I've tried to say how it was, in those boombox times. When I am near 21, and poor, and pregnant. There is no clue as to what next Tuesday will bring, let alone the rest of this one, when the Challenger explodes every minute on the mute TV.
The boy who had just as much sex with me as I with him has no decision in his belly, and he hasn't called. I am jealous of his freedom yet refuse to leave my neatly made secondhand mattress. My head is between a landline and my booming system. I am abandoned and loudness is a weighted blanket. The twirling cassette, from a girl named Sade, is called Diamond Life.
This is 1986, and though Sade's second album, Promise, is everywhere, I crave the multiple entendres of Diamond's "Cherry Pie." There's grit — "Sally," "Frankie's First Affair" — in the way Sade names names. Haven't I told you before, she sings: We're hungry for a life we can't afford. Even the album's title feels coded: It would be beautiful to shine bright, but I want to feel indestructible.
Because things are falling apart. It's not just the boy with his long lashes and fast car and ability to compartmentalize. It's that I don't know if I'll ever have a job that pays more than survival coin. Or a partner who will call because he likes to and because he said he would. 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 fellow native Too Short, in the '80s, our beloved Oakland was the right damn town in which to get killed. We considered as givens not just the grimy details of our hard knock lives, but also "the AIDS" we didn't understand, the lack of Black faces at local universities and the low-key PTSD of living in our city's "bloodiest years."
My attitude was, I can't trust a social safety net. And ain't no cavalry coming. I must create a life for myself. What can I make? What can I sell? How best to act? I turned my Sade up because a religious belief in music kept me sane. Some of us believed it would save everyone.
I could not have known then that Sade would speak for and to me in every decade of my life. When I am 20, everything is terrible and beautiful and possible. And I feel the germ of a plan.
"We all want the success. ... We all dreamed of that. That's what made us get out of bed in the morning very early when we'd been to bed very late, maybe, the night before. That's basically what pushed us along, just the hope that we would get success."
— Sade to BET's Donnie Simpson, promoting the U.S. release of Diamond Life
I've tried to say how it was, in those Discman days between 1985's Promise and 1988's Stronger than Pride. When I'm trying to "get success." When I'm working a fancy retail gig. When I'm working shifts at a nonprofit organization that helps youthful offenders. When I'm lying about my university status in order to keep my third and favorite job at the newspaper where I'm paid nothing. I'm doing this in pre-tech-boom San Francisco, crossing the bridge from Oakland because going to "the City" daily means my next leaps will be longer.
In the 'hood that will be home to Oracle Park, frail piers jut into the Bay. We stomp on them, to Run-DMC in the moonlight. This while on my door in Oakland there's a 3-Day Notice To Pay Rent Or Quit. But we don't care, because we are also two-stepping to the best songs on Stronger, singing along: Oooh, what 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 "different." 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 at the London School of Economics. After Adebesi's graduation, the couple heads back to bustling Ibadan, and in the year before Nigerian Independence, Helen is born. "I don't know if it's true about 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 only actually together for four years — my first four years, anyway."
Anne, an in-home nurse, takes Helen and older brother Banji to Holland-on-Sea, a holiday town of bungalows and retirees. She has some help from her Christian socialist parents, but there is still struggle: "She was a white woman who had two brown children in the 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 hours away. She studies fashion at the 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 being "swamped" by immigrants. The givens include the bleakness of London's post-Beatles, post-punk nightlife.
But then, a New Romanticism begins to flourish at grubby, tightly curated clubs like Billy's, and The 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 with a band called Pride as "the hottest club night I'd ever witnessed."
It must have been. Helen Adu, pressed by labels to sign as a solo artist, eventually leaves with three members of her beloved Pride, including co-songwriter/producer Stuart Matthewman. She then creates, with the last two syllables of her middle name, the band and the protective persona known as Sade.
In a career known for ever-lengthening sabbaticals, Sade takes what will be her second-longest break after 1992's Love Deluxe. The era she returns to is that 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 your possession. Gray listened to Sade and Erykah Badu, and excavates in one song what many are unable to mine over entire careers. Into all of this luminous music, Sade drops Lovers Rock, a largely acoustic November 2000 album that goes on to 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 Love," she ends the decade with Rock's "King of Sorrow," a gigantic and sighing blues. In the video for "King," she is that mom with one kid in tow and one on a hip. She's on a bus in heels and a push-up bra, brushing on mascara for work. Just another day, she sings, and nothing's any good. As in all of Sade's videos, the mood is cinematic glam, reflecting the lives and vivid dreams of girls with one foot in and one foot out.
These are the five-CD changer times, the goodbye Bay Area, hello post-Do the Right 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 service to an underserved audience. By my mid-30s, I'm at liberty. Free of being the first woman and the first Black leader of Vibe magazine. I have 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 Lovers Rock is released, Brooklyn is still reeling from four NYPD officers being acquitted of all charges in the death of Amadou Diallo, who took 19 bullets out of 41 shot. My apartment — with the incense burning and the DJ Quik and Sade blasting — is nearby the hospital where police dumped Abner Louima in 1997, after they tortured him with a broomstick or the handle of a plunger, depending on the report.
Sade always takes on the givens. About her father Adebesi's experience living in the UK, she sings, Coming from where he did, he was turned away from every door like Joseph / To even the toughest among us, that would be too much. Acknowledging scars is her signature. In that sunny apartment, with its barred windows and Pottery Barn bed and the exact sage duvet I want and the chunky antique vanity I had shipped from another state, I listen to Sade talking about Somebody already broke my heart. Singing about the remnants of joy and disaster, and private wars. If you, like me, married and divorced before your 20s were over, these words are chiseled in your soul.
My sacrifices haunt. My regrets haunt. But only occasionally do they lunge, and claw at my eyes. When they do, I have Sade in her 40s, offering hope for how good — and, still, how very real — things are going to get. She whispers that It's only love that gets you through, and she doesn't sound corny. It's a promise from the older sister I don't have.
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 person who calls because he likes to and because he says he will. With the tempered optimism of two who feel too lucky, we head down the aisle. The slow bounce of Sade's "By Your Side" keeps me company when we're separated by miles or anger. And when I throw all five of her CDs in the carousel, even that clanky mechanism knows to lean into Lovers Rock.
Helen created Sade so Helen could just be. Between 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 on a high speed chase on Montego Bay's coastal highway. Morgan was in the car with her, and the whispers were that they were wildly arguing. When a warrant was issued for her arrest, Sade said she would never return to Jamaica, and I don't think she has. As Brits will say: Helen keeps herself to herself. You can glean heartbreak and fury and legendary wild-girl antics from Sade's art, or you can keep it moving.
Because 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 love her more. It is 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 being by his side for the entire journey. For a star in her 60s, this could have been a massive media moment — Oprah, Whoopi, Robin, Kimmel. But somewhere along the way, Sade decided she would not sell what is prized for being "interesting." And her relevancy quotient keeps rising. You can be interested in Sade's music, or you can kick rocks.
And yet: Even with upwards of 60 million albums sold, the zillions of spins and streams, the four Grammys and the global tours, who mentions Sade in the same breaths as songwriters like Mariah Carey, Nina Simone, Mary J. Blige, Abbey Lincoln, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott? More to the point, who mentions all of these Black women in the same breaths as Carole and Gaga and Alanis and Adele? Sade has brilliantly articulated her blues and our blues for close to four 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 playoffs by singing (and dancing to!) his own version of "Smooth Operator," a song released the year he was born. The streetwear brand Supreme created Sade t-shirts in 2017. Comparisons of Sade and the 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 have a turntable: More 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 love, are indestructible. Being a Sade fan is proof you know the befores and afters of pain. When she sings, in "King of Sorrow," The DJ's playing the same song / I have so much to do / I have to carry on, I believe that is Helen herself blowing on my wounds and kissing them up to God.
It's weird to be older than you were. It's weird to have gotten through some things. It's weird to, on a lot of days, be fairly happy. 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 you are lucky, as regularly as birthdays.
Volume trembling the air: It's still a comfort. My door — God willing — no longer features three-day notices. But sometimes, my husband and I find a scribbled note that says something about our music after 10 p.m. being too loud, or whatever. I tear it off and barely read it, because a note taped to my door reminds me of being dead broke, of dancing on piers that could crash into the Bay. And while pretty much no one is living their life right now like it's golden, I will find my loud joy and sustenance where I can.
In the playlist times, the times of pandemic and consistent recessions and Breonna and Ahmaud and death threats for missing a three-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 Love a lot, released a decade after Sade crowned herself king:
I'm at the borderline of my faith,
I'm at the hinterland of my devotion
In the front line of this battle of mine
But I'm still alive
I'm a soldier of love
Every day and night
I'm a soldier of love
All the days of my life
Just like always, I know Sade is where I am. If we are at war — and we are — I'm on the side of love, and self-love, and of fighting for us to move in this world like we are worthy. Because we are. Sade's absences between 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, and it's partly 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 when we are work and work is us and productivity determines worth and one's profile must be updated to prove one's existence. Sade is not participating. Four years older than Whitney Houston and George Michael, and a year younger than Michael Jackson and Prince, Sade serves herself, her work, and us by being vibrantly amongst the living. Sometimes — and this is the core of fandom, and on a lot of days, the core of love in real life — sometimes I think Sade is just too good for us.
Danyel Smith is the author of the book Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop (coming May 2021 from One World/Random House), and host of the forthcoming Spotify show Black Girl Songbook.