the idea of it. What’s your feeling around it now?
MD: I was definitely torn. If I’m honest, I didn’t even totally understand it myself at the time, but my feelings around it now are that it was a choice ultimately that I made out of love. As I said at the time, I felt like I was receiving this in honour of my grandparents, and of all the grandparents. My gran was really unwell, she was suffering with Vascular Dementia, and we had lost my granddad. He had transitioned a couple of years before, and we have watched a lot of that generation now transitioning. Dementia seems to really be affecting our elders. I feel that there was an element of regret for my gran when she got really unwell, and I just could, kind of, feel this sense of, ‘Maybe I should never have come here.’
I just kept reminding her, ‘Nan, if you didn’t come, I wouldn’t be here, and I don’t want to make it all about me, but Nan, I am so thankful that you made that trip. I’m so thankful for everything that you have put up with so that we could be here.’
Inside I was conflicted, because of the way I was raised and just a certain understanding, but the thing that overpowered ultimately was the love of my gran, and so for me, I literally collected that award for my gran.
I went back to the hospital and said, ‘Nan, look, yes, your granddaughter, the Queen has sent for you, Gran,’ many of the older generation are patriotic. Not just my gran, lots of the grans and the granddads. I’ve had lots of conversations with elders, like my grandparents, friends, and, for example, one of them I was speaking to a few weeks ago said, ‘Oh yes and I cut it out of the paper and I stuck it in the drawer.’
I felt like that was even confirmation for me that other people may never understand, and I fully get that, but if I can bring some joy to our elders and some confirmation that their journey was done and was worth it and was amazing beyond words, I would go and get it 20 times over.
ME: When you think of your contemporaries, when you think of other women of colour in the industry, who do you think has made their mark in the music scene?
MD: Soul II Soul, Caron Wheeler, Yazz, people obviously like yourself.
MD: No, seriously. It wasn’t common to see women of colour doing music and expressing in the ways they wanted to, in a way that was actually just soulful. ‘The only way is up.’ There was Mica Paris, Heather Small and Beverley Knight. The women that came before me, and we probably knew all of them because there were so few, you just really appreciated that, exactly as I said, there’s a woman, that looks like you and is talented and has got that space to be creative and to be free. This was music I would listen to at home. There was an authenticity to it.
It definitely has an impact consciously and unconsciously. When you see that and you like it, somewhere inside of you, you start to aspire and realise that is possible and think 'Oh, I could do that, you know? Yeah, without a doubt.'
ME: What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from being Ms Dynamite or being involved in the music industry? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt about yourself?
MD: There have been so many massive lessons. Ms Dynamite is a part of me without a doubt, and sometimes, we can become so focused on a part of us, believing that this is us and behaving the way that this part of our character behaves, not realising that there’s a whole 360-degrees of our character.
When you’re out there, you’re playing this character and whatever that character is for you. For me, it was like I just want to help people, and I just want to make things positive, and I just want to bring vibes, and I want it to always be happy, and that takes a lot of energy without you realising it. It’s only one-sided, which means you neglect every other part. I guess the main thing I’m getting to is balance, self-care, self-awareness, these types of things.
I feel it’s true for everybody. I never want to sound like it’s a complaint because I am also so thankful and would do it all over again. It’s just about knowing what’s right for you because when you’re in public there’s so many people, it’s so fast and there’s so many opinions, you can lose yourself in that.
I guess it’s about balance and gratitude. I’ve really learned that through the journey of Ms Dynamite because it’s meant I’ve travelled to so many different places and spaces and seen different types of people. It starts to put life into perspective. I’m really just super grateful for it all.
'A lot of people have acknowledged the things I’ve done, so it would be just a massive thank you to all that have supported or received the music. Ultimately, an artist doesn’t get to do what an artist does without the supporters.'
ME: What do you want your mark to be on the music industry?
MD: I would say I would totally leave that to whatever anybody wants to take from it. I wouldn’t want to force anyone to think or feel this or that. I just want to do my work and, hopefully, it just connects in a positive way. It was always about a message of love, togetherness, understanding and healing, even if that was my personal healing or as a community or just as people across the globe. It was about love.
ME: My daughter is 18 and I just laugh because when she plays Booo!, she plays it like she knows what she’s talking about, and I’m like, ‘What do you know about Booo!?’ It’s still creating vibes and lighting up parties. When your music lives on and on, that’s the greatest blessing.
MD: Honestly, for me too. I feel that way. When we made Booo! with Sticky, we went in, we had fun and then the rest happened. So, I haven’t, been going ‘My gosh, look what I did.’ I went into the studio, and then it was sharing with the people, and then it’s just lived this long. That’s very exciting for me.
ME: That’s just testament to the energy of music. It takes on its own life and, because of the intent and the energy behind it, you feel that. You can’t break it down and deconstruct it. It’s a feeling and I think you get a feeling from music that transcends time and generations because you can tap into that energy. To be in that space and to be that conduit, to be able to do that, that’s the gift.
MD: Yes. It is a gift. I’m like, ‘Wow, you did not do all of this by yourself,’ and to be honest, yes it’s such a blessing.
ME: Can we expect to hear more from Ms Dynamite?
MD: Without a doubt, but please don’t ask me when exactly because me and her have been having a couple of conversations for a long time. She’s like, ‘Yes, I’m ready now,’ and I’m not. Then I’m ready and she’s not! She is a part of me and, if I’m honest, I’ve been running from her for a long time, but she’s not going anywhere. So, yes.
ME: Who would be on your collaboration wish list?
MD: Damian Marley, Koffee and Sly and Robbie. I would love to work with them.
ME: Any final words?
MD: Thank you! A lot of people have acknowledged the things I’ve done, so it would be just a massive thank you to all that have supported or received the music. Ultimately, an artist doesn’t get to do what an artist does without the supporters.
This piece was guest edited by Michelle Escoffery. Michelle is an award-winning singer, songwriter and vocal producer. One of the UK’s most respected songwriters, she has penned songs for acts including Tina Turner, All Saints, Beverley Knight and Artful Dodger, worked on vocal arrangements for Rod Stewart and performed with Stevie Wonder and George Michael.