Speech Debelle: Speech Therapy

It might not be for everyone but don't get it twisted, Speech Therapy is an album you want and need to hear.

Speech Debelle

Speech Therapy

Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2009-08-18
UK Release Date: 2009-06-15

Speech Debelle more than has her work cut out for her. First and foremost, she's a woman trying to make it in the rap game, which we all know is not the easiest battle. Most female rappers propelled into the mainstream find themselves there either because of their connections or for how little clothing they wear -- or, in the case of Lil' Kim, a combination of both. It wasn't always this way, though. Remember the days when Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were respected solely for their work? They might be held in the same light today, but female rappers continue to struggle to break ground in the way their male cohorts find so easy. But I'm 100 percent certain that will change as the years continue to chug along, especially with the likes of Jean Grae, Invincible, Tiye Phoenix, Boog Brown, and many others continuously making fantastic music. And while some will argue Missy Elliot deserves a spot on that list -- and she does -- I have a difficult time classifying her as solely "hip-hop" as I would those others.

But then, making it perhaps equally difficult to break out in the states, Debelle hails from the U.K. As if you already didn't know, few rappers from across the pond have found success here. Of course, the finest example is Slick Rick, the eye-patch wearin', accented emcee who stands as one of the genre's living legends. But Slick, like MF DOOM, moved to the U.S. at a young age. So if you take them out of the equation, you're left with very few true "crossover" acts. Lady Sovereign had one hit (maybe two, but I wasn't paying attention). The Streets gets a lot of love. How often do you really hear him aside from some knowledgeable listeners' playlists? Then there is Dizzee Rascal, who has had some success here and there with his latest album Maths + English being distributed by underground heavyweight label Definitive Jux. But that brings me to my next point: Many of these guys and gals are stricken to solely underground appreciation. Other examples of these acts include Funky DL and Roots Manuva, both talented but rarely heard on this side of the Atlantic.

And somewhere in the middle of all of this resides Speech Debelle, a talented newcomer who is sure to absolutely wow some listeners with her debut Speech Therapy. Her lyrical game and delivery resembles a pleasant combination of the talents of Blu and Roots Manuva. Like those two emcees, she wears her heart and almost every other organ on her sleeve for all to see (and hear). She treats you, her listener, like a close friend's shoulder as she details her life's troubles and achievements across this sometimes breathtaking, sometimes lacking album. But that's not to say she is whiny or "emo", as some folks like to describe anything with slight emotional qualities. Instead, she opens herself up to you and everyone who gives her disc a spin. And she is also as "hip-hop" as any emcee out there, especially when she references such street classics as "Shook Ones Pt. 2" on her gorgeous opening-track, "Searching".

Like many artists of her kind, Debelle is most comfortable spitting narratives that mostly remain on the darker side of life. With her soft yet demanding voice, she opens up on the downtrodden and inspiring "Better Days". The track is a haunting piece of beauty sure to captivate anyone who listens. And you cannot deny that lush production and the spooky hook from ghastly-voiced Micachu. Likewise, she waxes poetic on the reggae-ish "Daddy's Little Girl", a devastating tale of her never-there father who's absence made Debelle, in her words, "tough". She displays that chip-on-her-shoulder attitude on "Go Then, Bye", a kiss-off of a break-up anthem that anyone with even the slightest bitterness can feel. Typically, you would think that such topics could become boring or possibly repetitive. But the production on here is so flat-out fantastic that you will at least enjoy what's playing behind Debelle if you aren't exactly feeling what she's spitting. The production is akin to a musical kaleidoscope featuring everything from acoustic guitars to orchestral strings to jazzy drums to upbeat brass. In other words, thank you Wayne Lotek, Plutonic Lab, and the talented musicians who helped craft such beautiful songs.

Even overly-done tracks, like the shitty-job anthem "Working Weak", remain fresh thanks to Debelle's storytelling. You don't just hear what she is saying, you feel it. She transports you to her world so effectively it's almost scary. You can picture yourself in each situation, from calling her boss an "a-hole" to picking up her check. The same could be said for "Finish This Album", another stellar track. It will likely send chills down your spine if you share Debelle's high aspirations for life. And it will hit even harder if you've sacrificed, hit walls, lost your faith, and, as she says, "hit the bottom of the barrel." But even with all that pain, you somehow have maintained a positive outlook to grow and one day finish whatever it is you have set out to do.

But Debelle's efforts become bogged down by meandering tracks featuring hooks that feel tacked on and unnecessary. Or it's simply that the tracks themselves aren't up to snuff as a whole. For a failed hook and corny sentiments, look no further than the Michael Franti & Spearhead-esque "Spinnin'" that falls short of reaching the same kind of positive vibes as "Live & Learn". Equally not worth your time is "Wheels In Motion", which features the aforementioned Manuva on the hook. Also working against Debelle is her voice. After repeated listens, her somewhat-squeaky, static flow can become monotonous as she rarely switches her cadence or tone. And as any Gang Starr fan knows, even the most captivating monotone emcee can become tiresome.

For the majority of Speech Therapy, though, Debelle keeps you engrossed. Her aforementioned tales of woe, heartache, and unrelenting positivity, amongst other topics, are ones that will leave you thinking about your own life as much as you contemplate hers. She's a special talent who is primed to make something of herself with a little more polishing. But don't get it twisted: Speech Therapy is an album you want and need to hear.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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