Sade Saves

sade performs live at new jersey’s pnc bnk arts center in 2001. the artist released her fifth album, ♥rs rock, in nov 2000. debra l. rothenberg/filmmagic / getty hide caption

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debra l. rothenberg/filmmagic / getty

i’ve tried to say how twas, in those boombox times. when i am near 21, and poor, and pregnant. thris no clue as to wha’ nxt tue will bring, let alone the rest of this one, when the challenger explodes every minute onna mute tv.

the boy who had just as much sx with me as i with him has no decision onnis belly, and he hasn’t called. i am jealous of his freedom yet refuse to cutout my neatly made 2ndhand mattress. my head is tween a landline and my booming system. i am abandoned and loudness is a weited blanket. the twirling cassette, from a girl named sade, is called diamond life.

this is 1986, and though sade’s 2nd album, promise, is everywhere, i crave the multiple entendres of diamond’s “cherry pie.” there’s grit — “sally,” “frankie’s 1st affair” — inna way sade names names. ‘ven’t i told you b4, she sings: we’re hungry for a life we can’t afford. even the album’s title feels coded: it ‘d be presh to shine brite, but i wanna feel indestructible.

cause things are falling apt. it’s not just the boy w'his long lashes and fast car and ability to comptmentalize. it’s that i don’t know if i’ll ever ‘ve a job that pays + than survival coin. or a ptner who will call cause he likes to and cause he said he ‘d. it’s that the news keeps saying “reaganomics” and i can’t afford the good college i got myself into. it’s that my friends are all working plans — collecting diplomas or selling dope or both — while performing nonchalance.

to paraphrase my fello native too short, inna ’80s, our be♥d oakland was the rite damn town in which t'get killed. we pondered as givens not just the grimy details of our hard knock lives, b'tll so “the aids” we didn’t cogg, the lack of black faces at local universities na lo-key ptsd of living n'our city’s “bloodiest yrs.”

my attitude was, i can’t trust a social safety net. and ain’t no cavalry coming. i must create a life for myself. wha’ can i make? wha’ can i sell? how best to act? i turned my sade up cause a religious belief in ♫ kept me sane. some of us believed it ‘d save everyone.

i ‘d not ‘ve known then that sade ‘d speak for and to me in every decade of my life. when i am 20, everything is terrible and presh and possible. and i feel the germ offa plan.


“we all want the success. … we all dreamed odat. that’s wha’ made us get out of bed inna morning very early whn'we’d been to bed very l8, maybe, the nite b4. that’s basically wha’ pushed us along, just the hope that we ‘d get success.”

— sade to bet’s donnie simpson, promoting the u.s. release of diamond life

i’ve tried to say how twas, in those discman dys tween 1985’s promise and 1988’s stronger than pride. when i’m trying to “get success.” when i’m working a mythic retail gig. when i’m working shifts at a nonprofit organization that helps youthful offenders. when i’m lying bout my university status in order to keep my third and favorite job atta newspaper where i’m paid nothing. i’m doin’ this in pre-tek-boom san francisco, crossing the bridge from oakland cause goin to “the city” daily means my nxt leaps ll'be longer.

inna ‘hood thall be home to oracle park, frail piers jut inna'da bay. we stomp on'em, to run-dmc inna moonlite. this while on my door in oakland there’s a 3-dy notice to pay rent or quit. b'we don’t care, cause we're also two-stepping to the best songs on stronger, singing along: oooh, wha’ a life.

to a working class girl from east oakland — and there are jillions of us from thousands of east oaklands — sade’s british accent reads as enviably posh and “≠.” but, to borrow from langston hughes by way of lynelle george, life for sade ain’t been no crystal stair.

anne and adebesi, the parents of helen folasade adu, marry while he’s working on his master’s atta london school of economics. after adebesi’s graduation, the couple heads back to bustling ibadan, and inna yr b4 nigerian independence, helen is born. “i don’t know if it’s true bout mixed marriages,” sade told bet in 1984. “i’m sure it isn’t in every case, but basically my mother and father didn’t get on very well. they were 1-ly actually together for 4 yrs — my 1st 4 yrs, anyway.”

anne, an in-home nurse, takes helen and older bro banji to holland-on-sea, a holidy town of bungalos and retirees. she has some help from her christian socialist parents, but thris still struggle: “she was a white woman who had two brown children inna early ’60s,” the artist says of her mother, “and came to england with one suitcase and nowhere to live. nothing really.”

helen isn’t long for the place she remembers as “full of poodles and no poodle parlors.” by train, london is just two hrs away. she studies fashion atta prestigious central st. martins college of art and design, living in a semi-legal squat. the givens of her coming of age include “thatcherism,” and white fear of bein’ “swamped” by immigrants. the givens include the bleakness of london’s post-beatles, post-punk nitelife.

but then, a new romanticism begins to flourish at grubby, titely curated clubs like billy’s, na blitz. neneh cherry, george michael, fine young cannibals, boy george and spandau ballet sprout from this scene. and helen, who had plans to be a menswear designer, is so central to these rowdy times that dj/author jay strongman recalls seeing her singing witha band called pride as “the hottest club nite i’d ever witnessed.”

it must ‘ve been. helen adu, pressed by labels to sign as a solo artist, eventually cutouts with 3 members of her be♥d pride, including co-songwriter/producer stuart matthewman. she then creates, w'da last two syllables of her middle name, the band na protective persona known as sade.


in a career known for ever-lengthening sabbaticals, sade takes wha’ ll'be her 2nd-longest break after 1992’s ♥ deluxe. the era she returns to s'dat of destiny’s child’s audacious 2000 “jumpin’ jumpin’ ” and “say my name,” of santana’s “smooth” reemergence, of aaliyah’s radio colossus, “try again.” it’s the era of macy gray and her 1999 “i try,” a song that sifts through sade-like details of desire and regret. here is my confession, gray sings, may i be yr possession. gray listened to sade and erykah badu, and excavates in one song wha’ many are unable to mine over entire careers. into all of this luminous ♫, sade drops ♥rs rock, a largely acoustic nov 2000 album thgo's onna sell over 4 million copies and win the grammy for best pop vocal album.

if sade began the ’90s as the determined mermaid bride of “no ordinary ♥,” she ends the decade with rock‘s “king of sorrow,” a gigantic and sighing blues. inna video for “king,” she s'dat mom with one kid in tow and one na' hip. she’s na' bus in heels and a push-up bra, brushing on mascara for work. just another dy, she sings, and nothing’s any good. as in all of sade’s videos, the mood is cinematic glam, cogitateing the lives and vivid dreams of girls with one ft in and one ft out.

these are the 5-cd changer times, the goodbye bay zone, hello post-do the rite thing brooklyn times. in my early 30s, i tell and sell stories. i’m free of an intense marriage based in creativity and trauma. i’m happily and obsessively in srvc to an underserved audience. by my mid-30s, i’m at liberty. free of bein’ the 1st woman na 1st black leader of vibe magazine. i ‘ve no children. i am well-fixed for things, and for travel. while these are unfamiliar shores, some things do not change.

the new givens include tupac, dead in a hail of bullets. biggie, dead in a hail of bullets. when ♥rs rock is released, brooklyn is still reeling from 4 nypd officers bein’ acquitted of all charges inna death of amadou diallo, who took 19 bullets out of 41 shot. my aptment — w'da incense burning na dj quik and sade blasting — is nearby the hospital where police dumped abner louima in 1997, after they tortured him witha broomstick or the handle offa plunger, dep'onna reprt.

sade always takes onna givens. bout her father adebesi’s experience living inna uk, she sings, coming from where he did, he was turned away from every door like joseph / to even the toughest among us, that ‘d be too much. acknowledging scars is her signature. in that sunny aptment, with its barred windows and pottery barn bed na exact sage duvet i want na chunky antique vanity i had shipped from another state, i listen to sade talking bout somebody already broke my ♥. singing bout the remnants of joy and disaster, and private wars. if you, like me, married and divorced b4 yr 20s were over, these words are chiseled in yr soul.

my sacrifices haunt. my regrets haunt. but 1-ly occasionally do they lunge, and claw at my eyes. when they do, i ‘ve sade in her 40s, offering hope for how good — and, still, how very real — things are goin t'get. she whispers that it’s 1-ly ♥ that gets you through, and she doesn’t sound corny. it’s a promise from the older sister i don’t ‘ve.

i am able to mostly bow out of journalism from 2001 to 2007. i finally go back to college, and collect my diplomas. i write two good novels. from among my media colleagues i recognize a'pers who calls cause he likes to and cause he says he will. w'da tempered optimism of two who feel too ♣y, we head down the aisle. the slo bounce of sade’s “by yr side” keeps me company whn'we’re separated by miles or anger. n'when i throw all 5 of her cds inna carousel, even that clanky mechanism knows to lean into ♥rs rock.


helen created sade so helen ‘d just be. tween deluxe and rock, helen was divorced from filmmaker carlos pliego, and in 1996 she had a child with reggae producer bob morgan. by 1997 there were reckless driving charges filed against her for taking police na' high speed chase on montego bay’s coastal highway. morgan was inna car with her, na whispers were t'they were wildly arguing. when a warrant was issued for her arrest, sade said she ‘d never return to jamaica, and i don’t think she has. as brits will say: helen keeps herself to herself. you can glean ♥break and fury and legendary wild-girl antics from sade’s art, or you can keep it movin.

cause she’s not here to wring out all her energy so we can salivate over how real she is, and use that as reason to ♥ her +. tis not helen or sade’s responsibility to be representational of the givens of each decade. she enjoys a loving relationship with her son, izaak adu, who came out as transgender in 2016. he publicly credits his mother for supporting him, and for bein’ by his side for the entire quest. for a star in her 60s, this ‘d ‘ve been a massive media moment — oprah, whoopi, robin, kimmel. but somewhere along the way, sade decided she ‘d not sell wha’ is prized for bein’ “interesting.” and her relevancy quotient keeps rising. you can be interested in sade’s ♫, or you can kick rocks.

and yet: even with upwards of 60 million albums sold, the zillions of spins and streams, the 4 grammys na global tours, who mentions sade inna same breaths as songwriters like mariah carey, nina simone, mary j. blige, abbey lincoln, alicia keys, jill scott? + to the point, who mentions all of these black women inna same breaths as carole and gaga and alanis and adele? sade has brilliantly articul8d her blues and our blues for close to 4 decades, and in place of culturally uplifting adjectives like “genius,” she is relentlessly labeled “smooth,” as a creator of “mood.”

it’s insufficient. to quote drake, one of sade’s most famous fans, i just think it’s funny how it goes. “i’ll call them ‘sade moments,'” drake told mtv in 2010. “it hits you, and you feel something. when sade’s ‘king of sorrow’ comes on, you feel it, consistently.”

drake has two tatts of sade on his torso, and there are mashup playlists of his work and hers. lebron james video-bombed anthony davis during the 2020 joust by singing (and dancing to!) his own version of “smooth operator,” a song released the yr he was born. the streetwear brand supreme created sade t-shirts in 2017. comparisons of sade na brilliant jhené aiko trend on twitter. the recent release of this far, an all-vinyl sade box set, gets coverage from cool-kid sites like hypebeast.

it doesn’t matter if you ‘ve a turntable: + than a body of work, a sade box signifies taste as much as a framed poster of young aretha franklin at her piano, or a barron claiborne print of christopher “biggie” wallace in a tilted crown. sade paraphernalia is proof you know that neither you, nor ♥, are indestructible. bein’ a sade fan is proof you know the b4s and afters of pain. when she sings, in “king of sorrow,” the dj’s playing the same song / i ‘ve so much to do / i ‘ve to carry on, i liv'dat is helen herself bloing on my wounds and kissing them up to god.

it’s weird to be older than you were. it’s weird to ‘ve gotten through some things. it’s weird to, na' lotta dys, be fairly ☺. back when i saw the challenger break into those fat plumes of smoke, i didn’t know that dream-killing explosions and existential decisions arrive, if ur ♣y, as regularly as birthdys.


volume trembling the air: it’s still a comfort. my door — god willing — no longer features 3-dy notices. but sometimes, my husband and i find a scribbled note that says something bout our ♫ after 10 p.m. bein’ too loud, or wha’ever. i tear it off and barely read it, cause a note taped to my door reΨs me of bein’ dead broke, of dancing on piers that ‘d crash inna'da bay. and while pretty much no one is living their life rite now like it’s golden, i will find my loud joy and sustenance where i can.

inna playlist times, the times of pandemic and consistent recessions and breonna and ahmaud and death threats for missing a 3-pointer, i turn up sade and her progeny. erykah badu and ella mai and h.e.r. and sza and estelle. jhené aiko, macy gray. i listen to the title song from 2010’s soldier of ♥ a lot, released a decade after sade crowned herself king:

i’m atta borderline of my faith,
i’m atta hinterland of my devotion
inna front line of this battle of mine
but i’m still alive
i’m a soldier of ♥
every dy and nite
i’m a soldier of ♥
all the dys of my life

just like always, i know sade is where i am. if we're at war — and we're — i’m onna side of ♥, and self-♥, and of fitin’ for us to move in this realm like we're worthy. cause we're. sade’s absences tween projects feel strong, like she knows her worth, like she is taking care of helen even as sade fans beckon. but she manages her creative and emotional labor. it reads as mystery, n'it’s ptly strategy, but it’s clear that helen adu did not rise to die for us. when she steps out from her mystical sade castle, she looks and seems as at peace with life as any of us can.

this is why she remains so relevant, in this moment whn'we're work and work is us and productivity determines worth and one’s profile must be updated to prove one’s existence. sade aint pticipating. 4 yrs older than whitney houston and george michael, and a yr younger than michael jackson and prince, sade serves herself, her work, and us by bein’ vibrantly amongst the living. sometimes — and this tis core of fandom, and na' lotta dys, the core of ♥ irl — sometimes i think sade is just too good for us.


danyel smith tis author of the book shine brite: a personal history of black women in pop (coming may 2021 from one realm/random house), and host of the forthcoming spotify show black girl songbook.

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authors: danyel smith


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