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‘Black Girl Songbook’: Why Sade Still Means So Much

An excerpt from Episode 3, where Danyel Smith breaks down the legacy of Sade with help from singer Estelle

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Welcome to Black Girl Songbook. Join author and former Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith as she celebrates and uplifts the talents of Black women in the music industry. Tune in for in-depth discussions with your favorite songwriters, producers, and artists, as well as anecdotes from Danyel. Plus, you’ll hear the songs of Black women who changed the landscape of American music forever. Below is an excerpt from Episode 3, which traces the legacy of Sade with help from Estelle.

We could really devote a whole season of Black Girl Songbook to Sade. Aside from singing her blues and our blues for close to four decades, Sade has sold more than 60 million albums since the early 1980s. Her songs— “Smooth Operator,” “Is It a Crime,” “Sweetest Taboo,” and so many more have been played on the radio and streamed gazillions of times. Sade, a Nigerian girl raised in England, has won the Grammys: four of them. She has done the global tours—impeccable always, with seats sold out time and again. There’s even the Lovers Live album from 2002. It’s worth your time immediately. It’s worth it alone for the live version of “Somebody Already Broke My Heart.”

Sade has meant everything to me in every decade of my adult life. And in my 20s, her key to my whole psyche was “When Am I Going to Make a Living.” Every single lyric spoke to me and for me. When she sings: “We’re hungry but we’re going to win”? That got me up out of my bed, and really up out of grimy situations, and helped keep me on track toward my dreams of being some type of writer. I hadn’t even started calling them “goals” yet. Yet Sade was pushing me along with no judgement and all love.

And then when I was in my 30s it was “King of Sorrow” because that’s who I was. And even from the depths of despair—divorce and such—the strength and audacity of Sade calling herself a “king” of anything—it was a stunt! It was uplifting. I was at the bottom of a well on so many days, and Sade was a voice from the light. Like, grab the rope, sis. Hop on the bucket. We are gonna pull you up here. In the pre–“therapy is normal for Black people” days, I needed help out of my confusion. How does one become an adult with a life that works and matters? But while I was dealing with undiagnosed depression, my 30s were not all tears and fears.

I was leading Vibe. I had boyfriends and things. Outside of Sade my theme songs were Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” “Lost Ones” from Lauryn Hill, Mase’s “Feel So Good,” and “No, No, No” from Destiny’s Child. We were rich with music. I was busy. My hometown is Oakland, California. Obviously the best city in the entire world. We all know that. We can move on. Mine was a working-class situation. In retrospect, it was a complex situation, as far as family dynamics. But sometimes it was kind of an idyllic situation.

On a lot of weekends, when I was a tween, I was picking blackberries in my great-grandmother’s backyard. I listened to a lot of music on the radio. I was all about the Spinners. I was all about my favorite Jackson 5. I was all about Gladys Knight and the Pips. In truth though, I grew up wild quick. Toughened up real fast. I found some safety, I guess, enjoying R&B and soul and pop. I was way into Shalamar and my favorite Jody Watley. I thought Jody Watley was every single thing.

It’s funny though. When you’re a kid, a teen listening to music, you don’t think it’s going to be your music for the rest of your life. After high school, I spent 10 years back in the Bay Area. Picture me, the smart girl at UC Berkeley. Picture me, the broke girl dropping out of UC Berkeley. I started writing professionally, though, and that changed me completely. I started getting paid to write, and I was on the way to the rest of my life. I set big goals for myself. Which brings me back to Sade. Yes, we land on Sade after all of that. Because while the emotion of her music and the romance in her music makes me love her songs, it’s Sade’s ambition that inspired me back then. And I guess that’s what we’ve been talking about so far, is ambition. Mine, anyway. I just love how Sade lives her life, and that makes me a fan of hers forever.

Here she is, talking to the legendary BET host Donnie Simpson. This was around the time of her first album. Sade is talking about how she worked on becoming Sade.

Get success. I remember when what I wanted most was to get success. I was feeling Sade’s vibe before I even knew she said this to Donnie Simpson. She’s pretty explicit about her mindset in “When Am I Going to Make a Living.” “Gotta wake up and tell yourself,” she says, “There’s no end to what you can do / They’ll waste your body and soul if you allow them to / This is time to start believing in yourself / Put the blame on no one else.” This meant so much to me, and to so many of us who were trying to come into our own.

To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to subscribe on Spotify for new episodes every Thursday. This excerpt has been edited and condensed.