The NS Interview: Speech Debelle

“I don’t want to turn into Lily Allen”

How has life been since you won the Mercury Prize? You've faced some criticism since then.
That wasn't really an issue for me, that's just how it is. With the Mercury, it's 12 albums and 12 different styles and they've got to pick one, so it's always going to be controversial.

Has it been a good year for British rap? Or are a lot of artists still not getting enough attention?
What Dizzee Rascal's done, his success - that's never happened before in this country. Artists like Tinchy Stryder are on daytime radio, but he's been doing his thing for a long time and I've never heard any of his older stuff on there. At the same time the door is opening, slowly but surely. Ms Dynamite was the first black female ever to win the Mercury. That's - bang - a door open right there. I've come this year, the first rapper to win it. Bang - that's another door. Everything we do, we're doing for the first time.

It's been reported that you decided to leave your record label. Why?
That was taken out of context. I mean, as an artist you get upset with your label, you get upset with your team. I'm entitled to do that. In the same way, they are entitled to get upset with me.

You've talked about wanting more control with your label. Is it about artistic freedom?
No! That's not what I meant. I've always had that. What I was talking about was ownership, owning the rights to your own music, which absolutely every artist would want.

Does the music industry exploit artists?
Definitely. There are people right now in slave deals. But the music business is struggling at the moment. You get deals where your record label own a piece of everything you do. But that's because they're trying to stay alive.

How do you feel about the way the music industry treats women?
I spend a lot of time letting the bullshit go over my head. The amount of times I've heard about what I have to wear, what size I have to be. The further I get along, the less the music seems to matter. I don't want to turn into Lily Allen. And it could happen. People want that - they'd prefer me to be a Lily Allen to a Lauryn Hill.

Why does that bother you?
It's not about the music, is it? Who Lily Allen sleeps with is not important. When she started it was about the music. Now I don't know what it is she's about.

Estelle is one artist who felt she couldn't make it here so went to the US. Do you sympathise?
Yeah. Unfortunately we haven't got to the point where we can accept a black star in the same way as America. Not even just America - it's every time I do a gig outside the UK.

In what way?
You go to Germany, France, Switzerland, all of these places, you've got the radio on, and you're hearing great beats - this is in the daytime! Here, only one radio station can make your career. But I could never switch on Radio 1 in the daytime and hear that many kinds of music.

Why don't we have the diversity?
If only one station makes a difference, it's not going to happen. It's not a democracy, is it?

Do you think the BBC has too much of a stranglehold on our culture?
In the same way that McDonald's has a stranglehold on kids. It's big business.

Do you vote?
I'm going to vote in May.

What do you think of the Prime Minister?
I went to 10 Downing Street about a week after the Mercury and he seemed like a nice guy. He's got a difficult job to do. You can't always knock him for getting things wrong.

And how do you feel about the Conservatives?
Change is good, as long as it's a change for the better. If it doesn't make a difference, then it's irrelevant. That whole BNP thing, it doesn't need to be blown out of proportion. They're not going to run the country any time soon.

What about Boris Johnson? Are you a fan?
I don't know if he's got enough swagger for me to be a fan of his.

Who is your biggest musical influence?
Michael Jackson. Especially "Human Nature".

What do you worry about?
I'm always confident. I have to be. It's all about this next year - making the album as good as I can and being proud of it at the end of it.

Is there anything that you'd like to forget?
No, I can't say that. Everything is for a reason.

Are we all doomed?
Ha, 2012 doomed? That film seems pretty convincing . . . But then the world was supposed to end in 2000 when the computers shut down. Mine's still going strong, telling me what to do and stuff. Maybe that's where we're going, computers just taking over the world.