We love celebrating strong, successful women here at The Caviar Spoon, which is why we’ve created ReBelles. These are the women who are working it and owning it! Here we have the most fabulous singer, N’Dea Davenport.
Talented. Resilient. Adventurous. Eclectic. Savvy.
These are just some of the words that came to my head whilst chatting with N’Dea Davenport.
For years, I’ve listened to The Brand New Heavies and I often wish we could bring back the days of acid jazz funk! Those of you who know the funk-esque tunes of TBNH will also know that they’ve had a churn of singers but the one who always stood out was N’Dea Davenport.
During the interview, N’Dea suddenly asked Pra why she had been chosen as an interview subject.
Pra’s answer? Because she is an enigma and shines as an individual in her own right.
(Meanwhile, Pra was thinking how on earth it came to be that N’Dea, global celeb, was actually interviewing with The Caviar Spoon!)
So with the joys of Skype, N’Dea and Pra got to chatting. 90 mins later, it could have carried on!
Born to a headmaster and school counsellor in Atlanta, Georgia, N’Dea grew up an only child and learned how to entertain herself from a very early age. She loved any activity that allowed her to personally express herself, and so she did everything she could, from playing sports to playing the piano for church.
Atlanta had a very small community of artists back then and N’Dea immersed herself in that culture—acting, music, stage management, dancing, singing, you name it!
Basically, she became a natural entertainer to entertain herself and talent took over.
This is a woman who is gorgeous but with an inner driving force. She didn’t allow herself to be defined by her body first with talent coming in second, which, let’s be honest, could have been a complete career killer in the cutthroat music industry.
Nor does she splatter herself across every magazine and all over social media purely for that extra like, share, or comment from a new fan. She’s savvy enough to be selective with whom and what she speaks to…(to which, may I say, N’Dea, you are super savvy because you chose us!)
To me, she has one of the most beautiful voices on the planet, paired with looks, brains, and an abundance of sass that so many try to buy but fail. This is the stuff that comes naturally—you either have it or you don’t.
As the song goes, “Dream on Dreamer”…that’s exactly what she did. She started with nothing but faith, belief, and $300 in her pocket…
Editor’s Note: Some answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
So did the magic continue to bubble in Atlanta?
“I snuck away from my parents saying that I was planning a trip to LA for three weeks. I’d never been away from my family—I’d never even been alone—but I still saved the money and went to L.A. to explore.”
N’Dea barely knew anyone but really wanted to stick it out. After three months, she went home but was back in L.A. after a month. She learned a valuable here—that sometimes it’s through being alone that you find your way. This is what has made her, her. And it was this experience that allowed her to break away from any fear.
She went to a place to look for work and met some people who knew she sang. She did backing vocals for paltry paychecks but knew that it was creating her reputation. From music videos and acting in those videos to jingles and radio spots, the Atlanta girl had started building a rep.
Enter the sub-club culture
N’Dea says she owes a lot to the club culture.
Working in the sub club culture gave her a chance to meet an eclectic crew of people. There were fashion folks and actors, musicians, and the epic ‘godfathers’ of rave. In fact, this is how she connected with Delicious Vinyl and ended up signing with them! Around that time they also signed a British band, aka The Brand New Heavies, and the rest kind of took off from there.
She had started a solo project with Delicious Vinyl and was also featured on the album covers with Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul and Mariah Carey but shelved it all at the time to concentrate on TBNH.
This is the point where that enigma factor comes into play. Perhaps the biggest misconception you could have of N’Dea is that she was “just” the singer from TBNH when, in fact, her identity was mainly the club scene—far from funk, hey?
Who was your inspiration growing up?
Her evolvement with music reads like a story…each style reflecting perhaps a phase in her life.
First came the classics…
“I had pockets of inspiration and phases…in the early days, my older cousins introduced me to the Beatles, Sly and the Stones. My dad used to play jazz—Patty Cage, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra—and, at the same time, gospel.”
Then what might be considered ‘pop’ back in the day…
“Coming into my own, I fell in love with boy bands like The Jacksons and The Osmonds.”
When she started listening to music a little harder…
“I moved into an intellectual phase and understanding of music—funk bands like Funkadelic and Larry Graham…”
There was the new wave of Brit music when the videos were reaching their peak of influence…
“In fact, Brit music had it down to a T in terms of visual presentation—it got me going. David Bowie, the Sex Pistols…”
Which transitioned over to punk music…
“Fishbone and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers were my peers growing up in LA and we all knew each other from the club scene.”
Eclectic, right? You probably thought she was a jazz singer but N’Dea was never that. I mean, how do the Sex Pistols mesh with Frank??
So what was your most memorable gig? And where?
She recalls the time TBNH performed for 70,000 people at Wembley Stadium at a show where Simply Red was headlining.
“We were all nervous—we had never played to that many people. I realised exactly how world leaders must feel. They guide and direct the group and take control. This was my memory of how significant this moment was—at this point, music and politics combined so powerfully!”
Solo or band?
N’Dea is a powerhouse. She loves collaboration and working solo equally and purposely wore many hats to experience it all. Being a woman in a male-dominated band really emphasised the importance of producing, administrating, and pulling together the team.
At that time, the producers were getting the accolades and the artists were just following and she knows that if she hadn’t taken on the whole lot…
“I would have felt that I had lost something and was simply following the trail of millions of other girls with one producer.”
You’re in Japan right now—work or pleasure?
N’Dea was in Japan for a two-month tour with The Brand New Heavies when she decided to stay.
“I simply made some adjustments purging things with work and my personal life. I wanted to really engage in the Japanese culture, go to music clubs to see what the art scene was like…”
This gives you an idea of the kind of person she is. Curious, an adventurer, and open to embracing cultures and traditions.
“I’m always looking to expand my horizons and I’m not afraid to start over. We have so many choices in life.”
What’s 2017 looking like?
Ever the enigma, N’Dea’s immediate response is:
“I have certain things pencilled in that I can’t discuss…”
She does reveal that 2017 will be a mix of collaborations and some solo songs
Although she’s technically a retired member of TBNH, she occasionally joins them, from performances in Dubai at SanDance at Atlantis The Palm to this past summer when they toured the US. Apparently there were quite a few fan requests to see her! (N’Dea seems genuinely surprised by this but you and I both know that we’d be frantically pushing the fan request button if there was one!).
She’s also honing her passion for drumming, which was cultivated back in the days of the club scene with Fishbone and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (Pra crush alert!) when she was the door girl and would often mess around on the drums during soundcheck.
Her music teacher back in school said that drumming wasn’t for girls. N’Dea says otherwise!
How have you handled the highs and lows of the music industry?
“I’ve had two bad parts of my life that I call rough. The first was at the end of my tenure doing my solo record and actually having to come to the reality that the music industry was changing. It went from subculture to mainstream appeal.”
N’Dea found herself being asked to do things that, in short, would have portrayed her as a sex object as opposed to an artist. That was a big fat no on her end and so she parted ways. That being said, she’s not opposed to nudity, it just has to be done tastefully!
The second rough patch was being a woman in a band in a man’s world. She recalls “having to be part of magazine interviews where the journalists would ask the males about the technical music, then ask me about nail polish and shoes”.
But one of the big ways she got through these lows was making sure that she didn’t put all of her money on one horse. When things annoy her or don’t quite go her way, she lets herself go into another head space. This is where you see the magic of N’Dea again. She’s an enthusiastic music historian, is into architecture and interior design, and supports animal rescue.
It’s a good lesson for all of us—find things that create a quality of life, not just ‘a thing’.
What’s one piece of advice you would have given to a younger you?
“Maintain and stay true to yourself.”
Don’t take things too personally or seriously, let your voice be heard and avoid being a doormat. She makes a good point that we often don’t know how to handle extreme matters until they’re right in our face but “nothing can really rub you the wrong way if you are prepared”.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career and did it pay off?
Well, you could say that it was moving to L.A. with just $300 in her pocket!
But in the end, it certainly paid off. Look at where N’Dea is today—she made a name for herself on her own terms. She’s independent and believes in herself enough to take the first step no matter how scary it is.
“Sometimes I don’t get it right—I’m human. But 9/10 times I get it right.”
Because of all that she’s done and experienced, N’Dea does a lot of public speaking, as well as masterclasses to help young artists and adults who have always wanted to achieve in music but are afraid of taking the risk. She aims to help people step into their own shoes and to make positive impacts.
“I was living two blocks from the World Trade Centre. When the first building was hit, I was running for my life—having to live and survive trauma is so hard.”
But you can understand the trauma and restrictions in your life and make beautiful things. Live life!
On giving back
Not only is N’Dea a strong business woman with values and ethics but her life is also about giving back. She coaches people and helps talent, passing on the wisdom and life lessons she’s learned along the way (pay it forward, right??).
“In Asia, there’s great talent here but there’s a language barrier for vocalists who don’t have enough counsel to guide them on certain aspects of how to achieve what they want.”
“It’s all about taking that first step, whether it’s the stage, learning how to hold a mic, or projecting their voice.”
So talking about inspiration, who inspires you outside of the industry and why?
“My mother. She came from a very large family. She was one of the ones who put a lot of relatives through school and helped buy their first cars. When I was around 13, she was just about to do a PhD and had a very serious breakdown. The pressures of being a woman, helping kids and family get their lives on track, and making a place in society.”
It was quite bad—the once voracious reader couldn’t even read a book. But after seven years, just as N’Dea was heading off to L.A., something clicked and her mum got back on track.
The 80-something is enjoying life! She drives around in a BMW, does yoga, and has transformed from being an elder to someone who encourages others. She’s resilient and N’Dea admires her for that.
(And now that explains where N’Dea gets it from!)
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
“Possibly an architect—I love it!”
This multitasking queen is actually doing a development right now and is into exploring tiny homes and eco-friendly villages.
“I love being able to utilise one small space into, say, four different compartments like pull-outs and cabinets. We don’t need half the stuff we have. Japan is a great place to practice this. It teaches you to keep the things you adore—too much space can force us NOT to come together.”
If a movie was being made about you, who would you cast to play you?
N’Dea ponders this a bit before and then answers with Kerry Washington, “a great talent”. After a pause, she also mentions Zoe Saldana as another option.
“They would need to be able to dance, sing, and act—act as a young me to the me now!”
Tell us the name of a song that describes your life.
“If I were on my death bed, it would be the original version of ‘Is That All There Is?’ by Peggy Lee…”
And then N’Dea belts out that very line in that stunning voice of hers, which confirms that her voice is absolutely pure and doesn’t need any editing!
Your life mantra
“To be honest, I’ve only been able to stand in my truth due to my faith.”
In addition to her faith, N’Dea says that the quiet moments are what help her get by and give her the courage to put fear as far away as possible.
One piece of advice for aspiring women in the Middle East.
“In life, we all have or know bullies who have taken advantage of us as women. They may discourage us but the whole thing is to throw away ANYTHING that does NOT serve you. From your home, what’s in your closets, friends. When you start removing negative things then it gives space to make something new and positive.”
Whether you read the Qur’an or the bible, she notes that it’s important to “hold onto your faith and know that you are worthy to take yourself up the ladder”.
(By the way, Dubaians, she loves our city and thinks the women here are just gorgeous!)
One word to describe N’Dea Davenport
N’Dea laughs as she gives a virtual high five to Pra and the TCS crew, amused by the types of questions prepared for her.
And then she responds:
And with that, we say our goodbyes as N’Dea heads off to prep her vinyl collection for a DJ event the next night.
Before we wrapped up, N’Dea thew a humdinger of a question back at me.
“Mary, why did you want to interview me? You had a beautiful insistence to talk.”
My persistence, thick skin, and believing that anything can be achieved is all thanks to my family, I told her.
“And because of that, I’ve just spent 90 minutes with someone who I believe is one of the most inspiring women on the globe.”
N’Dea you are a rare find and the real deal!