Sammie Jay. Remember that name. She will become a household item in the coming future just as surely and quickly as her contemporary Sam Smith rose to fame seemingly overnight. She is the newest artist to emerge on the soul and blues scene, joining the ranks of budding artist to watch from the U.K. She is capitalizing on the ability of social media to connect her with new fans, who could potentially catapult her career from an outstanding street performer ("street basking," as they call it in England) to a worldwide vocalist, inspiring listeners toward that luminal space of new possibilities.
Her latest song, "Killing Me Slowly," was first published on YouTube in August of this year, and this original track has since garnered well over eight hundred thousand views on its way to the coveted millionth click. But knowing she is on the precipice of stardom has not fazed Sammie Jay, as she takes the attention all in stride.
As a matter of fact, this march toward "discovery" is not her first rodeo in the music industry. She first honed her vocal chops in Nashville when her family moved there from across the pond to support their daughter's dreams. A country music virtuoso at the tender age of nine, music executives saw something special in Sammie Jay. She spent her pre-teen years in the country music capital of the world, determined to pursue her ambitions.
By day, she home schooled, and by night, she sang around the local honky tonk bar scene, often fronting for a local Nashville band. One of the most memorable highlights of her career came around the age of eleven while singing Dolly Parton's "I will always love you," and the legend herself came in to hear her sing. Parton would later give Sammie Jay a big Southern hug while whispering words of encouragement and approval into her ear. But she was never quite able to break through to a mainstream audience, which was in part due to her unique style of singing that carried runs and riffs not dissimilar to R&B music. What this experience did accomplish was to teach her many lessons about the confines of the music business, specifically the way in which the labels control the performers' image.
Unlike most artists who enter the music business as an adult not having much prior experience in the cutthroat industry, Sammie Jay understood these lessons early in her career. While in the Music City, she learned to be weary of the competitive nature of the music industry. In this business, executives are always looking for the next best talent to groom for demanding fans eager to fill the labels' coffers.
This often means encouraging artist to disidentify with the internal workings of their soul. These very impulses constitute the essence of an artist's "spiritual strivings" -- that place from which musical genius and expression emanate -- thus, informing their particular talent in ways that touch fans and other lovers of good music.
Unfortunately for Sammie Jay, RCA was looking for someone with less vocal inflections. As she describes it, the fans supported her music, yearning to hear her sing, but the label preferred a more manufactured and contrived sound, presuming she (and her style of music) was a "fad." They were unaccustomed to an English girl singing bluesy riffs that the future star possessed. They were not interested in a Tammy Wynette meats Teena Marie, country music's version of "white chocolate" (R.I.P. Teena Marie). The label wanted her to tame the soulfulness, a compromise that she could not accept as it was not true to her heart.
The up and coming artist told me that she is able to channel rhythm and blues through her powerful voice having been exposed to the music early in life. One of her sources of inspiration, her father would listen to old R&B tunes and sing around the house. But where do artist like Sammy Jay come from? And how is it that Britain is able to cultivate and produce such an impressive array of mostly white R&B performers? Over the last several years, the American music scene has stood in awe, marveling at scores of highly talented white British artists whose ascendancy to popularity extends beyond the nation's borders.
The list is impressive and includes the likes of the Grammy award winner Adele, Jessie J, Ed Sheehan, Charli XCX, Joss Stone, Conner Maynard, Jessie Ware, Sam Smith and many others. The U.K. has not seen this much talent in the pool (at one time) since the 1980s when artists like Rick Ashley, Lisa Stansfield, Phil Collins, Boy George, Simply Red, Duffy, George Michael and other blue-eyed soul singers graced the airwaves at a time when the industry began experimenting with the visual arts through music video production. This innovation lead to the development the world's first 24-hour music television station (MTV) where careers where made overnight.
American soul and blues music is born out of the pain of living in a highly racialized and unjust society where young black men and boys are often gunned down in the streets while other Blacks are left to eek out their existence with no promises of prosperity. In the United States, race is an irreducible sign of difference institutionalized through centuries of white-imposed racism and forged in the blood of the innocents.
In the U.K., though race/ethnicity is also highly problematic, class is the most important signifier of inequality, and language is the conduit used to relegate the least advantaged. The English working class, also known as "Cockney," is known to speak a particular dialect that is considered a bastardized form of English by the aristocracy.
Class inequality, or the unequal distribution of opportunity and reward within a group or society, is brutal in nature, leaving those disadvantaged in its wake with lower levels of life expectancy. Sammie Jay speaks with a distinct accent indicative of her social standing in her native homeland, and admittedly, her father is Cockney.
Many of these artists came from the mean streets of working class (factors influenced by education, occupation, social status and political influence) Boroughs in places like the overcrowded East End of London known for its concentration of poor Whites and immigrants. The vast majority of London's affluent British populace (with the financial means to do so) has fled for whiter areas outside the city. Left behind are scores of poor, white, working class British families with youth who intuitively understand the caste system in their country.
When parents struggle to make ends meat and children are old enough to see the damaging effects of disadvantage, it can profoundly leave an artist with little else to turn to but healing qualities of music. Interestingly, many of these white British soul singers have felt the pain of their circumstances through the experiences of black American music. These songs often involve struggles, loss or personal tragedies, but also love and possibility. Its often been said that "music is the gateway to the soul" in which many of these powerful voices have found refuge.
Seemingly, many white Brits use their experiences with class inequality similarly to US black singers and song-writers who struggle with the pangs of race and class discrimination. And like their black Americans counterparts, they can appreciate on some level the agony of marginalization that only subaltern people have felt deep within their bones.
Many Brits caught in circumstances of deprivation find ways to cope through music as a way to emote and express the stirrings of their soul. As for Sammie Jay, music was her Zen and refuge from the vicissitudes of life.