Herstory 7: Sade's Intentional Absence
Cheating our Idea of Fame
Fame is a tricky thing to navigate. It more often becomes an eternal battle between maintaining control of your public and private life all while trying to express yourself within your medium. The music industry is full of examples where that public and private merge into one life, and just as many examples of those that were never heard from again. Typically, you either thrive at keeping that balance or fall by the wayside. Maintaining your self-image becomes an entirely different kind of career. You can reach a successful altitude but still find a disconnect in the limited control you have in being a celebrity.
Dave Chappelle once explained this concept as something called the ‘Salt Trap’:
Sade Adu has had all of the staples of a successful artist: along with her band (also named Sade) securing four Grammys, and a platinum certification on every album released to date, and received the Order of The British Empire (OBE) for her services to music. Her international appeal paired with a unique musical style has kept Sade as the most successful British singer since her debut in the early 1980s, all the while living through most of it as a recluse. There’s something enticing about being able to step back into the shadows for years at a time and make a return like you’d only stepped out of the room for a moment.
Sade, as a band, are primarily grouped into one of a few broader (and some more specific) musical genres: R&B, Jazz, or Soul. The sound is best described as one featuring jazz-filled textures in combination with a leading baseline, driven percussion, and dark saxophone. All of these elevate Ms. Adu’s voice described by BBC Music as “husky and restrained, oozing class and suggestive of hard-won experience”. Sade vocals have served as a counterpoint to her fellow contemporaries like Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, and Sheila E., who’s career-defining hits were on the rise during the 1980s.
Sade Adu's Musical Contributions
Helen Folasade Adu was born in January of 1959 in Ibadan, Nigeria. Her parents, a Nigerian economics student and a British-born district nurse, met in England and eventually wed only to fall back to her father’s home in Nigeria. Her parents’ marriage dissolved a few years into the move and Sade (at the age of 4), along with her older brother and mother, moved to England. Spending her formative years in small townships along the coasts of Essex, she later went on to move to the city of London for school. After graduating from Saint Martin’s School of Art for Fashion Design, Sade soon experimented with what would become a lifetime career.
Originally supporting the Latin Fusion band, Pride, as a backing vocalist, Sade quickly forged a relationship with fellow band members Paul Denman, Stuart Matthewman, and Andrew Hale to break out and focus on their own material. It was rare for major record companies to take risks on music acts that sound radically different from what was selling at that time in the early 1980s. The reign of Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson were in full effect and rarely gave space while a lot of artists tried to position themselves in similar sounds.
Record companies offered her a chance to work with the top producers in the United States to develop their first LP, but quickly rejected the offers and stayed based in London. She had found a chance to take the people around her and develop their own sense of visibility and sound that couldn’t take form had they have moved overseas.
In 1984, the band, following a 6-week recording session released their debut LP, Diamond Life, to the world. The album sold 1.2 million copies making it the best-selling debut by a British female singer.
Albums that followed like Promise, the group’s second album, built on the success of the laid groundwork and thrived. The album was released only a year after Diamond Life but reached such a height that some radio stations dusted off and renewed the aged 1970s-era practice of playing album tracks over the airwaves rather than the curated singles.
With little known information about her personal life, fans, critics, and media outlets interpreted what they had available to craft an image of Sade. Embarking on three hiatuses (following the release of the Love Deluxe in 1992, Lovers Rock in 2000, and Soldier of Love in 2010) during which she was married, gave birth to her first child, and lived in different parts of the world. Keeping her personal life private created an ere of mystery, making her a target for rumours of stage fright, addiction, and mental health issues that circulated during her quiet years.
An Absence from Collaborations
Pulling together those elements of Soul, Jazz, and R&B, the ripples of Sade’s influence has led to the formation and exploration of what would become genres like Neo-Soul, Trip-Hop, and Acid Jazz all throughout the 1990s. The other side of Sade’s impact and legacy comes with how she has kept to herself (both personally and professionally). Only a select few have been granted time with Sade, as she declined has interview requests and collaboration opportunities across her career.
“I’ve never collaborated because I’ve always avoided working outside my safety zone — I can be exactly who I am and can fail or succeed within the moment. I feel safe working like I do. I wouldn’t want to work in a situation where I am expected to deliver, because I think I wouldn’t deliver.”
— Sade Adu
There’s a psychological piece to collaboration that can bring you down in other ways even if the process is positive. Sade has always known how to protect what she has against the risk of losing who she is.
Sade's Lasting Legacy
There’s a point where you can recognize that your environment doesn’t match your energy, for better or for worse. More recently, you can notice that contemporary artists like FKA twigs, Janelle Monáe, and Solange aren’t in the spotlight as often as their contemporary counterparts on their own volition.
Sade’s relationship with her fame is what has truly differentiated her from her class of peers. There’s a sense of security rooted in her absence which is reflected in the way the band’s music has been shaped over the years. A paired down and raw sound that brings out the best in the stories that she has crafted. She “led a master class in minimal exertion, a study in how to wring huge effect out of the smallest suggestions”. Sade chose to move on her own terms, take time for the things that she wanted and in doing so has branded herself in a non-traditional but intentional way.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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