National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Ms. Dynamite (b.1981)

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Niomi McLean-Daley, the eldest in a family of eleven, was born in London to a Scottish mother and Jamaican father in 1981 She absorbed the commercial and non-commercial music of her parents’ generation, but her talent emerged into a splintering UK garage scene. Elder statesmen within the movement were having a hard time relinquishing the reigns of power to the new generation who were rejecting the established remix-heavy formula. UK garage by definition wasn’t just a UK rapper riding under-produced beats. It was more: a coalescence of club culture, rap culture and British-street politics. While working at London pirate radio stations Freek FM and Raw FM, McLean-Daley’s style began to mature.

For McLean-Daley, music had become an escape from an emotionally fraught home-life. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer when she was just 13. Within two years, McLean-Daley was suffering from depression and left home, unable to cope with helping to raise her siblings. Living alone in a hostel, she turned to substance abuse, but in contrast to expectation, left school three years later with a place at Sussex University.

While working at the pirate radio stations, McLean-Daley cultivated her rap performances by undertaking live-on air battles that she later replicated in clubs. One such performance was seen by UK garage producer Richard ‘Sticky’ Forbes. By the time their collaboration Boo! was released in 2001, on Jason Kaye and Sticky’s independent Social Circles label, McLean-Daley had adopted the name ‘Ms Dynamite’ and watched the track storm the British underground, pirate radio and clubs before entering the national singles chart at Number 12. McLean-Daley was promptly offered a solo recording deal with Polydor Records.

The UK was yet to have an enduring female emcee, and when it emerged that McLean-Daley could sing, Polydor encouraged her to explore working as a singer/songwriter. Her debut album, 2002’s A Little Deeper, was far removed from Dynamite’s garage training ground, but the lyrics were steeped in her fields of concern. On the album, Dynamite created a window to look out onto the urban landscape to find sensitivity, opinion, ambition and love. McLean-Daley’s socio-political opinions were seized on by the media: she was against the impending Iraq war; she had been a victim of racist bulling at school; she experienced sexism within the garage scene and understood the pressures of living in a father-less household. Within a year of the album’s release, and with its hit singles, ‘It Takes More’, ‘Dy-na-mit-tee’ and Put Him Out on commercial and pirate radio playlists, Ms Dynamite took on a wealth of social and political campaigns.

Following the Oldham race riots in the summer of 2002, Dynamite performed at the Rock Against Racism concert in Manchester. By October, she hit the stage with Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher at Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair event. But Dynamite’s musical reputation was sealed that year when she became the first black woman to win the Mercury Music Prize – beating David Bowie and fellow urban artists Roots Manuva, the Streets and Beverley Knight to win the £20,000 prize, which she donated to the NSPCC.

The drive-by shootings of two young women in Birmingham on New Year’s Day 2003 shocked the UK, and with the comments of politicians suggesting that black music was to blame for the rise in gun crime within the black community, Dynamite performed at a remembrance concert for the victims. Three months later she announced a ten-day fundraising tour for the Stop The Violence movement.

Within days of being named Best Female and Best Urban Act at that February’s Brit Awards, Dynamite performed at the Stop The War Coalition concert in London’s Hyde Park. This was inspired, in no short part, by her Brit Awards duet with George Michael, where she had adapted the lyrics of his hit, Faith to assert her anti-war feelings.

In July 2003 Dynamite gave birth to her son, Shavaar, but the honours for A Little Deeper, continued unabated. The Commission for Racial Equality named Dynamite Media Personality of the Year, and by summer’s end she took home three MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) Awards – more than any other artist nominated: Best Single, Best Newcomer and UK Act of the Year. The London Evening Standard added her to their list of 100 Great Black Britons and she co-wrote a track for inclusion on Kylie Minogue’s album, Body Language.

As a result of her socio-political activities, Dynamite had attained an international profile. Although A Little Deeper, attracted critical acclaim in the US, it was what Ms Dynamite stood for – an articulate representative of her generation - that endured. Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, invited her to perform at his 46664 Aids Awareness concert in South Africa in November 2003. She contributed to the Band Aid 20 charity single and began work on her second album, Judgement Days.

Not as attention grabbing as its predecessor, Judgement Days still carried sway. The title track was released as a single and Dynamite was invited to perform on the London leg of the Live 8 concert in July 2005. By October she’d participated in a tribute concert of black Merseyside teenager Antony Walker, who was killed in a racist attack earlier that year. In January 2006, Dynamite was arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct. She was subsequently fined and received a community service sentence.

Polydor dropped plans to release further material from Judgement Days, and Ms Dynamite turned her creative attentions to collaboratively working with her brother, rapper Akala, who won the 2006 Best Hip Hop MOBO Award (and with whom she released the Darker Days remix set). In November 2006 Dynamite was hospitalised after a collision while taking part in drag racing as part of a SKY TV programme.

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