After escaping a restrictive contract with French major label Wagram, Glasgow-born MC, singer and activist Sumati Bhardwa AKA Soom T is back with her new album Born Again.
Seamlessly traversing the worlds of hip hop, soul and reggae, Soom T has been a voice for the people for 25 years. She’s not an artist afraid to nail her colours to the mast. Tiny in stature but mighty in her message, Soom T began rapping in her teens as a way to harness her inner voice. At 15, she was a founding member of Glasgow youth group the Y Network, a political group set up to act as a direct link of communication to local councillors and MPs.
She’s not an artist afraid to nail her colours to the mast
For the past two years, Soom T has been living in Bristol and her desire to connect people for the greater good is as resolute as ever. Recently helping to launch Bristol’s newest reggae night, Dub From Above, whose deeply refreshing MO is to bring big artists to an intimate setting and create a space to celebrate the true people-uniting roots of reggae music that’s often lost on the big stage – for artists and audiences.
‘I was a bit of a rude girl when I was a teenager. Totally off the rails,’ she says. ‘I think rapping is a way to reclaim your power a little bit. I saw all the big, tough guys rapping and there was always something powerful and untouchable about them, and I wanted to be like that. It was a way to share my poetry as well.’
rapping is a way to reclaim your power
Today, Soom T is known almost as much for her singing abilities as her flow, although she admits that she started singing by accident. Originally singing the choruses she’d written for tracks as a demonstration of how the song would come together, her friends and bandmates encouraged her to sing them herself.
‘I would probably say that singing is closer to my heart now because I do it in reggae, but the rhythm and poetry of hip hop and rap is definitely my first love. I’ve found a home in reggae, because my lyrics have always been very conscious – it’s always been about opposing what I find to be the savage, debauched aspects of society and trying to promote more of the conscious, spiritual, being good to your neighbour message. As a Christian as well, I was more drawn to reggae because it’s predominantly conscious. Reggae is known for being a black form for spiritual voices, so it’s definitely where I feel I belong.
my lyrics have always been very conscious – it’s always been about opposing what I find to be the savage, debauched aspects of society
The new album Born Again is actually an exploration of her own journey as a born-again Christian. It’s on the more soulful end of the Soom T spectrum with clear nods to her other loves reggae and hip hop, but as the album plays out it’s unmistakably Soom. Thematically, it’s a departure from her 2017 reggae album Ode to a Karrot on indie label Khanti Records, a 19-track commentary on her views toward legalising cannabis, although she explains that this is a cause she still feels strongly about.
‘Writing about ganja is probably what I’m known best for, which is mildly annoying – especially for the people in my church, but that’s the reality of being an artist. And it’s your honesty that allows people to really relate to you.
‘Yeah, I’m a stoner, yeah I had a bit of an addictive lifestyle, but I’m older and wiser now. I’m looking to the young generations that I’m now performing to and I realise I’ve got a responsibility to try and tell them the truth. When you tell the truth, you’re not hiding anything, you’re guilt free and most importantly, you’re taking responsibility for your own actions and how you’re going to redeem yourself from those actions.
I believe that the lord is actually using me to open up a new denomination of Christianity that agrees with cannabis
‘I believe that the lord is actually using me to open up a new denomination of Christianity that agrees with cannabis. I’m from an Indian Hindu background and ganja is very much a part of the Hindu path. We believe it’s a plant given to us by God to destroy your evil, because it relaxes your muscles and allows more blood to flow to the brain. We believe it treats the symptoms of schizophrenia because it allows more activity in the brain. I do believe it’s got so many medicinal properties that are far superior to anything you’ll buy in pharmaceutical companies and it has no side effects. For the government to try and ban a plant, it’s like the government trying to ban spinach because they don’t like the fact that it makes us healthy and they’d rather keep us sick because then we spend more money on medication – I believe there’s a big conspiracy going on. So I’m going to keep promoting cannabis, but I’ve got to a stage now where I want to tell young people, use it responsibly.
‘Why would the Lord give us something that grows out of the ground that can be used unmodified and have the effect that it has, if it was not meant to be? We all have to take personal responsibility for our beliefs, so now I’m going head to head with people that believe you shouldn’t be promoting anything like that to young people, despite the fact that it’s okay to promote drinking alcohol. That’s hypocrisy, so don’t tell me what to do.
‘I’ve got conviction in what I believe, to promote cannabis as a medication to be used in moderation. If that’s the medication you choose and you’re using it in moderation and not detracting from your health in any way, then I don’t believe it’s a sin. I believe as soon as you abuse anything, including spinach, including apples, and it’s having a detrimental effect on your body and mind, then it becomes a problem. But if you’re using it in the right doses I think it’s something to be promoted. I think cannabis is a wonderful thing, I think it needs to be legalised and I will continue to push for the legalisation of it.’
Taking such a staunch standpoint, whether that’s about cannabis, politics or her views on Syria via her contribution No More War on Vaticaen Production’s Dubs for Syria compilation, is something that’s not often seen by any commercially successful artist in the UK. Although Soom T says she believes this is a product of the system and not something that’s missing from British music as a whole.
the corporate hierarchy would rather promote some young girl flashing her plastic surgery to young people, than somebody who is promoting to young women to treat themselves and others with respect
‘A lot of underground artists like Amy True, Congo Natty, Top Cat and Charlie P – very established, very highly respected artists in the scene – they’re all singing about the legalisation of cannabis. You’re just less likely to find us on the commercial platform. Because the corporate hierarchy would rather promote some young girl flashing her plastic surgery to young people, than somebody who is promoting to young women to treat themselves and others with respect and promoting free thinking – because that’s not easy to control. They’d rather promote the message that you should be nice and controlled, do what the system asks you to do and do what the standard commercial world asks you to do, because that’s what makes money for them.
While the arguments over potential medical benefits or harms of cannabis will continue to rage on between scientists, doctors, policy makers, cannabis users and anti-cannabis campaigners, when it comes to the sinister side of the commercial music industry, it’s something Soom has witness first hand, fighting to escape a major label that wilfully watered down her message to promote it to the masses.
She explains: ‘In 2015, I signed to a major in France called Wagram. They’re a significant label and suddenly I had a budget, I had a team around me of about 20 people, I even had a stylist – it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing because it’s as if they’re trying to make you feel like you’re somehow more special than other people.
it made me cringe, this is what I’ve sung about my whole life – don’t take their dirty money – and here I am taking their dirty money
‘After a while it made me cringe, this is what I’ve sung about my whole life – don’t take their dirty money – and here I am taking their dirty money. At first I thought I could use this platform to promote my own message, but in the end, they didn’t release the best tracks on the album or make videos for them. They chose the most commercial tracks like Broken Robots, and even though the message in it is in tact, I sadly feel like people don’t listen to the message so much if the sound quality is more commercial – it sounds like a dance track.
‘It’s not really a conversation for now, it’s more like a book, but if I was to explain what it’s like to end up with a commercial label, how you’re treated and the expectations there are of you and the level of control there is, it’s an absolute nightmare, especially for someone like myself – a real artist whose always been free to do what they want; I come from the punk scene from 25 years ago.
I come from the punk scene from 25 years ago
‘There was a part of me that wanted to see what it would take, how good you need to be to get signed to a major like that. I did it, I experienced it and I thought: excellent, I now know all the secrets, I know how it works. And knowing how much money these guys spend, you realise that the majority of your fan base is actually bought for you.
‘After three years, after the first album, I did everything in my power to get out of there. I still had another album to do and an option, but in the end I said it wasn’t for me. I could have been stuck there another five or six years and all that would have happened is they would have promoted me to a commercial audience, while my old audience was being alienated.
‘All the songs that I felt were more activist didn’t make the album and that was their choice. Politik Man, easily the best track and to this day the most popular track on the whole album, they didn’t make a music video for it, they didn’t release it as a single, there was no fanfare, they didn’t even want to put it on YouTube. They want to put out there what’s palatable and what they think young kids are going to like for a certain period of time, and then you as an artist are in danger of suffering the karma for your selling out.
I’ve come back to do my underground thing
‘So I’ve come back to do my underground thing. I’m back with Born Again to redeem myself from that and I feel like I’m stronger now and even more activist. After experiencing that and seeing what you are fighting against, you realise you really are up against a machine. These people have all the power, they have all the backing of all the commercial outlets, they have all the money.’
Alongside a return to her independent stance as an artist, Soom T is putting her money (or lack of) where her mouth is with the launch of Dub From Above. Working with two Bristol UWE students with no promotions experience and a fervent love of dub, the whole concept derails the traditional way of putting on nights, bringing in huge acts, including Soom T who acts as resident, that would pack out any stage and putting them in some of Bristol’s most intimate spaces.
the whole concept derails the traditional way of putting on nights, bringing in huge acts (…) that would pack out any stage and putting them in some of Bristol’s most intimate spaces
After a hugely successful launch with Solo Banton in January, they’re back with their second instalment at Basement 45 this month, with sets from Brother Culture, Empress Shema with Dub Judah, Kreed x Gardna, Parly B, Fat Stash and Dub Boy, powered by Lionpulse Sound System and Headsessions Sound System.
Dub from Above is the result of a chance meeting on North Street in Bedminster; a ‘divine appointment’ says Soom. ‘I was walking down the street with two of my Brazilian brothers and we bumped into Beth and Tom, who were good friends of theirs. We decided to all go and get some Jamaican food and that’s where it started. I think I just mentioned my dream of having a residency one day, it was just fantasy, and Beth and Tom said, “Why don’t you just do it?”
Dub from Above is the result of a chance meeting on North Street in Bedminster
At the time, Beth was just finishing her last year of university with Tom in the year below. Combining their passion for live reggae music with Soom T’s industry clout and decades’ worth of industry contacts, they’ve managed to create something truly special for Bristol reggae heads and artists alike.
‘I’ve always felt far more real and my happiest days have been as an underground artist’ says Soom. ‘I find it difficult touring Europe now, even though it’s good fun and you get to play big stages, the reality is that the best gigs, and the ones where I feel that the audience is most effected is when it’s in close quarters. They’re far more like to come and chat to you afterwards and you’re way more connected.
Combining their passion for live reggae music with Soom T’s industry clout and decades’ worth of industry contacts, they’ve managed to create something truly special
‘I’ve played with Solo Banton literally hundreds of times over the years, and I swear on my life it was one of the happiest I’ve ever seen him. He looked so relaxed and that’s what we want to achieve.’
There’s no doubt we’re going to see extraordinary things from the Dub From Above team in the coming years and they’ve already got something major in the works for a special Soom T birthday party this June. While they’ll be temporarily moving to a bigger venue, taking over three rooms at The Black Swan for a guaranteed roadblock until 6am, when they unveil the utterly ridiculous lineup later this month, you’ll see why. But family vibes, high pressure sound systems, quality music and piles of samosas will prevail.
Words by Rachel Morris
Photos by Dominika Scheibinger