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UK GARAGE OG NAY NAY: ‘I WAS DARK, SEXY, AND UNAPOLOGETIC’

Chris Zah

By Chris Zah

Chris Zah

25 Oct 2022

When talking about the history and evolution of Black British Music, it will be rightfully rare to omit the contribution of UK Garage. Ironically, when this musical staple is brought up, the backbone of the very movement is often glazed over – and that is the contribution of female vocalists, particularly black female vocalists. Nay Nay is the lead vocalist and co-writer behind one of the defining tracks of the Garage era, ‘Body Groove’. She talks us through her journey and gets candid on what it was like (and what it is still like) to navigate the music industry as a chart-topping, dark skinned black woman.

SO NAY NAY, TWO DECADES LATER AND ‘BODY GROOVE’ IS STILL PLAYING ON THE RADIO EVERY SINGLE DAY AND YOU’RE PERFORMING SELLOUT SHOWS. DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT AN IMPACT THIS RECORD WOULD MAKE?

I definitely knew it was a hit. I think every musician has that moment when you think ‘oh shit, we’ve got one’, but I didn’t think it would be this big. The reception I get from it to this day always amazes me. It’s nuts!

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE SONG THAT MADE YOU REALISE IT WAS A HIT?

It was a feeling. I remember being in the studio when the bass dropped. I was like ‘oii this might be the one’. We had a lot of fun making that record. We weren’t making music for numbers or streaming, we literally made that record crying real tears of laughter. Three MC’s were supposed to turn up and try out on the track they didn’t show up so Ashley (producer of the track and one third of The Architects) who sadly passed away two years ago, put on his shades and went into character and did the MC part. We were hyping it up thinking it was just for the demo but it was such a vibe that we kept it. I’ll never forget that day, it was hilarious and those good vibes definitely transferred onto the record.

TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU GOT TO BE ON THE RECORD

I used to be in an R&B band…

CALLED?

We had no name. We were put together. It was me, Ashley and two other girls. We were making R&B records, getting nowhere and one day Ashley came into Selfridges where I was working and said ‘I’ve got an idea for this new record and I want you on it’ and that was Body Groove.

SO YOU WERE A COMPLETELY INDEPENDENT BAND WHO MADE THIS RECORD? HOW DID IT BLOW UP?

Yes. We took it to every record label in the country and none of them showed any interest. Luckily the pirates got a hold of it and they blew it up for a whole year, then there was a bidding war.

DON’T YOU THINK THAT’S CRAZY THAT LABELS WOULDN’T GET BEHIND A PROJECT UNTIL IT GETS TO THE POINT WHERE YOU DON’T ACTUALLY NEED THEM?

Why would they ? Most labels don’t know what to do with black acts so you have to prove yourself – and even when you do there’s resistance. They pump loads of money into developing white acts but with black artists you only get one chance. You have to be the finished package and can’t make any mistakes.

With Body Groove, it superseded everyone’s expectations but the label still didn’t want to pump money into us, they still made us fight for everything. An A&R (not ours) actually said to my face in a meeting ‘dark skinned women just don’t sell records’. It really pissed me off! How can u make such such a blanket statement? The audacity to say that to someone who is just starting out is bang out of order.

YOU DEFINITELY PROVED THEM WRONG THEN

Definitely. The record did and still is here doing its thing. But there is still always a question mark over my head. It’s really frustrating and damaging being an artist in this country, specifically if you are a dark skinned woman.

YOU’RE VERY VOCAL ABOUT HOW WOMEN, SPECIFICALLY BLACK WOMEN ARE TREATED IN THE INDUSTRY. HOW ELSE HAVE YOU SEEN OR EXPERIENCED THIS MANIFEST?

The budgets are smaller. Marketing is safe or non-existent, you’re not really given time to develop or work on finding your sound. If you look at every black female that has tried to do r&b in this country it’s never given the same push. It’s bloody annoying and if you try to go against the grain or speak up, you’re immediately put into the ‘Diva’, ‘difficult’ or ‘hard to work with’ category. It’s exhausting! So you start to shy away from speaking up out of fear of being blacklisted. The gag is you’re blacklisted from the start anyway (laughs) because they never believed in you in the first place.

THEN THAT INITIATES A VICIOUS CYCLE.

It then proves the narrative that black vocalists male/female don’t sell. It’s why most acts go to America; Estelle, Ella Mai, Marsha Ambrosius (Floetry) and all of them have had major success! What does that tell you?

SO WHAT IMPACT DID THIS ALL HAVE ON YOU POST-BODY GROOVE?

For the second single (Show Me The Money), they didn’t give us enough budget and they just didn’t understand us. I definitely wasn’t happy and wasn’t feeling the song which I tried to protest but the boys didn’t want to go against the label so that caused friction between us.

SO THERE WAS JUST A CONSTANT BATTLE FROM THE GET GO?

Yes. What people need to understand is before UK Garage became a thing there were no all black groups doing this kind of music. Every British R&B band would always have to squeeze in a white member to ‘soften’ it so people could relate apparently. With us, the lead singer wasn’t white or caramel skinned. I was dark, sexy and unapologetic!

SO WAS IT YOUR DECISION TO SPLIT UP?

No, management decided to pull me out and go for a solo deal. Like most groups we just weren’t getting along and the other two were on a completely different page. They’re also brothers so they were going to stick together so I really didn’t stand a chance. The musical direction just wasn’t for me it was suddenly about what the record company wanted and not what we were creating. You have to be unified and I was constantly being thrown under the bus.

‘Show Me The Money’ didn’t do as well as the label wanted, even though it went in the top 20, which in today’s world is a big deal. At the time it was deemed a disaster! Imagine. But what was more frustrating was the fact that I told them the single wasn’t right. The follow up had to be bigger and better than Body Groove, but for me it felt like more of an album track. But because I was the front woman who do you think took the brunt of the failure? Me.

WHAT DID ALL OF THOSE NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES DO TO YOUR SELF ESTEEM?

When you come in at the top, create your own buzz, sell hundreds of thousands of records and exceed expectations – and you’re still given a low budget it makes u think ‘what else do I have to do’? Nothing was going to be enough.

WHAT OR WHO HELPED YOU THROUGH IT?

I did. There was no support system.

WAS THERE ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR YOU REMEMBER DOING FOR YOURSELF OR TELLING YOURSELF IN THOSE MOMENTS TO GET YOU THROUGH?

I remember thinking that you just have to keep going and I think that is what I’ve always told myself because you’re always going to be tested, doubted. This music game is not for the weak hearted. You have to have super self belief because no one is going to do it for you.

ALL OF YOU GARAGE OG’S SEEMED TO HAVE FORMED A LONG LASTING COMMUNITY. ARE YOU ALL STILL REALLY TIGHT?

Yeah (laughs) they’re my music family. I’m laughing because we’re such a mischievous bunch. We all look out for each other and there’s a bond we all share – we’re part of a genre that we created for us, by us. A Genre that broke boundaries and created the most number ones. We’re cemented in UK music history!

GARAGE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD THE IMPACT IT HAS HAD WITHOUT THE VOICES OF WOMEN LIKE YOURSELF. DO YOU FEEL YOU HAVE RECEIVED THAT ACKNOWLEDGEMENT?

Personally no. I don’t need validation, but do I feel acknowledged by the industry? No, not really. There isn’t a week that goes by that we’re not booked for a show -everybody loves a bit of UK ‘Garrige’ (laughs). We’ve kept the scene thriving for 20 years. The women in this scene have really put in the work. We’re going out every night, looking sexy, bringing the glamour and the glitz. But we don’t get held up as high as our male counterparts; the DJ’s and MC’s. 

DO YOU THINK THE INDUSTRY HAS CHANGED OR PROGRESSED AT ALL IN TERMS OF HOW IT TREATS BLACK PEOPLE AND WOMEN?

Yes and no. I think these new MCs and Drill artists are amazing and the mainstream circuit is seeing a lot more black faces which is heartwarming. But mix it up, change the subject matter. You can change the narrative and not perpetuate a stereotype that has already been written for you.

AND WHAT ABOUT FROM AN INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVE?

Again, no. There’s not any prominent black vocalists at the forefront. R&B is still non existent on mainstream platforms in this country but blue eyed soul is very much alive. Why is that ?

HOW DO YOU THINK THE UK GARAGE ERA HAS HELPED TO SHAPE MUSIC TODAY?

Funky house was a sub-genre of Garage. Grime evolved from Garage. Drill evolved from Grime. So I think it’s helped shape a lot.

YOU’VE PLAYED SOME OF THE BIGGEST VENUES AND MUSIC EVENTS IN THE WORLD. DOES ANY PARTICULAR ONE STAND OUT TO YOU?

Hammersmith Apollo, Royal Albert Hall which we sold out recently, and Kew Gardens were all stand outs. What a vibe! You’re missing out if you haven’t been to a show!

I CAN DEFINITELY VOUCH FOR THAT. THAT MUST BE A GOOD FEELING TO KNOW THAT SOME OF THESE HIGHLIGHTS FOR YOU ARE RECENT, SHOWING THAT YOUR HARD WORK IS PAYING OFF AND YOU HOLD A LOT OF RELEVANCE.

Definitely. Something else I will never forget was Party in the Park. We performed in front of 110,000 people. That feeling is something else. I will never forget all those people jumping up dancing to our track. That moment will stay with me forever. I remember Wyclef and Usher singing along and gassing us and I was like ‘okay this is ridiculous’.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MINUTE?

Lots of music. I’m taking my time. I released All Cried Out last year with Lady Leshurr and Scotty Stacks (The Manor) which was well received but I’m an R&B chick babe, you know me. So watch this space.

LAST QUESTION FOR YOU. IT’S A GENERIC ONE BUT I DON’T WANT A GENERIC ANSWER. WHAT’S ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’D LIKE TO GIVE TO ASPIRING MUSICIANS?

Stay authentic. Be authentic. Going into the studio and making music for TikTok and streams is not going to serve you in the long run.

If something doesn’t feel right don’t do it. Don’t be afraid to speak up or stand your ground because when it all goes wrong everybody moonwalks out and you’re left to pick up the pieces. Go back to your source and your talent. Have fun! But still remember this is not a game. You’re a commodity, it’s a business. There are no friends in the music business.

You can stream Nay Nay’s latest single ‘All Cried Out’ (dance and stripped version) below. 

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