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Mica Paris: “I proved you can be in this business and not be a car crash”

The gospel queen looks back on a life brought up in the church, being a selfish teenager and clashing with record labels

My grandparents raised me in South London and I grew up in the church. I went seven days a week, it was very intense. So my childhood was full of lots of music and lots of Jesus. You say that to people and it sounds shocking. But actually it was really good. Pentecostal churches are very much community-based, and as I could sing I was the star of the church from a very early age. At every gospel concert, church service, I was called to sing. And I saw the amazed reaction of the people. Even at nine I knew if I held that note really long I was going to get that effect. That was my thing. When a kid sees that they’ve got a trick, a special something that keeps everyone glued to them, they’re going to want to do it again and again. So then I started to become quite popular in the Pentecostal church, which is a huge organisation. My grandmother and grandfather, they were just so proud of me. They used to take me all around the country.

I was very driven at 16. All my friends at school were getting pregnant, getting up to all sorts. And I remember thinking, oh my gosh, that’s the worst thing that could ever happen. My grandparents were very proud Jamaicans. They came over to the UK with the Windrush and they worked very hard to get us a five-bedroom Victorian house. They instilled in me, you never sign on, you must work. So being raised in that environment, with the church and all of that, my ethics were about having your independence and making your own money and not relying on anyone else. That was at odds with the kids that went to my school. Lots of them, their ambition was to sign on as fast as possible. Get that flat. Usually that meant having a kid, because if you had a kid you’d get a flat even quicker. That was the modus operandi for them, but for me that was just horror.

I left the church when I was 16, and my grandparents were mortified. It was a very, very tough struggle because remember I was the star of the church at that time. But in the years leading up to my leaving, my parents came to pick me up at weekends and my dad would play stuff in the car like Marvin Gaye and The Isley Brothers. And I thought, I have to change the music. I love gospel, it’s great, but I want to do that instead. So I’d been secretly listening to people like Marvin Gaye for years and then, oh my gosh, Prince came out. I had to hide his albums under my bed because they had women in G-strings on them. When I got to 16 I was already doing backing vocal sessions for bands and I was ready for a change in my life. I left the church and I moved to Brixton to live with my sister. My grandparents were traumatised.

Looking back, of course I was very selfish then, like every teenager. But I made peace with my grandparents many years ago. They were the most incredible people. When I was just 19 my first record [My One Temptation, 1988] blew up and everything went mental. I went to number seven in the charts, and my grandparents saw me on the telly. And they said, well, you know, she was right. Bless them, they used to wear my merch. They were so cute. They were just great people. People have always asked me, why didn’t you go down that mad route and mess up yourself? And it really was because of them. They were so terrified about what might happen to me in the music industry, I wanted to prove to them that you can be in this business and not be a car crash. You can actually survive this thing, though yeah, it is a bitch.

My first experience of even thinking about race was when I saw the TV show Roots, when I was about nine. We were all glued to it. But as a child, I just didn’t think about it much at all. Our family was very mixed. Jamaican people are very, very multicultural normally, because Caribbean countries are very mixed. At school there was a big mixture – Indian, Scottish, Irish, everybody. That’s multicultural Britain. So as a kid, I didn’t experience racism. But I have experienced it in my whole career. We’d have to sit here from now to June next year for me to tell you all the racist experiences I’ve had in my life. But I don’t believe in this victimisation thing, always talking about it, because that’s not constructive. I managed to forge a career regardless of those factors, which are very much in existence in every aspect of my industry.

I had a few clashes with my record label about my weight. When I was a teenager, I was very tall and leggy – I’m five feet 10. Then later, at the height of my career, I got married to an Irishman and had a baby. And that’s when I put on weight for the first time, as most women do. And I went back to the record company to talk about the next record and they said, you look like two people in one body. Do you know what size I was? I was a 14. It was ridiculous but at the time you’re just thinking, I’ve got to make my career great. So I started training and in two months it dropped off. If you see the album cover just after that, I have my bathing suit on. I never saw that happen to male artists. The pressure that women are under – and then there’s my race on top of that… that’s what I’ve been battling my whole life. You just have to fight harder. It’s a very male-dominated business. And those men have a very idealistic vision of what a woman should be. They don’t want you to speak in a certain way, they don’t want you to show intelligence. As a young artist, I had so many clashes with my label, because I’m very feisty. I’d just say, no, I’m not having it.

The thing I would say to my 16-year-old self is, you have no idea how right your grandparents are about the industry. It is like hell. They were so right about that. It was hardcore, it is really tough. Thanks goodness for my kids. They keep you straight man, they make me want to be a better person. They centred me in the madness of this industry. It’s up, down, up, down, and it’s very hard to survive. You have to consistently fight off everybody who’s trying to rip you off. You have to fight for your product to come out after you’ve spent so long making it. You have to be really passionate. Putting out a record, I always say it’s like being in Tesco at six in the evening, naked. Imagine that, because that’s what it really feels like when you put up a record that you’ve done yourself. It’s the most scary thing.

I credit being brought up in the church for getting me through the loss of my brother [in 2001 Jason, a postman, was shot dead]. This is the beautiful thing about church; it taught me to be selfless. About the importance of people looking after each other. When my brother went through that – and it was horrific – well, my very first thought was about trying to keep my mum from jumping in the grave with him. Because she was destroyed. So we were trying really hard not to lose her as well. After that my first instinct was, we’ve got to help other people who have gone through the same thing. I had a lot of publicity about it, so I used that platform and I found out about this thing called Trident [a Met Police anti-gun crime operation, which Mica has been an ambassador for since 2001]. That’s where I met all these mothers who’d had similar things happen to them. And it was so healing. And this is what I tell people all the time; when you’re going through any kind of crap, go and help someone go through their crap. It really helped me. You just can’t do it on your own.

Gospel According to Mica – The Story Of Gospel Music in Six Songs is on BBC Four on July 31