British Soul Queen and Star of Memphis the Musical: Beverley Knight

Queen of British soul Beverley Knight has been one of the UK's most consistent artists of the past 15 years, scoring several top 10 albums, including the platinum-selling Voice: The Best of Beverley Knight.

She has sold over a million albums in the UK along the way, including four gold certified albums. Beverley is currently starring in Memphis the Musical in London’s West End. She plays Felicia Farrell, an underground singer in her brother’s bar during the late 1950s and 1960s in Memphis, Tennessee, in America’s deep south. Black History Month got to speak with her about the part, her career and her role in the fight against racial and LGBT discrimination.

BHM: First, congratulations on your outstanding performances in Memphis. You were a complete joy to watch and you are certainly one of the standout performers in what is a very strong cast. How are you finding Memphis? Being front and centre each night must be something you enjoy, but just how much hard work goes into each performance?

Memphis2014JP-11271-RTBK: It is hard work, requiring way more concentration than a concert as from curtain up to curtain down you are portraying someone else. You can’t float in and out of improv the way you naturally do in a gig. I love it, I love the focus, the discipline and the team spirit.

BHM: You have been playing Felicia Farrell for almost a year now. Are you saddened that your time in Memphis is coming to an end?

BK: Very saddened. This show is one of the most loved in the West End, and I love Felicia’s fight and drive. A gift of a role to play.

BHM: What was it like taking on a role that has such strong historical and emotional links for Black people in terms of racial discrimination?

BK: I researched the historical setting as much as possible. I knew a lot of the post-reconstruction era of the South, the setting up of the Jim Crow laws and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. These were already imprinted in my brain as I made it my business to know these events long before the West End called. Let’s face it, we were never not going to learn it in school, were we?! The fact that the knowledge I had was integral to playing Felicia was a bonus. What really prepared me was going to Memphis and seeing the history before my eyes. Beale Street where “race music” (later rock ‘n’ roll) was born, the recording studios there where that music exploded from the underground, the museums that detail what life was life for Black people in Memphis at the time. That changed me. Permanently.

BHM: In the past you have been very vocal against racial and LGBT discrimination, even being a performer at UK Black Pride. Are you involved in any Black or Gay Pride events in the near future?

BK: I hope so! Black Pride was ages ago now, we are overdue another one! Someone talk to Haringey Council and get it sorted for Finsbury Park! I’d love to do another Love Music Hate Racism festival. The last one I did was with the wonderful Wretch 32, a long time ago.

BHM: Nonetheless, your work with charities is partly what earned you your MBE in 2007, alongside your contributions to music. How is progress on your upcoming studio album?

BK: The album is slated for spring of next year and is coming along beautifully. I intend to record it at the end of January 2016, so time is ticking, but I write where and when I can, around my show schedule.

BHM: Your career seems to be making a resurgence since singing in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics. Are you enjoying this second wind of success?

BK: It doesn’t feel quite that way to me as it would to you, as I have not stopped working. I recognise the uplift in my profile though, and I am so chuffed and grateful to still be of interest to people 21 years after it all began!

The difference is that you are seeing more of me now because theatre understands the importance of marketing and advertising throughout a show’s life, not just at the beginning. So you are greeted with pictures of me everywhere! You CANNOT launch a show without multi-millions, and show investors are willing to spend what it takes to get shows up and running, in the way a record label simply cannot and does not anymore. Unless you are a huge global act. The prominence of all the posters etc. feeds into the general media. As we say in Wolverhampton “funny, ay it?!”

BHM: You’re also preparing for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Cats in October, just days after finishing up Memphis. Most people struggle with perfecting one role, so how on earth are you managing to prepare for two roles at the same time?

BK: You have to do what you have to do! I need to be ready to play Grizabella. I need to be on point as I believe I will be the first Black Grizabella in the history of the show in the West End. If it goes well, the doors are open for others to play this and other roles which don’t have to be colour-specific. Whether you like it or not, hailing from a minority group and stepping into the spotlight means you end up in some way representing that minority. It is in everyone’s interests that I prepare well.

BHM: Clearly a sign that you are an ultimate professional. Finally, what tips do you have for Black musicians now that you have dabbled into both Independent and Labelled record releases?

BK: Be who you are. Not the vision (or worse still, the stereotype) of what a label, the media or the public expects. It is not easy, but if you want a career in music, it is the only way to go. People will love you, then despise you (“she’s a sell-out!”) then love you again when you are true to you. I’ve been there, went through it and shook it off. I don’t know a successful Black artist who has not experienced that in their career.

Be disciplined. The champagne lifestyle is a front. Smoke and mirrors. Behind the scenes is real graft. Jay-Z and Dre did not become moguls by quaffing champers every day. Don’t be fooled. Grab every opportunity to play live so you can build a following, a loyal one. Careers are built over time. Shooting stars burn out very quickly.

BHM: Thank you for your time and for being an icon in both Black British music and musical theatre.

Memphis the Musical is running at Shaftesbury Theatre until Saturday 31st October 2015. Beverley Knight’s last performance as Felicia Farrel in Memphis will be Saturday 17th October 2015. For tickets and information visit http://memphisthemusical.com/default.asp

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