On 16th June 2017, the Queen’s Birthday Honours were revealed, as they are every year. The British monarch traditionally rewards the great and the good in society every year on her birthday; including an eclectic mix of public figures, sports stars, charity fund raisers and ordinary people rewarded for notable acts in service of the public good. That year, besides international superstar Ed Sheeran, comedy legends Billy Connolly and David Walliams, and actress Olivia de Havilland – one Adele Emily Sandé stood ready to collect her MBE of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for services to music.
Better known by her stage name of Emeli Sandé, the musician and artist has cemented herself as one of Britain’s most beloved artists since her 2012 debut album Our Version of Events hit the charts at number one, with her second album Long Live The Angels topping out at number 2, four years later in 2016. With seven major awards under her belt, including four BRITs and three MOBOs, her chart success has been matched by critical acclaim – but most interesting are her less known award nominations and wins, which hint at a different side to the performer: Woman of the Year, the American Express Innovation Award, Fashion Icon, Best Video. Most famous for her music, her profile hides her accomplishments in fashion, culture and learning – and explains how a great musician becomes an MBE.
Born to mixed-race parents in Sunderland where her parents met at the City polytechnic, Adele moved with her family to Aberdeenshire when she was just four – a formative move, which would imbue her with the broad Scottish accent she sports to this day. With a teacher for a father, an ambition for learning was especially important to Adele in the early stages of her life. A ‘Shy’ and ‘nerdy’ persona established early on: “I hated to be ill and to miss a day because I was so hungry to learn. I was very shy, nerdy and extremely well-behaved. Inevitably, throughout secondary school, it was part and parcel of my identity that I was Mr. Sandé’s daughter. No way could I muck about or get into trouble, because it would’ve got back to him within minutes. And Dad was strict, let me tell you.”
However, it was at school that Adele first established a secondary ambition after a talent show as an 11 year old. To be a singer. She had sung as a baby, in the shower and around the house, to her parents’ favourite singers, Whitney Houston being a staple. Beginning her singing career in a range of musical genres from rap to soul, she first found recognition for her talent as a soprano – winning a music competition that propelled her from her tiny Aberdeenshire village to London, and MTV’s Camden studio, as a gospel singer. It seemed like she was destined for great things – with a host of performances and a record deal with Telstar waiting in the wings. But this is where it started to get complicated.’
“I had these dreams, but what was more important to me was to feel that I had safety and security in my life…“I felt you could work and work at music and nothing was guaranteed, but if you worked at school, at science, then you’d get something solid.” One of only two mixed-race kids in her community (the other being her sister Lucy), Adele had an intense desire to go her own way, build her own life and achieve her own dreams. So, despite her musical talent, she elected to pursue a degree in Medicine at the University of Glasgow. She packed away her stage persona, and settled down to a life of studying and exams. “I looked much like any medical student, conventional. You wouldn’t have noticed me in the street. I had shoulder-length, brown curly hair, I didn’t do make-up. As a med student you don’t have time.”
But, even while studying medicine, by anyone else’s standards a great achievement, Adele continued to write and perform when she had the chance. She still had a manager rooting for her success, and a fanbase in her friends and family who continued to support her music. Whilst at university in Scotland she made music with local groups, signed a record deal with EMI, appeared on Radio1Extra and began to perform in London, as a solo act. As a result of contacts she made there, she scored her first appearance in a published track – a track which became Chipmunk’s “Diamond Rings”, written for his first album. “We wrote the Chipmunk track and I thought nothing of it. Naughty Boy sent it off to Chipmunk who really liked it and wrote his stuff around it.” That album went to number 6 in the charts, and changed everything. With a tattoo of inspiration, Frida Kahlo, on her arm, she set out into professional music.
That same drive to succeed, to make a difference and to be her own person stirred again – this time in the opposite direction. Her father had encouraged her to value education and to take a secure career as a doctor as far as she could, now she needed his blessing to take her life in a different direction. Against the advice of her tutors, she was going to quit medical school with a degree in Neuroscience, and take up her singing career full time. “I’d reached a point where I had to follow my heart, my passion. Diamond Rings proved I had something, I needed to see it through. I called my dad and asked him what he would do and he told me to go for it.” Feeling her name was too similar to that of fellow rising star Adele, she adopted a stage name based on her middle name – Emily – and Emeli Sandé was born. With a tattoo of inspiration, Frida Kahlo, on her arm, she set out into professional music.
The next decade has been a whirl for the singer, winning awards left and right, performing at the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony. She has been on tour throughout the world, performing across the US and at the White House, in the Netherlands and in France – she has inspired other singers and songwriters in Scotland and around the UK to follow their dreams and keep making music, no matter where life takes them. Taking inspiration from singers, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman, she has never shied away from expressing raw emotion in her songs – believing it to be the most honest form of music.
Her first album, Our Version of Events, reflects her belief in honesty within her music – taking on a series of simple but deep concepts and spinning them into a series of tracks – Heaven, Next to me and Daddy. drawing from her own experience with struggle, adversity and faith, while trying to get into the music industry, but also positive experiences of the unconditional love and support of her family and ex-husband. These are very personal takes on many important issues which represented a raw debut for a first album.
It is perhaps not a surprise that such subjects form a repeating pattern in Emeli’s music, when we keep being drawn back to her status as an ‘outsider’, trying to make something for herself. From her music to her trademark shock of blonde quiff, to her wardrobe of jumpsuits and leather jackets – there is something individual and home grown about her that comes from this factor, and drives her music forward. From one of the only mixed-race girls in a small Scottish community, where her father was introduced in the local paper as the ‘African’ school teacher, to prominent support for Zambian causes such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS – her identity has remained important throughout. But that distinctiveness has, far from pushing her to fit in, sent her spiraling outwards to bigger and better things. With potential collaborations with a host of stars, including Beyonce and Jay Z, and the enthusiastic praise of Elton John – it’s no surprise that she was chosen to be honoured with an MBE – and only the next step in a long line of successes.