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A woman of conviction

In 2008 Estelle proved that she is not only one of Britain's brightest musical talents, but also an

This was the year the London-born rapper and singer Estelle finally found the stardom she had worked towards for so long. One place you won't have seen her, however, is on Newsnight, being grilled by Jeremy Paxman. That fell to her contemporary Dizzee Rascal, who hit the headlines in November when he was hauled on to the programme the day after Barack Obama's election victory to represent black Britain. Many found Dizzee's clownish performance - pulling faces and suggesting that he'd make a good prime minister - funny, but it has angered Estelle.

"That was so . . ." A pause; a sigh. "Crazy," she finally says. "I don't ever want to diss another artist that I know is in the same struggle and grind as me, but it was the look on Jeremy Paxman's face. I was like, 'He [Paxman] is taking you for an idiot right now! Did no one brief you?' I felt so disappointed because Dizzee has come so far as an artist and a businessman that to go on there and represent us, represent all the musicians in the UK, it was like Oh. My. Gaawd."

It's unfair to expect musicians to act as spokespeople for their generation, but with Estelle Swaray (she dropped the surname for showbiz reasons) it seems that black British youth has found an articulate new voice. The 28-year-old opinionates with a refreshing honesty, even on such sensitive subjects as Operation Trident, the anti-black-on-black gun crime initiative. She recently appeared in an advert for Trident on MTV, but complains that: "Now they're acting like I'm their ambassador . . . That whole programme, to me, it's faulty, because it hasn't really worked. They're just telling kids they're going to lock them up. Where is the extra help, where's the extra care?"

"Paxman's not going to get away with asking me do I think I'm British. That's disrespectful - you know, what do you think I am?"

A native west Londoner, Estelle has spent much of the past two years in New York, since being signed by the producer John Legend. "I'm so, so full of joy that America elected Obama," she says. "He didn't win because he was black - people voted for him because he had a plan and because he talked sense and because you believed him.

"When he stands up on the podium, you get goosebumps. And he's not trying, you don't feel like he's bullshitting."

When I ask whether Gordon Brown's speeches give her goosebumps, her smile drops and she fixes me with a stare. "In any capacity, no!" But she describes herself as a left-leaning voter, saying that the state has "a duty to protect poor people and to give them a leg-up". She gives David Cameron short shrift. "Conservatives, they're like the Republicans to me. They don't do much. They have this whole hierarchy and boys' club thing going on. That doesn't help the regular person."

So, is there anyone on the British political stage who has inspired her? "I think Tony Blair had promise at the start." But he messed up? "He followed Bush."

If you go on to YouTube and search for a song called "Domestic Science" by DJ Skitz, you will find a UK hip-hop track from 2001, featuring three female rappers, one of whom is a then-unknown Estelle. The backing track is so-so, but the talent of the MCs is obvious as they rap, in unashamedly British accents, on topics far removed from the macho clichés of mainstream American hip-hop: single mothers, low-paid jobs "on the checkouts at Asda", sexism in the music industry.

While it has become de rigueur for British pop stars to have trained at stage school or appeared on a reality TV show, Estelle emerged from a very different milieu. For the past couple of decades, UK hip-hop and its offshoots (grime being one of the most recent) have provided an alternative sonic portrait of the nation. The words and sounds that crackle from pirate radio transmitters and across broadband connections, or reverberate around dingy clubs like Mass in Brixton, south London - one of the venues where Estelle first performed - have a creativity that gives the lie to the casual dismissal of young people, of whatever race, as brainless "hoodies".

Yet the music's power is almost always neutered when it makes contact with the mainstream - on the rare occasions it gets that far. Estelle's two fellow rappers on "Domestic Science", for example, have long since faded into obscurity, while leading lights of the grime scene, such as Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, gained chart success this past summer only by abandoning their sound in favour of novelty dance tracks ("Dance Wiv Me" and "Wearing My Rolex", respectively).

If anyone has reason to look back on 2008 with satisfaction, however, Estelle does. Her second album, Shine, a perky mix of London-inflected hip-hop, soul, reggae and R'n'B, has become a runaway international hit since its release in March. It spawned a number-one single on both sides of the Atlantic ("American Boy"), was shortlisted for the Mercury music prize and went on to clinch two Mobo Awards and a pair of nominations for the 2009 Grammys.

Estelle's self-belief and sense of purpose ("I always knew I'd be doing something good," she says when I ask if she is surprised at her success) has allowed her to negotiate the pitfalls of the music industry with unusual skill. The second of eight children, raised by her Senegalese mother on a Hammersmith housing estate, Estelle started performing on the London hip-hop scene while a teenager. Her debut album, The 18th Day, released in 2004 on the British label V2, was well received and even produced a UK hit single, "1980". Yet the label failed to see her long-term potential and she was dropped shortly after that.

It took a move to New York and a collaboration with the soul producer John Legend to relaunch her career. Legend, whose label HomeSchool released Shine, helped arrange a star cast of producers and guest performers, including Wyclef Jean and Kanye West. He tells me that Estelle is "uniquely talented. She has natural charisma and charm, and a great ear for songwriting."

Given such gifts, does Estelle think the initial indifference shown to her in the UK was motivated by racism? When Shine was released, she gave an interview to the Guardian in which she lambasted the double standards of Britain's music industry, pointing out that she had struggled for years without recognition and had had to move to New York before the critics began to take her seriously as a performer, while white British soul singers such as Adele and Duffy were given a much easier ride. "I'm not mad at them," she told her interviewer, "but I'm wondering - how the hell is there not a single black person in the press singing soul?"

Now, perhaps burned by the headlines, she is more diplomatic. "I think it's a generation thing, because there are white hip-hop guys who get the same treatment. I think people feel like, you know, it's a fad - something the kids do and then they grow up, like rock'n'roll used to be. But we're at the infant stages still, whereas they've had a Mick Jagger, they've had a David Bowie, so that generation's seen it grow."

Racism or not, there is an insidious prejudice in British society that treats urban youth culture as the amusing result of a multicultural experiment, as opposed to a thriving reality for millions of people. Which brings us back to Paxman. At one point during the Newsnight interview he asked: "Mr Rascal, do you feel yourself to be British?" To Estelle, this question exposed the presenter's problematic attitude towards his interviewee. "That was out of line. Paxman's not going to get away with asking me do I think I'm British. That's disrespectful - you know, what do you think I am?" She smacks one fist into the palm of her other hand for emphasis. "I'd want to question him - and make him feel like an idiot."

Estelle: the CV

Born Fanta Estelle Swaray to a Senegalese mother and Grenadian father in west London. She is one of eight children

1997 Gets a job at the Deal Real hip-hop record shop in Soho, central London, and works as an internet music journalist

1998 Gives an impressive live performance alongside Rodney P and Roots Manuva. DJ Skitz asks her to appear on his groundbreaking album Countryman (Ronin Records, 2001)

2001 Wins Best Female Artist at the UK Hip-Hop Awards, and will do so again the next two years running

2002 Collaborates with the rapper Blak Twang on the single "Trixstar" (Bad Magic Records), which is nominated for a Mobo Award

2003 On a trip to Los Angeles she approaches Kanye West outside a restaurant. He introduces her to the singer and producer John Legend

2004 Releases her breakthrough single "1980" in July, followed by an album, The 18th Day, on V2 Records. Wins Best Newcomer at the Mobo Awards

2007 Moves to New York, where she becomes the first artist to be signed to John Legend's HomeSchool Records label

2008 "American Boy", featuring Kanye West, is released and tops the UK charts for four weeks. In the US the single receives two Grammy nominations

Harry Williams

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special