Subculture Unsung: Lady Sovereign

A look at Louise Harman's artistic output

Thursday 4th April 2019

A fiercely independent artist with a DIY ethic. A pioneer of self-publishing across digital platforms from the age of 15. A young female artist that challenged the conventional gender stereotypes marketed by the music industry. The first non-American female to get a deal with Def Jam. One of the first musicians to bring UK grime from underground to mainstream. It would be easy to hang these descriptions onto lots of artists from the last 10 years or so, but as we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century Lady Sovereign is a name some may have forgotten.

While Ms. Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal received Mercury Prizes for their lauded contributions, when many were still getting used to the fact that the '90s were over, Lady Sovereign's outspoken brand of grimy rap attracted more than its fair share of derision. It wasn't just highbrow critics and label execs who couldn't see the value, artistic or monetary, in Lady Sovereign's output. In an interview with Newsweek in 2006, Lady Sovereign (AKA Louise Harman) stated that her uploads to outlets such as Channel U attracted comments such as "You're white. You're a girl. You're British. You're crap".

Her debut single 'Sad Arse Stripah' parodied the track 'Bad Ass Strippa' by rapper and model Jentina in typical Sovereign fashion. With lines such as "I seen more ghetto in posh spice's stiletto" and "I saw you drivin a Nissan Sunny down Peckham way" her irreverent approach was matched by her irreverent sense of street style that seemed to draw as much from the casuals' terrace wear as it did the contemporary urban and new rave movements. It seemed that while people were ready for the birth of Youtube, they weren't quite ready for a female rapper from Wembley Park with a side ponytail.

Early singles such as 'Blah Blah' were released side by side with free downloads of freestyled material. Sovereign appeared on the compilation 'Run the Road', both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with The Streets on 'Fit But You Know It'. 

A more surprising collaboration came about when one of the period's more shortlived British indie revival bands, The Ordinary Boys, reworked her song '9 to 5'.

By the end of 2005, Lady Sovereign looked set to achieve one of the music industry's holy grails - breaking America. Support slots with Gwen Stefani and a famous meeting with Jay-Z and Usher resulted in her securing a deal with Def Jam and in turn her debut LP 'Public Warning' with its singles including 'Love Me Or Hate Me' and her own version of '9 to 5'. By 2006 she was appearing at Coachella. Songs like 'Hoodie' were social commentary, addressing the attitudes towards young people wearing the item of clothing of the same name and the mainstream media's sensationalist reaction to the trend.

In late 2008 Lady Sovereign revealed that her second album was ready to go, this time via her own label Midget Records. In an interview with The Quietus, she stated "I get to pick who I want to work with. No one can tell me off or make me do things because I'm the boss. It feels amazing. I've got my own label and everything works my way." 

The album was heralded by the song 'I Got You Dancing' which was given away free through her Myspace.

The album's first and last proper single was 'So Human' in 2009. One of Sovereign's most interesting tracks, based on The Cure's 'Close To Me' and boasting Robert Smith as one of its producers. Perhaps misinterpreted by some reviewers as novelty pop, the song took a trademark Sovereign swipe at media and industry expectations with its video sending up red carpet interviews and magazine covers of the moment.

The lines "I got a little temper but I'm a funny one yeah... You should of seen me running out the studio like forest gump" seemed sadly prophetic as it was the last release from the Lady Sov camp.

As well as her wit and musical output, Lady Sovereign also joins the like of Bobby Gillespie on a list of honourable musicians who have decided to call time on Neil, Abbott and Portillo's fun on BBC's 'This Week', when she walked out before a planned appearance on the ill-fated show. Like her former collaborator Samuel Preston, It was perhaps an ill-judged appearance on Big Brother that overshadowed her artistic output. While her contemporary female artists such as Lily Allen and Kate Nash are still playing the game in their own different ways, Lady Sovereign's achievements are due for some celebration and reinvestigation. 

A decade after Sov went quiet there seems to be a change in the air. A new wave of fiercely independent young British female artists is challenging the music industry's ideas about gender representation and forcing audiences to consider alternatives to the standard four-piece band of white males. It's a pleasing idea to think that some of these had a seed planted in their mind's as children listening to Lady Sovereign, looking up to her as a hero.

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