Jay-Z signs a rapper who's white,
British and female
Three strikes, she's in
Lady Sovereign — white, British and female — shakes up the rap rules.
By Chris Lee
Special to The Times
December 17, 2005
In ways both minor and profound, the British rapper Lady Sovereign is
defined by contradictions
Although the MC (real name Louise Harman) has bestowed upon herself a
hip-hop honorific bespeaking supreme rank and unassailable authority,
she grew up poor in London's Wembley housing projects to working-class
And despite her porcelain complexion and U.K. pedigree, she forswears
the Queen's English in favor of a lilting Jamaican patois and a vocabulary
of street slang and made-up words in song.
Most telling, Lady Sovereign — who turns 20 on Monday — has commanded
stages from Brixton to Montreal, standing a mere 5 feet 1 while grandly
proclaiming her unique worldview "big midget style."
Seated in an upstairs booth at Hollywood's CineSpace club this week at
the tail end of a month-long tour of the U.S. and Canada, and dressed
in an Adidas track suit that was several sizes too large, she appeared at
least half a dozen years younger than she really is.
"I've had people think I'm 14," she said exasperatedly. "At a couple of
shows, I've come to do a sound check and they say, 'Sorry, you're not
allowed.' They think I'm just a kid."
Make that a kid with a major league recording contract. In November,
rap superstar-turned-label President Jay-Z signed Harman to Island Def Jam.
Although Ms. Dynamite, a U.K. rapper of African descent, released an
album on Interscope in 2003, and Sri Lankan MC M.I.A. currently has an
album out on the Interscope-distributed XL label, Sovereign is the
first British-born white woman rapper to land a deal with a major American
label — let alone hip-hop's most venerable imprint, Def Jam.
"She's a white female English rapper. That makes her different from
every MC out there," said Rob Stevenson, her Island Def Jam artists and
repertoire executive. "Everyone's interest is piqued."
Although Sovereign has been favorably compared to Eminem for her
ribald, autobiographical, take-no-prisoners rhyme style — she jokes in her
songs about drinking too much, getting kicked out of school and losing her
virginity — she resists being identified as the riot grrrl version of
"I'm the best thing since sliced bread — no, Eminem," Harman raps on
her song "Ch Ching." "Feminem? Nah. Sovereign? Yeah."
According to Marvin "Seven" Bedard, owner of Chocolate Industries, the
Chicago-based independent label that released Sovereign's "Vertically
Challenged" EP last month, her ability to communicate specifics about
her experience sets her apart from other rappers.
"She's a direct product of where she's from," Bedard said. "She isn't
trying to project anything. She's like, 'This is who I am.' It's never
a facade to be anything else."
Already a fixture on Britain's "grime" music scene — a street-smart
English sub-genre that draws influences from dancehall reggae, hip-hop,
punk and drum-and-bass — she has become a darling of bloggers and
But Sovereign's status as a Lady may be her most distinguishing
characteristic. In an era when women have been marginalized as rappers,
Harman's Island Def Jam deal is hardly business as usual. Moreover,
with Lil' Kim sentenced to a year and a day in prison for perjury and the
recent revelation that Foxy Brown has lost hearing in both ears, her
female competition has been seriously diminished.
Harman stops short of calling herself a feminist, but she has strong
opinions about the problem with most female rappers.
"You can see in the music that they're trying to follow in the
footsteps of guys because that's what's successful," Harman said. "But it's like, 'Come on! Have your own opinions.' "
"There are a lot of talented females out there, but the record
companies are looking for a pretty face," she continued. "They're not all glam.
They're 'hood rats like me. Especially the female MCs from the U.K.
that I know — they're not showing off."
Harman's hip-hop career started as a bedroom hobby just more than three
years ago. She posted some 30-second audio snippets of herself
freestyling onto a self-made website, which in turn was linked to other
underground grime URLs. She also "wormed" her way into performing
"If someone I knew was DJing, I'd be like, 'Please let me come get on
the mike,' " she remembered. "I'd have to beg. I'd do small little outdoor
festivals with 10 people watching me."
The rapper also worked odd jobs such as filling doughnuts and selling
windows door-to-door. But after cutting several "white label" DJ
singles and releasing songs through an independent U.K. label, Casual Records, she built an in-the-know following and triggered a bidding war at home.
"All the major labels were after me: Sony, Parlophone, Island,
Universal — and I had no management," Harman said. She eventually signed a deal with Universal.
Last August, Island Def Jam's Stevenson brought Harman to the attention
of Jay-Z, who flew her from London to New York.
"I must have been star struck," Harman said of Jay-Z. "I grew up
listening to him and he's a legend."
Stevenson recalled the encounter differently.
"It wasn't the dream meeting where she nailed it and left with the
record deal," he said. "It was a nightmare."
By happenstance Jay-Z's pal, R&B phenom Usher, decided to sit in along
with Island Def Jam Chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid. When Jay-Z requested
Harman "spit a rhyme" on the spot, their presence overwhelmed her.
"Here's this girl who has come from nothing, not a world traveler, and
she's sitting in Jay's office and he's asking her to freestyle,"
Stevenson said. "And then Usher came in. I watched the blood drain from
Even though she had apparently blown the audition, Harman eventually
won over label honchos with her combination of teenage blitheness and
can-do determination. She quickly assembled a band and dazzled at an industry showcase.
These days, a host of hip-hop's biggest producers are getting in line
to collaborate with the self-described "multitalented munchkin." Her album
is due in early summer.
Appearing somewhat exhausted on the eve of her final tour date, and
complaining of mild whiplash after riding a roller coaster at Knott's
Berry Farm earlier in the day, Lady Sovereign has no intention of
rethinking her game plan — to the extent that there ever was one.
"I don't think forward. It's dangerous," Harman said, glancing at her
signature gold sovereign coin ring. "You get expectations and if it
doesn't happen, it'll bash you up on the way.
"If you take it as it comes, it's more comfortable. That's how I've
been doin' it since Day One."