British vocalist and songwriter Des’ree captured U. S. pop and contemporary rhythm and blues audiences in July of 1994 at the age of 25 with the hypnotically upbeat Top Five hit single “You Gotta Be.” The song was featured on her second album, I Ain’t Movin’, which eventually achieved platinum status. In addition to attracting an enthusiastic audience, the song’s success led to an offer from filmmakers Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese to contribute a single to the soundtrack for their motion picture Clockers, as well as to a guest spot on the television show Saturday Night Live.
Des’ree’s music has sometimes been categorized as folk/soul since her sound fluctuates between soft and sultry, pensive and thoughtful, and smoothly soulful. Des’ree blends Caribbean rhythms with American R&B, flamenco, hip-hop, and English pop to create a unique musical representation of her own musical tastes and life experience in Barbados and England. Her music has been deemed not “black enough” for extensive airplay on black radio stations in the United States, a charge that has rankled the singer. She told Musician magazine, “I find it very hard when people say ‘You’re not black enough for black radio.’… The fact that I’m not like everyone else, don’t you see that as a challenge?”
Des’ree was born Desiree Weekes in 1970 in London, England, and was exposed to a wide array of music as a child. Reggae, pop, and jazz were all played in her home, and she began taking piano lessons at the age of three. She later took up the viola and abandoned piano lessons in favor of singing, writing poems, and composing music. By the time she was 13, she was writing poetic lyrics and chords. Specific early influences for Des’ree include a diverse group of musicians— Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Gil Scott-Heron, and Joan Armatrading.
When Des’ree was ten years old, her family moved to Barbados, and during her three-year stay on the island, the youngster was exposed to soca, calypso, and dub music. Her parents separated there, an event that caused Des’ree to briefly question her faith in human nature, and she moved back to London with her mother and sister after the divorce. Her time in Barbados exposed her to an uplifting and powerful tradition: black pride and black accomplishment. This pervasive feeling in Barbados of strength and optimism is evident in Des’ree’s songs.
At the age of 16 Des’ree took a demo tape to a major record company just to test the waters. She told People
For the Record …
Born Desiree Weekes in 1970 in London, England; daughter of Samuel Weekes (a jazz musician and insurance company director) and Annette Norma
Began taking piano lessons at age three and later took up viola, singing, and composing; signed recording contract with Sony 550/Epic and released debut album, Mind Adventures, 1992; toured with Simply Red, 1993; guest appearances on The Tonight Show, The Arsenio Hall Show, Late Show with David Letterman, Soul Train, The Today Show, CBS This Morning, and Saturday Night Live; embarked on world tour with Seal, 1995; made first U. S. tour as a headliner, 1995.
Awards: Platinum album award for/Ain’t Movin, 1995.
magazine’s Jennifer Mendelsohn that by the time she returned home, someone from the label had already called to set up a meeting. However, she decided “the time wasn’t right” and waited until six years passed— when she was 22 and working at a health food store-before she tried sending out a demo tape again.
The success of her breakthrough album, Mind Adventures, can partially be attributed to positive thinking. In interviews she repeatedly describes herself as spiritual and a believer in the power and effectiveness of daily affirmations. Des’ree told Entertainment Weekly’s Michele Romero, “I woke up one morning with an oddly positive feeling and I told my manager to send my demo over to the chap who signed [pop singer] Terence Trent D’Arby…. Only he would understand my music.” Her intuition proved correct when three days later, she was signed by Sony 550/Epic, even though she was very young and had no connections in the music industry.
Ashley Ingram of the British soul trio Imagination told Musician’s Barney Hoskyns that he remembered when CBS (now Sony) artisits and repertoire (A&R) representative Lincoln Elias first thought of signing Des’ree. “[Elias] played me a very rough demo of the song that later became ’Feel So High. ’ It’s not often that a singer can present a demo tape and expect the powers-that-be to acknowledge the full wonders, but on a creative level she shone. She leapt out of the cassette.”
When “Feel So High” was first played on British radio, Hoskyns wrote, “it sounded like a young [contemporary jazz/R&B singer] Anita Baker perched on your shoulder and singing directly into your ear.” Des’ree’s 1992 debut album, Mind Adventures, did not fare as well as its hit single, but it did sufficiently introduce Des’ree’s vocal and songwriting talents and paved the way for her second LP.
After the introduction of her first album, Des’ree toured with the pop group Simply Red and recorded a Top Ten British single called “Delicate” with Terence Trent D’Arby. The song is featured on D’Arby’s 1993 album, Symphony or Damn .” Delicate” provided Des’ree the opportunity to appear on The Tonight Show and The Arsenio Hall Show, which in turn made the executives at her record company more confident of her unusual brand of soul.
Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” single from her second album, I Ain’t Movin’, which was released in 1994, is reminiscent of a motivational speaker’s advice. The painful demise of the singer’s real-life relationship with a boyfriend— who was also her manager for her debut album— jolted Des’ree into reading Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization, which served as inspiration for the single and her second album. Des’ree explained the origin of her philosophy to Us magazine’s Gregg Goldstein, “My mother always said ‘Embrace the good and the bad with the same ferocity, and don’t be afraid. ’”
Des’ree’s popularity soared. The year after I Ain’t Movin’ was released, it went platinum, and “You Gotta Be” reached the Top Five on the Billboard music charts. Des’ree then traveled to Ethiopia to shoot a video for her single “Little Child,” which is about starvation in Africa, and embarked on a world tour with pop singer Seal. She was perhaps made especially aware of her growing fame when legendary bluesmanB. B. King asked for her autograph at an airport.
The music video for “You Gotta Be” served to heighten Des’ree’s visibility in the United States. The video was shown on the VH-1 channel longer than any video in VH-1 history. In the sophisticated black-and-white piece that features four simultaneous images of the singer, Des’ree blends the stunning beauty of a runway model, the grace of a ballet dancer, and a chic wardrobe. In markets with little radio play, it was clear that video exposure was contributing to album sales.
The success of “You Gotta Be” prompted New York Newsday to proclaim that for 1995, pop superstar Madonna was “out” and Des’ree was “in.” The single broke into Billboard’s Top Ten music chart at Number Seven in January of 1995, and its popularity led to more guest appearances for Des’ree, including spots on the Late Show with David Letterman, The Today Show, Soul Train, and CBS This Morning. She completed her first U.S. tour as a headliner in March of 1995, playing to full houses in 17 cities. People’s Mendelsohn noted that in mid-1995 Des’ree was at work on a third album and a book of poetry. “I’m a restless person— I need my stimulation,” the singer confided. “And now the world is my universe.”
Mind Adventures, Sony 550/Epic, 1992.
(With Terence Trent D’Arby) “Delicate,” Symphony or Damn, Columbia, 1993.
I Ain’t Movin’, Sony 550/Epic, 1994.
“Silent Hero,” Clockers, MCA, 1995.
Billboard, September 28, 1994; January 28, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, February 17, 1995.
Musician, March 1995; May 1995.
New York Newsday, December 28, 1994.
Paper, October 1994.
People, May 8, 1995.
Request, January 1995.
Rolling Stone, December 1, 1994; January 26, 1995.
Time, February 20, 1995.
Us, February 1995.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
In 1994, a singer/songwriter from England named Des’ree appear on the pop charts seemingly out of nowhere with the catchy, smooth “You Gotta Be,” a paean to positive thought. The song’s bridge highlighted Des’ree’s astonishing voice, and it went all the way to number five on the charts. Yet it was far from the first flush of success for the 25-year-old, who had already enjoyed acclaim in Europe with a 1991 debut record. Her record company also believed it would not be her last, and gave her a leisurely four years to produce a 1998 follow-up. “We’re not in the business of manufacturing cornflakes,” a 550 Music executive told Billboards Paul Sexton about Des’ree. “Artists have their own time frame.”
At the height of her newfound fame in 1995, People termed Des’ree “the reigning queen of New-Age cheer.” At the time, Des’ree shared a home in London, where she grew up, with her mother, Annette Norma, and sister. In the late 1970s, her parents, both West Indian by birth, took their daughters from the familiarity of their south London surroundings to a new home in Barbados so that they might learn about their heritage. Des’ree lived on the island from the age of ten until thirteen, and during that time, she was exposed to dub, calypso, and other indigenous musical genres of the Caribbean. She has said that she grew up singing, and loved Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips as a child. As a teenager, however, Des’ree grew shy, and turned to writing to express herself. She penned poetry and then songs, some of which later wound upon her first album.
When she was 16, Des’ree dropped off a demo tape at a record company, and someone called her at home before she’d even arrived back. But she felt “the time wasn’t right,” as she explained to People, and again trusted her instinct when six years later she “woke up one morning and said [to her then boyfriend-manager], you have to take this tape to Sony Music.’” He did and it fell into the hands of the same executive who discovered Terence Trent D’Arby, and a contract was inked with Sony’s British arm. Des’ree had never been in a professional recording studio before, and immediately set to learning the business of making records. She auditioned arrangers for her songs, and did her own publicity and management work, which she continued to do for some years. After the tracks were finished, Sony put her out as opening act for Simply Red, and released “Feel So High” as a single. “Feel So High” achieved great success in Europe in 1991.
Sony/Epic signed Des’ree in 1992 and released Mind Adventures that same year. Though an article in Billboard spoke of her great promise as a performing artist—reporter Michael Gonzales wrote that she “expresses a wisdom and sensitivity that reach beyond her age”—the album barely made a dent in the charts and she remained an unknown in the U.S. As Des’ree explained rather diplomatically to Essence writer Deborah Gregory a few years later, back in 1992 Sony/Epic “was promoting projects from established artists such as Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson and Luther Van-dross, so I had to take a back seat. My music... got lost in the shuffle.” Still, she remained a moderately successful abroad; in 1993 she cut a single with Terence Trent D’Arby, “Delicate,” that charted in Britain.
It was not until the planned release of I Ain’t Movin’in 1994 that everything seemed to fall into place for Des’ree. Sony decided to include the track “Feel So High” on this album, as it was not included on Mind Adventures. But it was the video for the first single chosen from I Ain ‘t Movin,’You Gotta Be, “that gave the chanteuse her first meaningful American exposure. Working with director Paul Boyd, the two created a stunning black and white video that managed to showcase both the singer’s good looks and haunting voice. The clip began airing on the video music channel VH1 and was an immediate success in the late summer of 1994. The song, with its positive-focused lyrics, received almost no airplay on urban R&B stations despite having a decidedly soulful feel, but it was picked up by pop radio stations, further increasing Des’ree’s exposure.
Born Des’ree Weekes in London, England, 1969.
Worked in a health-food store in London in the early 1990s; signed to Sony U.K., 1991; signed to Sony/Epic (U.S.), 1992; made American debut with the LP, Mind Adventures, Sony/Epic Records, 1992; released/Ain’t Movin, 550 Music, 1994; single from second album, 1994’s” I Ain’t Movin”, reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1995; released Supernatural, 550 Music, 1998..
Awards: Earned gold record for Ain’t Movin’.
Addresses: Record company —Sony 550 Music, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
The inspiration for the title track from I Ain ‘t Movin ’came during a visit to Barbados. As Des’ree explained to Rolling Stone writer Marie Elsie St. Leger, ‘I thought to myself, ‘The most beautiful parts of the world are where my people come from—Africa, the Caribbean, the Antilles.’And I said, ‘I ain’t moving from my place, from my race, from my history.’” St. Leger termed the LP “a catchy blend of Caribbean rhythms, American R&B and English cool.” Village Voice writer Lisa Kennedy wrote that I Ain’t Mown’ “inspires hope, and not just because of her humanism and well-grounded voice. In ‘You Gotta Be, ‘ she combines an earned optimism with an l-will-survive candor; its an edge that if sharpened could cut through some of her softer sentiments to the heart of the matter.”
Sony/Epic put Des’ree on tour with Seal while “You Gotta Be” sat on various charts for 44 weeks. Even four years later, the song was still heard occasionally on the radio. Its video remained in rotation on VH1 longer than any other clip from an artist in the music channel’s history. Des’ree then took a break after earning her gold record for/I Ain’t Movin’, and recorded duets with Steve Winwood and Babyf ace before moving on to her next effort. She had virtually created a new niche called “urban alternative” in the music business single-handedly, but the subtle barriers circling artists, genres, and demographics in America still baffled her. “It wasn’t until I was in the States that I realized how segregated the industry was,” Des’ree told Sexton. “I was disappointed that I wasn’t considered ‘black enough’ for urban radio…. That’s something I could never understand.” Evidence of her influence was made apparent in an odd way: her music publisher, Sony Music Publishing, initiated legal proceedings against Janet Jackson in 1998 which resulted in a sizeable settlement due to the significant resemblance between “Feel So High” and Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone.”
Sexton noted that there were two other cases of copyright infringement for Des’ree’s first hit in Europe seven years back, a song relatively unheard of in the U.S., in the summer of 1998. But Des’ree, positive-minded as always, was more focused on the future: her third album, Supernatural, was released to excellent reviews that same summer. J. D. Considine, writing for Entertainment Weekly, termed it a furtherance of the qualities that made “You Gotta Be” such a success, “strong melodies, engaging grooves, powerfully understated singing…. Des’ree conveys a depth and complexity that go well beyond what’s on the lyric sheet.”
Mind Adventures, Epic/Sony, 1992.
I Ain’t Movin’, 550 Music, 1994.
Supernatural, 550 Music, 1998.
Billboard, September 12, 1992; September 24, 1994; January 28, 1995; June 13, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, August 21, 1998.
Essence, August 1995.
People, May 8, 1995.
Rolling Stone, December 1, 1994.
Village Voice, April 25, 1995.