Sade doesn't have to say a thing to loom over pop culture

A T-shirt by the Supreme brand featuring an image of the singer Sade, one of the most relentlessly quiet famous people on the planet.
A T-shirt by the Supreme brand featuring an image of the singer Sade, one of the most relentlessly quiet famous people on the planet.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES
A mural in West Hollywood- by the artist Dirt Cobain- depicts the singer Sade.
A mural in West Hollywood- by the artist Dirt Cobain- depicts the singer Sade.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Sade is one of the most relentlessly quiet famous people on the planet. But in her extended silence, her place in the pantheon of cultural influence has only grown more enormous.

Before record stores neared extinction, Sade the band was often stocked in the easy listening section. Sade's breakout success in the 1980s owed much to the advent of adult contemporary radio, where huge hits like Smooth Operator and The Sweetest Taboo eventually got sandwiched between selections from Michael Bolton and Kenny G.

But then and now, Sade had an appeal that lifted it far above schlock.

The band's trench-coat-favouring Nigerian-born frontwoman, Helen Adu, known to the world just as Sade, is more responsible for the popularisation of gold hoop earrings than an entire industry of jewellery executives. She did not so much wear polka dots as single-handedly rescue them from the dustbin of frumpiness.

As a generation turned, house DJs turned remixes of Sade ballads into club classics, and a raft of hip-hop artists repeatedly sampled her.

In February, the street wear brand Supreme put Adu's image on a coveted limited-edition T-shirt. In March, Reese Witherspoon's Type A character on Big Little Lies established her remove from pop culture when she hears Sade on the car stereo and mistakes it for Adele.

Demand for T-shirts from Sade's 1992 and 2001 tours has so outstripped supply that vintage sellers like Chico's Closet in Los Angeles have largely abandoned eBay (and its commission fees) and moved to Instagram, where the mere act of hashtagging Sade leads to whack-a-mole-like sales.

This impact includes tattoos. At East River Tattoo in Brooklyn, more than 20 clients have had their bodies adorned with Adu's visage over the last year or so. A manager noted that that was 20 more requests than they'd gotten for Madonna and Janet Jackson.

The most famous Sade tattoo, however, belongs to Drake. He premiered it on Instagram in March. In it, Adu's hair is hidden, Nina Simone-like, beneath a turban.

Some of this Sade fever can be traced to Patrick Matamoros, a high-end dealer who finds rare T-shirts, distresses them and then places them on to the backs of celebrity clients such as Rihanna, Diplo and Mark Ronson.

Two years ago, Matamoros sold a tee from Sade's 1993 Love Deluxe tour to Kanye West. "I'd sold Sade shirts to famous people before that, but something happens when Kanye wears a shirt that I still don't understand," Matamoros said.

Much of the current fascination with Sade derives from the fact that her fans know so little about her, starting with the pronunciation of her name. (Many Americans believe it's pronounced Shar-day; it's Sha-day.) In an era that rewards people less for their talent than for their associations with other famous people and the ability to leverage those associations over Instagram and Twitter, Sade's disinterest in self-promotion has had a reverse effect.

Her long-standing lack of interest in speaking about herself makes the world more likely to want to speak about her.

For college, Adu went to what is now called Central Saint Martins, in London, then and now the world's most prestigious fashion school. To make extra money, said Albert Watson, who photographed the covers of Sade's Love Deluxe and Lover's Rock albums, Adu took a job selling clothes at the Camden Street Market.

She began singing backup in a local band, and moved to frontwoman only reluctantly. "The lead singer left," she later said.

It turned out she was great, with a breathy voice that was heard by Stuart Matthewman and Paul Denman, playing in a band called Pride. They asked Adu to start singing with them.

In 1982 or 1983, Matthewman and Denman left Pride and formed a group around Sade.

They signed to Epic Records, where executives quickly realised they were dealing with an artist with no direct historical precedent.

"She was one of those rare artists I fell completely in love with because she came just the way she is now," said Susan Blond, Epic's former publicity director and now heads an agency whose clients have included Aerosmith, Will.I.Am and Morrissey.

"She was very young, but she was very sophisticated," Blond said. "She didn't follow anyone else's style. No one was as beautiful or had as sleek of a look as her. She didn't mind designer clothes, but you'd never ever look at her and say, 'Oh that's a Chanel outfit.' She never looked like a brand. And her songs seemed to become classics immediately."

Dan Beck, a former senior vice president at Epic who worked on the US promotion for Sade's first four albums, said: "There was grace to everything she did." Although Adu looked forward to the publicity campaigns of record releases about as much as one would a root canal, Beck said, this wasn't because she was temperamental or diva-ish.

She merely regarded the project of explication with suspicion. She seemed to operate according to the principle that narcissism was not the precondition for artistic exploration, but was instead its enemy.

"She never enjoyed promotion of any type," Beck said. "It was painful for her.

As time went on, the break between albums stretched ever longer. She wanted to have normal relationships. She wanted to record when she actually had something to say.

Sade's fourth album, Love Deluxe, arrived in 1992, four years after the third album, Stronger Than Pride. Adu smiled as she told Beck she might not have gone back into the studio to record - except the guys in the band wanted to return to work, he said. "I thought that was so sweet."

In 1995, a marriage to Spanish film director Carlos Pliego ended. Adu later said the pair had a difficult time navigating the demands of global fame. For a time, she lived in Jamaica with music producer Bob Morgan, and they had a child.

An eight-year stretch between albums yielded Lovers Rock (2000), which had lots about romance but also brought a quiet force to songs about issues facing black people. The video for King Of Sorrow was a masterstroke of Sade-ness, where she wore ballgowns and a bandanna, scrubbing a child's shoe clean. Was it a cautionary tale for single parenthood or a fashion spread devoted to it? Who could say. It was lovely.

By the mid-aughts, Adu had become involved with a former fireman named Ian Watts. With one child each, they had settled into a countryside cottage near Stroud, England.

All this time, in luxurious quiet, her legend grew. The parasitic music business had driven many black female singers to seclusion, before Sade. The difference was that Adu appeared not to be combusting but thriving.

Her fans yearned for more material, all the while respecting her resolute privacy.

Adu can also sometimes be spotted on her cat-loving child's Instagram. On Mother's Day this year, an undated portrait was published. Back in January, on the day she turned 58, a recent picture appeared. She looks impeccably happy.

Even though you see so little of her, you can see her look everywhere. Just last week, T:, The New York Times Style Magazine put Nicki Minaj on a cover, her hair in a black ponytail, a pair of gold hoops dangling.

Lauren Tabach-Bank, the magazine's entertainment director, didn't hesitate when asked whom they were channeling. "Sade," she said. "You never know how someone's going to react, but Sade is universally respected and lauded by musicians of all genres. Nicki saw the images and was like, 'Sade, Oh my God. I love it.' It felt expensive, cool and timeless."

There's talk of a Sade album coming next year, but even Watson, who sees her with some regularity, says he isn't sure.

"It's always like that with Sade," he said. "Time will go by and she'll start working on it. For her, it's like getting out of bed on a Sunday morning. You know you don't want to do it, but at some point you just do it."

"When we were having our first success with her, I said, 'This lady could have a hit album when she's 90 years old.' Most artists try too hard," Beck said. "And consciously or unconsciously, I think people have a special appreciation for someone who isn't out there waving their résumé at you every five minutes. She's completely unique."