First-name-only diva Jamelia has scored some impressive chart hits in Britain, where the Birmingham native is one of her country's biggest pop stars. Often referred to as "the British Beyoncé"—a nod to her similarly glamorous American soul-diva counterpart—the young singer burst onto the charts in early 2000 with the song "Money," which landed in the top five on the UK pop charts. Jamelia, just 19 at the time, was hailed as "the homegrown, street credible R&B diva that Britain had been waiting for," noted the London Observer 's Kitty Empire.
Born Jamelia Niela Davis on January 2, 1981, the future star is of Jamaican heritage and grew up in the Midlands city of Birmingham, one of the most culturally diverse urban centers in England. She was raised by her mother, Paulette, in a single-parent household that also included two younger half-brothers. Though Jamelia loved to sing with her karaoke machine at home, she had little interest in pursuing music as a career and contemplated becoming a child psychologist instead. When she was 15 years old, Jamelia went to a local carnival, where her aunt encouraged her to take the stage for a karaoke event. Her impressive performance was noticed by a record-company scout who was in the crowd. Some time later she sent in a demo tape that she had done at home with the help of her karaoke machine. It landed at the label offices of Parlophone, a division of music-industry giant EMI, which promptly signed her to a development deal.
Scored British Chart Hits
Jamelia spent the next few years honing her vocal talents, and her first single, "So High," was released in 1999. She was also an accomplished songwriter by then, and co-wrote every track on her debut album, Drama. The album was a terrific success in Britain, with four songs from it making it into the UK Top 40, but it was the third single, "Money," that made the singer a household name throughout Britain. Co-written with British producer C Swing, who had worked with artists ranging from Mary J. Blige to the Beta Band, the song featured a solo from Jamaican reggae star Beenie Man and was termed "brilliantly histrionic," asserted Guardian critic Maxine Kabuubi. That same article also noted the range of tracks on Jamelia's debut, finding "One Day" the singer's "attempt to compete in the overheated American R&B market. Stripped down to just a lilting guitar, the song pushes her vocals to the fore, heightening the quality and purity of her voice," Kabuubi noted.
In October of 2000, Jamelia and the "Money" video won a prestigious Mobo Award, short for "Music of Black Origins," the premier industry event showcasing black music in Britain. Days later, the country's tabloid newspapers reported that the 19-year-old singer was expecting a baby. By then, she was already four months along, and she had been too afraid to tell her Parlophone bosses, fearing they might drop her from the label altogether. In the end, news of her pregnancy was leaked to the media, and the record company found out about the same way Jamelia's fans did—in a headline. When they called her to ask about it, "I was crying my eyes out," the singer told Sunday Times journalist Dan Cairns. "I was literally saying goodbye to them. At the time, I was, like: 'How and why did this possibly happen?' I was taking precautions and everything, but I still got pregnant. Then I got a call from the head of the label, and he said: 'Don't think that we're letting you go. We really want you, and whenever you're ready to come back, just let us know.'"
Jamelia's daughter Teja, named for a combination of Jamelia's name and that of the baby's father, Terry, was born in March of 2001. She virtually disappeared from the public eye for the next two years, returning first as an opening act for Justin Timberlake on his tour of the United Kingdom in May of 2003. Her comeback single, "Bout," was traditional R&B fare and featured a guest appearance from rapper Rah Digga, but failed to do well on the charts. Her next one, however, made up for it: "Superstar" was a disco-glittery tune released in the fall of 2003 that was a hit in both the United Kingdom and Europe. It even migrated across the Atlantic, landing on the official soundtrack to the highly rated A&E television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
No Longer a Victim
"Superstar" appeared on Thank You, Jamelia's second full-length release. The album peaked at No. 4 on British charts, but it was the title song that surpassed even the success of "Superstar." The torchy ballad, which reached No. 2 on the singles charts, chronicles the end of an abusive relationship, and Jamelia admitted publicly that her longtime romance with Teja's father had been the source for the song's inspiration. In "Thank You," she expresses gratitude for her bruises, reflecting that they guided her, in the end, to a place of inner strength. "You broke my world [and] made me strong," she sings in it. Cairns, writing in the Sunday Times, compared it to disco diva Gloria Gaynor's enduring 1979 female-empowerment hit "I Will Survive," and called the song "one of those (very) rare examples of a lyric shot through with torment being married to an undislodgeable melody—and ripping up the charts."
In interviews Jamelia carefully explained that she had parted ways with her former boyfriend, a music promoter also from Birmingham, when Teja was just a few weeks old. "Because, when it was just me, it was my choice to be there: I could have walked out at any time," she told Marianne Macdonald of the Evening Standard. "When it happened when my daughter was there, I was making that choice for her, and what kind of mother was I to make her stay in this household?"
For a young woman who had once feared that her career was over at the age of 20, Jamelia had a stunning year in 2004. She completed her first tour as a headliner, and co-wrote a song with Chris Martin of Coldplay, "See It in a Boy's Eyes," that won her another Mobo that fall; "Thank You" also won for best single of the year. She signed with a modeling agency run by British supermodel Naomi Campbell—to whom the almond-eyed Jamelia has sometimes been compared—and landed a lucrative endorsement deal with athletic-gear maker Reebok. Still hoping to crack the American market, she was spending more time in Los Angeles and working with American songwriter Diane Warren, the hitmaker who boosted the fortunes of Whitney Houston and Aerosmith, and was considering taking some film roles. Certainly Jamelia's career had just begun.
At a Glance...
Born Jamelia Niela Davis on January 2, 1981, in Birmingham, England; daughter of Paulette Davis; children: Teja (daughter).
Career: EMI/Parlophone, recording artist, 1996(?)–; model, 2004–.
Awards: Mobo Award (Music of Black Origin), best video, 2000, for "Money"; Mobo Award, 2004, for "See It in a Boy's Eyes"; Mobo Award, for best single, 2004, for "Thank You."
Addresses: Office— c/o EMI/Parlophone, 43 Brook Green, London W6 7EF England. Home— Wolverhampton, England.
Linked romantically with British soccer player Darren Byfield, Jamelia lives in a house in Wolverhampton, England. Her two half-brothers fared less well in life: one was stabbed to death and the other charged in a case involving the deaths of two Birmingham women in 2002. The singer remained thankful for all that life has given her, as she told Cairns in another interview for the Sunday Times : in late 2004, she participated in the new Band Aid charity project, a 20th anniversary reprise of Bob Geldof's original fundraising effort for famine victims in Ethiopia. For the new single, an all-star line-up of pop and rock stars was once more assembled, and Jamelia was among them when Geldof showed the group some film footage before they started to record it. "And there was a little three-yearold girl in this field of dying people, and she could hardly walk," Jamelia told Cairns. "I was thinking, 'This girl is the same age as my daughter, Teja.' Then they brought out the girl who was on that film, and she's now 23, which is the age I am. So many things hit me in the space of a few minutes. Before that day, I would have said I wasn't privileged when I was younger. I was incredibly privileged: I had a house, I had food and water every day, I was getting an education."
Drama, EMI/Parlophone, 2000.
Thank You, EMI/Parlophone, 2003.
Evening Standard (London, England), December 10, 2004, p. 15.
Guardian (London, England), June 23, 2000, p. 11.
Independent Sunday (London, England), August 27, 2000, p. 8.
Observer (London, England), June 13, 2004, p. 12.
Sunday Times (London, England), March 7, 2004, p. 6; December 19, 2004, p. 4.