Nina Simone said, 'how can you be an artist and not reflect the times?' To me, that implies one has to be engaging with their place in the world and be able to identify what is truly distinct about it in order to make their work resonate at a unique frequency that ripples out far enough to touch others. For my artistic journey, the lightbulb switched on when I reconnected with my womanhood at the age of 35, one that I felt I had lost at only eight years old.
Puberty had kicked in very early for me and I resented its imposition on my childhood; it was frightening plus some of women's business was simply disgusting to deal with, too disgusting to let anyone know it was happening to me and God help me if anybody in my Year 2 class found out! They'd probably scream or faint, yes I would probably kill somebody with this knowledge. It certainly had blown my mind - and not in a good way. By the time my peers had caught up, I would witness girls sharing joyfully that they were now wearing a bra and even celebrating over the arrival of their period? I genuinely thought they were all barmy - there was nothing good to be gained from these changes, I said to myself and so I buried my womanhood for 27 years.
As if my woman issues weren't bad enough, I ended up getting involved in an industry that seemed to have very stringent criteria regarding how female artists should present themselves. Early on, looking around at the plight of black British female artists that had gone before, it was easy to realise that even 'looking the part' wasn't working out for these chosen few. Apart from that, I knew I was never going to 'look the part' and neither did I want to. Becoming the best musician I could be was a much more satisfying goal; to be respected among my peers, especially the male ones who had their disdain for women musicians, particularly singers who were frequently never even classified as musicians! This pursuit became problematic for my female identity, as I made my hallmark of success to be treated like 'one of the boys'. I even considered being called 'bruv' or 'mate' by male colleagues as a compliment; how brilliant when they made no acknowledgment of me as a woman, what a triumph of success - heck I must be good!
I was a confident musician since childhood and that talent allowed me to contribute as a side-player or a songwriter or both. I reassured myself that this would be one way not to have to deal with any of my insecurities. Although, even without hearing a note, my heavy frame would frequently have either sex guessing that I must be a neo-soul singer or no, wait a minute, a jazz singer, right? This being the sound that big, black girls make merrily with ease. To this day, I can still be asked whether I happen to know of some random big, black, jazz singer in London even before the enquirer has any idea about the kind of music I make, as if our appearance alone has united us in to this special vocal sisterhood. And surely that big chest of mine must definitely infer that I had a belter of a voice! Ironically, this wasn't my physiological design. I remember my cheeks flushing with embarrassment when called upon to do that kind of singing in studio sessions - on numerous occasions. I'd feel like such a charlatan, attempting to make that Big, Black, Gospel, RnB, American sound. The irony was that unlike my weight, my voice is pretty light, I was classically trained and raised in SE London, listening to a diverse range of music (thanks dad) but not much of that particular kind.
In my youth, I had no confidence to attempt to navigate the industry landscape on my own. The occasional encounter with an A&R or agent or promoter or manager or even a lawyer (some of them want to be artists too) giving their personal 'formula' for artist success, included criteria that would preclude any aspirations I secretly held, deep down. 27 years down the line, past the more fragile years, working on my musicianship - but ultimately in safe-hiding as a side-player - I was in a healthier state of self-acceptance of the woman I was created to be and cherished my unique blueprint - all of it - that qualified me with distinction. (How that epiphany came about is a whole other story, for another time). Plus, I had run out of collaborations to hide in.
Ultimately, it was in reconnecting with my womanhood that I began to blossom creatively, at a point that I ultimately felt like I finally had something to say coupled with the confidence to say it. Some people get there a lot quicker. I have always admired the 'wrong and strong' self-confidence of younger artists; that dogged determination and self-belief which is a necessary component to being a successful artist who can stand head and shoulders above the 'noise' of every formulaic construct of 'woman' created by men telling this daughter, this sister and mother who and how I ought to be and what I ought to sound like and even what I have to say for myself. And my redemption story required the acknowledgment and support of several men in the industry (thank you Jesse & Louis Hackett, Jack Prideaux, Rowdy SS, David Okumu, Peter & Ben Conway, Matthew Herbert, Simon Deacon, Struan Leslie, Simon Drake, James Wyllie). Yes, I'm blessed to have met some good ones along the way, and these are just a handful of those who got it, who got me!
And now? This snap-chat, pop-porn era is worrisome to me, especially as a mother thinking of all the wasted years of self-loathing this next generation of our precious girls and young women will contend with, the opportunities across this industry that they have already ruled out but which are theirs for the taking. Yet, I'm still holding on to hope that they will find a sound rippling above the 'noise' of it all, a frequency that will touch them deep in their soul and enable them to meet their truly magnificent, authentic selves.
ESKA is a Mercury nominated artist and recipient of PRS Foundation's Women Make Music fund. ESKA will perform as part of Joni Mitchell's 'Hejira' at Southbank Centre's Women of the World festival on 8th March alongside Lisa Hannigan, Nadine Shah and Eme Mathlouthi.