British singer Estelle takes the stage at the Park at 14th. She’s model thin in her sleek brown dress, perfect makeup, perfect bob. She smooths the dress and scans the crowd.
Behind velvet ropes, some of Washington’s prettiest people mingle. Women blinged out in short dresses tip in platforms heels. Men in white and black linen sport cool brims. It seems that the crowd, which has come for an invitation-only Rosa Regale wine mixer, is having a hard time settling down this Sunday afternoon.
Estelle pauses: “I know this is D.C. Every time I come here, you guys give me too much love. I know this is some special invite [expletive]. Some chichi froufrou [expletive]. But I need you guys to have a little more fun than that. In between [sets], clap.”
She demonstrates. Clap. Clap. Then she breaks into the reggae-influenced “No Substitute Love.” The pretty crowd explodes:
“Boy, oh boy, I’m not your substitute.”
A man in the audience cheers singularly.
“One whoop? A solitary whoop?” Estelle asks the crowd, then sings the hit ballad “Thank You,” from her third album, “All of Me.”
“Don’t cry,” she tells the crowd. You are supposed to be happy right now. But if I cry, sing this [expletive] for me.”
“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Do you realize the woman standing in front of you?’
The crowd sings along to other tunes including “American Boy,” her pop hit featuring Kanye West. She calls “American Boy” a happy song, about a happy life.
Offstage, in a swanked-out room behind velvet curtains, Estelle defines happy. When she finds herself tired, she reminds herself how far she has come. “I remember where I was.”
And where was that?
“Broke as hell,”she says. “Too much work and no money. It wasn’t fun.”
Estelle crosses her legs and talks about her life growing up in London, where she was born Estelle Swaray. Her mother was from Senegal. Her father was raised in Grenada.
Estelle was just a child when she realized the power of her voice. “People wouldn’t cry and run away when I sang,” she says, perched near a window. Outside the sky grows dark, preparing for a storm.
Estelle says she grew up listening to reggae, which influenced her music and vibe. “The outlook had to be positive,” she says. “I grew up in a family of nine kids. My mom, for all intents and purposes, was a single parent. I had to be positive about everything. We learned no matter how hard a day is, there is always another day.”
She remembers the moment her life shifted. The year was 2007. “I was sitting in the house, trying to figure my next move. I said, ‘God, you didn’t bring me this far to fail. I’ve done so well so far. But there has been such a long space of nothing. I was talking to God like he was right there.”
Five minutes later, the phone rang. It was her agent saying, “The deal is done. Let’s go.”
The single, “American Boy,” hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom. The song also charted in France, Italy, Denmark, Belgium and Ireland. In the United States, “American Boy” went platinum and a year later, Estelle and West won a Grammy for best rap collaboration.
“The Grammy snuck up on me,” she says. “I was on tour. It just hit me. I skipped down the street in Vienna. I kept saying, ‘I won. I won.’ ”
This year, she released “All of Me.”
Sunday, after the summer storm passes, Estelle toasts a wonderful life. She raises her glass of Rosa Regale: “It’s a Sunday afternoon. We could be anywhere else in the world. There is so much [expletive] happening over here,” she says. “But we’re happy. We’re loved. We’re blessed. You dig?”
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