The Live8 concert in Hyde Park in July saw Ms Dynamite return to the stage after a two-year absence. She had vanished from the public eye at the height of her new-found fame. Her priorities had suddenly changed leading her to place her music career on hold. She gave birth to her son, Shavaar, in July 2003.
When she hit the pause button, Ms Dynamite had been famous for less than a year. Yet in that time her rise from underground MC to the princess of British Black Music had been sensational. Britain had never seen the like. She was sharp, talented, original, charming, streetwise, outspoken and opinionated (boy, was she opinionated!). She was young, black woman, had something to say – and had the tunes to back it up. She exploded into the national consciousness like a pocket-sized supernova.
After her debut album A Little Deeper – a politically aware blend of UK hip hop, R&B and ragga in a pop overcoat – scooped the Panasonic Mercury Music Prize for Album of the Year in September 2002, it was soon clear that there was more to Ms Dynamite than most pop stars. She was the first lady of UK garage; poster-girl of the anti-war movement; unofficial spokesperson for Generation Text; a politician-in-waiting; the fearless teenage runaway who had turned her life around; a feminist icon (how limp girl power seemed next to this young soul rebel who could tongue-lash the rudest of rude boys into stammering submission – "I’ve <never> lost an MC battle," she grins); the conscious new face of black British music.
More accolades followed her Mercury triumph. In October 2002 Dynamite landed three MOBOs – for Best single, Best Newcomer and UK Act of the Year – at a ceremony where no other artist won more than one. Next came two BRIT Awards, for Best British Female Artist and Best Urban Act. At the Earls Court ceremony, in February 2003, she sang a rewritten version of George Michael’s Faith, backed by George himself via video link-up. With the Iraq war looming, the new lyrics expressed the mood of the times: "I don’t wanna see children die no more/So I gotta take a stand/Can you hear my voice?/Taking a life is only God’s choice/I don’t want blood on my hands."
The same month on February 15, Dynamite gave a rousing performance to close the historic Hyde Park rally organised by the Stop The War Coalition. She also read a poem lambasting Tony Blair. Six months earlier only pirate radio listeners knew who she was: now here she was articulating a nation’s impotent frustration at the apogee of the largest popular protest in British history.
"I wasn’t prepared for any of it but I wasn’t going to shy away from it either," she says. "At the end of the day I said everything I said and I meant it and I stand by it. I’m in such a privileged position to be able to speak to thousands of people, and for people to even listen. They don’t necessarily have to agree, but they listen and it makes them think. That is very powerful and I appreciate it."
Dynamite certainly isn’t cut from the usual celebrity cloth. Supporting worthy causes is something she sees as more of a necessity and a social responsibility as a person in the limelight rather than just merely an option. Ms D performed at Rock Against Racism in Manchester in September 2002 (a much-needed counterpoint to the ugly race riots earlier that summer in Oldham); a remembrance concert for Charlene Ellis and Latisha Shakespeare, two teenage victims of gun crime, at Aston Villa FC in January 2003; and the huge 46664 extravaganza in Cape Town, spearheaded by Nelson Mandela, to raise awareness of South Africa’s fight against Aids.
"I remember myself and my brother Kingslee having our picture taken either side of Nelson Mandela – and walking away and literally not knowing what to say to each other," she recalls. The next time they met, at a concert in London, Mandela broke the ice. "He said, ‘Oh, you’re really beautiful – I’ve got 22 grandsons and I want to offer one of them to you. You’ve got to marry one of my grandsons! He had me in stitches. We didn’t talk about anything too deep, he was just really funny."
Another treasured memory is her appearance on the ‘Later…With Jools Holland’ Hip Hop Soul special. Together with Holland they reworked her classic signature anthem, ‘Dy-na-mi-tee’, into a sublime slice of summery jazz-soul. "That was my favourite ever performance, I really loved being there – and I think that came through."
After a one-year sabbatical with her newborn, Dynamite began to write her second album in summer 2004. She flew to Los Angeles to record with hip hop producer Chink Santana (best known for his work with Ja Rule and Ashanti). "He is just madly multi-talented – he can sing, rap, play instruments, everything! There was a musical connection straight away.”
"For my first album I was determined to write every single thing, I didn’t care how long it took me, I wouldn’t allow anyone to help. This time around, I feel I haven’t got anything to prove. If Chink could come up with a better line, or a better hook, then I was more than happy to go with it.”
Dynamite hooked up again with Chink in Miami, where she also collaborated with Jamaican dancehall legend Stephen ‘Lenky’ Marsden (nominated in 2003 for Producer of The Year at the US Billboard Music Awards, alongside the Neptunes, R Kelly and Timbaland) and up-and-coming Miami producer Wayne The Brain. Back in Europe she flew to Sweden to work with Christian Karlsson, aka Bloodshy, hitmaker for Britney Spears and to Ireland for sessions with Reza Safinia, who has worked with Britney and Kylie.
Artists she collaborated with included Southern rapper Lil’ Wayne (from the Cash Money crew), fast-rising Jamaican dancehall MC Assassin, Chink Santana (with his MC hat on) and UK MC Sincere – a hot name to watch.
The result is Ms Dynamite’s long-awaited second album, Judgement Days. She conceived of the title (Judgement Day (singular) is also the title of the first single to be taken from it) after a late-night conversation with Chink about "life, the things we see, the things we’ve been through".
"I’m not a particularly religious person, but the concept of judgement day has played on my mind in the past. You’re supposed to be judged on your day of dying. But I feel that where we go wrong as human beings is that we feel we’re only going to be judged on this one day. But I think every single day of our lives, every situation, every conversation, every action, every relationship is part of our judgement day. It’s not just about the final day; it’s about all the days that build up to that day and the fact that God whoever he or she may be is watching over us at all times."
A little bit older, wiser, a celebrity and a mother, too, a lot has changed for 24-year-old Niomi Daley. "I definitely feel less angry and more at ease and at peace with myself. I had a load of issues I hadn’t really dealt with before my first album – and then the music came along and I didn’t really need to face them. I definitely needed to slow down, and I feel like I’m at the other end of a tunnel now."
Though Niomi Daley may have mellowed, fans will soon hear that her alter-ego Ms Dynamite still isn’t pulling any punches. Topics on Judgement Days include gun crime, the decline of UK clubland and absent fathers. Love is a theme, too: both adult relationships and teenage crushes. "When you’re an adult, love enters this zone where things get complicated. Whereas when you’re a child and you think you’re in love, it’s just a smile. It doesn’t go any further or deeper than that. On one track, Back Then, it’s just saying, just take me back to then when it was all so simple."
How does Dynamite describe Judgement Days’ overall sound?
"Honestly, I can’t categorise it – and not because I think, ‘It’s sooo amazing I can’t categorise it, I feel like everyone is going to categorise it anyway so what’s the point? I’ve grown up on so many different types of music: even if other people don’t notice it I hear them coming through. Sometimes it sounds more soulful, other times it leans towards reggae, some tracks sound more like out-and-out 1960s rock and roll, some have got a hint of blues. I honestly don’t know what I would class it as.
It’s just me."