Fellow disabled artists and colleagues have spoken this week of the “remarkable legacy” left by the pioneering singer-songwriter Lizzie Emeh, who has died at the age of 44.
In 2009, Emeh became the first person with a learning difficulty to release an album of original songs in the UK, when she launched Loud and Proud.
She had joined Heart n Soul in 1999 after being spotted at one of its Beautiful Octopus Club nights, and the arts organisation would support her career over the next 20 years.
Heart n Soul said Emeh (pictured) had left behind “an incredible body of work and a remarkable legacy”.
Highlights of her career included performing with Beverley Knight at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Between 1999 and 2007 she had been part of the Heart n Soul Experience, performing across Europe, and appearing at the Glastonbury Festival three years in a row, while she also took part in the Heart n Soul Unplugged tour of Asia.
In 2009, she released Loud and Proud, which examined her life experiences and was influenced by her childhood growing up in an Irish-Nigerian family in west London, surrounded by “folk, reggae and Afrobeat, but also Duran Duran and the Dubliners”, as well as soul and blues.
Her musical education was strongly influenced by a year she spent in Dublin with her “inspirational” grandmother, a talented jazz and blues singer, a period of her life that she would later say “made me want to be a singer”.
Emeh did not read music, said Heart n Soul, so would first hear the beat in her head, before coming up with the lyrics and melody, and would collaborate with musicians to devise chords and arrangements to complete the songs.
She wanted people with learning difficulties to be proud of who they were, saying of Loud and Proud at the time: “I want this album to be an education to people.
“I want people to accept us for who we are and to respect us. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, but understand me.”
In 2016, she collaborated with the London Symphony Orchestra to reinterpret some of her songs.
And between 2018 and 2020 she was part of an experimental research project at Wellcome Collection, Heart n Soul at the Hub, which explored the value of difference.
She also performed at 10 Downing Street.
Rikki Jodelko, who worked and performed with Emeh for more than 20 years at Heart n Soul, said he first met her when she was 19.
Their first performance together was at a disability event in Dusseldorf, Germany.
“There she was on stage, singing her heart out,” he said this week. “Over-brimming with confidence and energy.”
He remembers writing a song with Emeh. “I just played a chord sequence on my guitar and she came up with this song within a matter of minutes, melody and lyrics.
“She was just such a natural composer. Her songs were all about her life and things that affected her. Straight from the heart.
“She was a massive personality. I am totally blind but you could not be unaware of her being in the room.
“She was ebullience personified. She did demand attention, but she usually got it because she was so lovely.
“The audience was always captivated by her because she was such a brilliant performer. She held the audience in the palm of her hand.
“She has left a massive Lizzie-shaped hole in the universe.”
Another disabled colleague, Tilley Milburn, a performance artist who worked with Emeh and appeared alongside her when hosting The Beautiful Octopus Club, said: “It’s wonderful just to make art or music because you love doing it, but with Lizzie it was even more powerful and more important because of what she was sharing.
“Everything that she created, every interview, anything she ever gave to us, it was about championing.
“It wasn’t just championing herself, it was championing and speaking up for anybody that struggles, anybody that feels outside in some way.”
She added: “She was very strong. I think she always had an inner confidence, an inner belief and courage.
“She was a very generous, very uplifting person. I always felt inspired by her and she supported me, she believed in me.
“It’s hard to believe that we have got her music, we can watch her videos, but I won’t get to host her again, I won’t get to see any new music, I won’t get to experience the magic of her coming onto that stage.”
She said Emeh had an “aura” and “magnetism”.
Every time she sung one of her own songs it was with “absolute conviction”, said Milburn.
“She absolutely always owned it. She means everything she’s saying and it’s so important to her.
“That’s what she was about: making art, making music, yes, it’s beautiful, and yes, she loved it, and was passionate about it, but it was so much more, it was so much deeper, it was getting that voice out there and it was showing what she could do.
“She had a wicked sense of humour, full of energy, full of charisma and she was a very fun person, very sensitive and loveable, she was great fun to be around.”
Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company, who was co-director of the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics, said Emeh had been “incredibly influential because of her voice, her music skills and her belief that she was paving the way for others to be artists and stand up for their rights to be a singer or musician”.
She said Emeh was “gloriously gracious, stubborn, political and kind”.
Sealey said: “I remember being very excited that she had agreed to be in the finale of the London 2012 Paralympic Opening ceremony, singing I Am What I Am with Beverley Knight and Caro Parker.
“She arrived for a costume fitting and a general introduction with the operation team.
“She was not feeling brilliant so was grumpy, but her ‘patronise’ radar was fully intact and she would roll her eyes at me when people were explaining stuff she knew inside out.
“On the day of the dress rehearsal she was on form, a true professional, delightful diva, and you saw the penny drop as those around her realised that she knew her stuff inside out.
“On the night itself she was awesome. Of course she was. I have an amazing piece of artwork of Lizzie on my wall and a larger copy at Graeae, so Lizzie is with us.”
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced, but Heart n Soul will host an online event on 26 November, which will celebrate music created by some of its artists during lockdown.
Emeh had been due to perform at Lockdown Mixtape 2 but the event will instead include some of her videos, while artists who are performing on the night will also discuss the impact she had and what she meant to them.
She leaves a husband, Eddie, a sister, Monica, and two brothers, Chris and Eddie.