Music

Beverley Knight: 'My young black skin was politicised the day I was born'

She knew her future was in music, but never dreamed that the star of all the posters on her wall would one day join her on stage

Beverley Knight, UK soul singer

Beverley Knight. Image: Julian Broad

Beverley Knight was born in Wolverhampton in March 1973 to Jamaican parents. She grew up in a Pentecostal household and began singing in church as a child. She began writing songs at 13 and released her first album, The B-Funk, in 1995, which earned her the Black Music Award for Best R&B Artist the following year.

Second album, Prodigal Sista, gave Knight her commercial breakthrough in 1998, featuring five Top 40 hits (including Greatest Day, which reached No 14) and winning her three MOBO Awards including Best Album. Shoulda Woulda Coulda hit the Top 10 in 2002 and made that year’s album Who I Am her most successful to date, selling 215,000 copies in Britain. A string of successful albums followed, including 2006’s platinum-selling greatest hits album. Her newest album The Fifth Chapter comes out on 29 September.

In 2013, she moved into musical theatre, taking over the lead role in The Bodyguard – and has since been nominated for three Olivier Awards – winning in 2023 for Sylvia, in which she played Emmeline Pankhurst. She is an ambassador and campaigner for charities including Christian Aid, Stop AIDS and The Terrence Higgins Trust, for which she was recognised when she was awarded her MBE in 2006. 

Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to my Younger Self, Knight remembers growing up, an early obsession with music and performing with her hero.

You better trust and believe my passions were music. Music was one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. But I was also pretty sporty. That’s a lifetime thing, I love sport. I was doing a lot of athletics – 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump. All the things that taller people should do. I had these little legs that worked quickly. So I was well into my sport. Although we didn’t play football, because back then whoever heard of girls playing football, but I loved football, I’d watch boxing – following my dad. It was the era when boxing was at its height. But music and theatrical performance were absolutely everything for me.

I was already obsessed with Prince. The whole school knew I was this mental Prince fan. We did a student exchange about that age when I went to Lake Oswego High School in Portland, Oregon. A bunch of us were there for almost a month and then those kids came to us. I carried my Walkman with my cassette of Prince’s LoveSexy album, which had just been released. That was all I could listen to. Everybody else was listening to Bros but I was Prince, Prince, Prince. But I also loved Whitney, Aretha – so I was old school as well, listening to people who were not my generation, like Parliament and Funkadelic. I was like a mini-Paul Gambaccini – I was bang into it and didn’t care what the genre was.

My young black skin was politicised the day I was born. Politics was all around me. And party politics was all around me. We could not help but be embroiled in the socio-political politics of the day. Nicholas Budgen was our local MP; his predecessor was Enoch Powell. Holy shit! Horrible bloke. The Britain in which I lived was still struggling with how the hell to feel about ‘these people’ – meaning me and my mum and dad and my brother and my sister. We had riots in ’81. We had riots in ’85. It was a tough time.

Beverley Knight headshot
At the 1998 MOBO awards, where she won Best R&B Act. Image: Shutterstock

My Mum and Dad would encourage us to look at the news, see what was going on and see how the government of the day really felt about us. When the Nationality Act of 1981 came into power to make a distinction between me, who was born and raised in England, and my friends who were white who were born and raised in England but had roots in England stretching way, way, way back – to put a dividing line between us – my mum and dad saw the writing on the wall and naturalised themselves. Decades before the whole Windrush thing blew up, my parents saw the writing on the wall. That was a hostile environment.

Church music was absolutely essential in my musical development. Singing in church taught me how to deliver a message through music. It was not just singing at people, but thinking, how do I want the audience – or the congregation – to feel when I’m singing these words? How do I want the words to land and how do I do that with this instrument, this voice? Never mind all the technical stuff, that can come later, but how do you make people jump with joy or weep with ecstasy – and that’s what I learned.

I already knew that music was what I was going to do forever. I just knew it. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know the path, I knew nothing. All I knew was that this is what I’m going to do until I draw my last breath. I was utterly convinced of it. But for me, what was crucial is that everyone around me was also convinced of it. So we never questioned it. My own family sang. The extended family as well. I’d come to London during summers, to hang out with my cousins who all sang. I was always with music and absolutely encouraged – from school to church to everywhere.

My teenage self was larger than life and happy and mostly surrounded by good people. She knew she wasn’t a head turner. There were other girls at school who had that. I was very studious – my God, I was bookish, I still am a massive nerd – but she didn’t care. And she was everybody’s mate. People would come to her with their problems or if there was someone new coming into the school, I would make friends with them. She was just, Our Bev. In my own mind, that was who I believed I should be, and I understood the assignment and embraced it wholeheartedly. So in terms of my personality traits and what I had to offer people, I was absolutely comfortable. But in terms of what I looked like, I was not comfortable. Not in terms of my skin colour – I was completely comfortable with that and my heritage. I wore that like a badge of honour. But it’s that age when you always look at other girls and compare yourselves. So I was the nice one but not the pretty one – that’s how I saw myself.

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Wolverhampton was and is diverse. The thing that mostly distinguished people was money. Did you have it or did you not? Wealthy areas were diverse, ethnically; poor areas were diverse, ethnically. Mum and dad were immigrants who came here and worked hard in the NHS and a building business, which now, puts us, I guess, lower middle-class. I was the first person in my family to go to university.

Beverley Knight standing with hands on hips wearing black
Beverley Knight. Image: Julian Broad

My generation mucked in together, but my parents’ generation was still eyeing each other with a hell of a lot of suspicion. So when I was a child, we had some instances that were really not pleasant. Racial abuse. But as I got into my teenage years and I began to understand myself and my heritage and looked in the mirror with a sense of pride about where I come from, we pretty much all just got on. We lived through Thatcher’s governments, which we argued about massively – so I lived in a Britain that was in flux. The older generation were losing their damn minds, but we were alright.

As someone who is a visual minority, you learn to code switch very early on in life. So I’ve been doing that my whole life. There’s one way that I speak freely to my friends and family and then when I walk into certain spaces, I’m hyper aware of my colour, my gender, my sex. So I’m glad I had that sense, even then, to know that taking on higher education and seeing it right the way to the end was going to stand me in good stead. Not just because my mum and dad would have killed me for throwing away academia when I was clearly capable of it. But people look at you differently.

Honestly, I could cry. Especially in the 75th anniversary of Windrush I could literally cry. Oh, God, I can feel it coming. When I think about my mum and dad – my mum was 16 when she arrived in Britain in 1964. My dad was 20 – he arrived in 1959, with his brothers. All they knew of Britain was the textbooks. They’d never felt cold like it. They were ill-prepared and certainly not prepared for the hostility. Yet the resilience and the bravery to make that journey in the first place and then to stick it out because they knew they wanted to give their future unborn children the life that they didn’t have growing up – and the only way to do that was to establish themselves in Britain. A Britain who, let’s be real, did not want them there. I look back and think my god would I have been that brave? I do not know. But I adore what my parents did.

I soldier on the way I saw mum and dad soldier on. My resilience sticking at this crazy music career even with the challenges – especially when I first started out – I inherited from mum and dad. I saw my dad work hard, long hours. Of course, I saw that with my mum, but she was more of the nurturer in our family – she was a nurse and all that. But I’d seen my dad proper graft. And people appreciated his graft. He was known as the singing builder in Wolverhampton. “Oh, Eddie, he’s always singing on the job!” I took a lot from mum and dad. I didn’t always realise it, but I did.

Beverley Knight singing on stage
2023: Performing at Pride in Trafalgar Square, London. Image: Zefrog / Alamy Stock Photo

I’d tell my younger self that you’re on the right track. Stick with it. You are absolutely fulfilling your purpose in life. It’s not just that you want to sing, you’ve been put on the earth to sing. Do it and don’t let anybody dissuade you. But I’d have told her not to worry so much about whether you were the pretty girl or not because those things come in time – and if you believe something on the inside, eventually it makes its way to your whole demeanour. You carry yourself differently. I only learned that in the past 10 years.

As a younger person, I made truly terrible choices. Wow, I’m gonna go there. I’m gonna say it. Just past the age of 16, when I got to 17 or 18 and then all the way through uni and when I was young – I made truly terrible choices. From aggressive men to men who had violent streaks or possessive men. Because I didn’t see myself as being, perhaps, would I say worthy? No. I thought that the goodness in my heart could convince these guys that they didn’t have to behave that way towards me. Sadly, that’s not how it worked out. So I put myself through these relationships. You look back on them and it’s all a lesson. But there are some lessons I wish I never had to learn and some things I wish I didn’t have to endure.

It’s such a cliche, but I leaned on music so much. My self-worth, my expression, everything was bound up in my music. That was my outlet. And because it was this gift that fell into my lap, and I could share it with other people, it was also, if I’m honest with you – and I’m trying to be as real as I can here – people would see me sing a sad song and I think they could see more behind it than just the words. And I think they had sympathy for what I was going through. Not that I listened to anybody’s advice telling me to get rid of this person or get out of these relationships. I had to learn that on my own. Tale as old as time… Music really did help me to keep this sense of centre and self-worth. Even though I was in a relationship that was not honouring my worth at all.

I’d tell 16-year-old Bev that you need to guard yourself. Because you’re going to hear things said and assumptions made about you and your character and your ability, not to sing but to compose and make music that you are going to hate. And you’re going to hear people discuss your appearance in a way that will make you cry and turn your stomach. So guard yourself! Steel yourself for it. And make sure when you come through the other end, you can warn others who are coming after you.

If I could relive one day, it would be when I was 16 years of age. I’m in the middle of an American football pitch and I have been asked to sing the American national anthem. I was a student over there and they all learned very quickly – because I didn’t shut up – that I could sing. I’d sung in front of plenty of audiences but never sung to 15,000 people. And that’s what I did. I stood in the middle of that field with my microphone at a college game. In my head, I was telling myself this isn’t the last time. You’re gonna be doing this quite a lot.

If I could talk to one person who is no longer with us, I’d like to thank Tyrone who was my best friend. He died 20 years ago. He was only 31. It was Aids that got him. He set me on the path to losing my neurosis about my physical appearance. Before Tyrone, I wouldn’t wear short skirts, I wouldn’t wear this or wear that because I just didn’t think I had the right face or body. I just knew I was a great musician. I hyperfocused on that as a way of making up for what I believed I didn’t have… until I realised it was all in my head! It’s funny – it’s always a gay man who pulls out the woman in me! And Tyrone really helped me to the point now, at age 50, where I’m happy to wear little body stockings with feathers on stage and walk around.

Beverley Knight With her parents at Buckingham Palace
2007: With her parents to collect her MBE at Buckingham Palace. Image: Getty

If I told 16-year-old Bev that not only are you going to meet Prince, but you and him are going to share a stage – she’d have lost her entire shit completely. Because at this time, my walls had nothing but Prince posters on. You couldn’t see the wallpaper, which was lilac because mum wouldn’t allow purple. I’d have lost my entire mind. But if I told her one day you will be travelling around the globe, hearing people sing your lyrics back to you – I actually think, if I’m honest, at the risk of sounding like a big head, I think she’d have said: I knew that would happen. Because I was so I was so convinced that I was going to have this as a career.

I would also tell my younger self that you’re going to make your mum and dad so proud. Your dad is going to be proud to the point of tears because you’re going to end up going to ‘the Palace’ and getting a gong off the Queen. That made them so proud. They come from that era, that generation where those things were so important. It’s the only time I ever saw my dad in tears. So I treasure that. And I know it only happened because they were brave enough to take a leap of faith. So never stop taking leaps of faith because you never know where you might land.

The Fifth Chapter, the new album by Beverley Knight, is out 29 September. Beverley will be touring the UK in October and November

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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