My Greatest Hits: Rhoda Dakar

One of the defining voices in ska looks back across her decorated career and picks her own highlights

Asking Rhoda Dakar to pick her Greatest Hits isn’t easy. Born in London, Dakar’s musical journey began when she joined all-female ska outfit The Bodysnatchers in the late 1970s as lead singer, though she became widely known for her collaborations with many other 2-Tone artists ever since. She was a member of The Special AKA, after the initial break-up of The Specials, who she had also performed with before. In more recent years she has worked with Madness and seen the blossoming of her long-awaited solo career, thanks to her instantly recognisable voice, unflappable spirit, and infectious energy. 

With her career still flourishing and hitting new heights, her own highlights are less about nostalgia and more an ongoing celebration of a woman who has constantly pushed boundaries as a writer and vocalist. 

My second gig with The Bodysnatchers

“It was just the back room of a pub so it didn’t feel like pressure, but it was really important for the band and to my career. Pauline Black, The Selecter’s manager Juliet De Vie, and Jerry Dammers all turned up. Almost everything that we went on to do with The Bodysnatchers stemmed from that night, because we were then considered for the tour and a single deal. I’ve heard since that some of The Specials thought it was a bit early in our career to be faced with that kind of pressure, and I think they were probably right. But it was all good…”

The Bodysnatchers - Do Rocksteady - Top of the Pops 1980

My first appearance on Top Of The Pops – performing ‘Let’s Do Rock Steady’

“In those days, being on Top Of The Pops catapulted you from being an ordinary musician to being a pop star. You were a nationally known face from then on. But I wasn’t nervous. Maybe because I’d bunked in to Top Of The Pops as a teenage fan. We wandered around the halls. We met Slade, I think. I don’t watch it back either. I’m not very good at watching myself. All I remember is that I was wearing a really nice dress, which I still have.”

Singing on ‘More Specials’ – my first gold record

“This made me realise how far ahead The Specials were, musically. It also meant I was being taken seriously as a vocalist. It was good to do the duet with Terry Hall. To say Terry was a character doesn’t even begin to do it justice. He was a terrible wind-up, and nobody was spared. Terry and I always vowed that when we got old and doddery, we were going to sing jazz standards sitting on stools in a night club, but obviously he’s not going to get to do that now. I feel like I still have to do that, for him.”

New trailer for Dance Craze (1981) - in cinemas and on Blu-ray/DVD from March 2023 | BFI

The ‘Dance Craze’ documentary

“At the time, this didn’t mean anything. But in retrospect we’ve come to realise how this film kickstarted the third wave of ska/punk in the USA, which basically kept 2-Tone alive. The Bodysnatchers were low down on the list of great influences of 2-Tone, but after Dance Craze suddenly our importance was magnified massively. It’s incredible how much it has been watched, and how far reaching the effect was. It was career-defining. I only saw the film for the first time this year and we were much better than I thought! I don’t remember us being that good.”

The Release of ‘The Boiler’

“This was an important track. It put me out there as a serious artist rather than just a bit of pop fluff. I was very proud of it, as a young woman. It said something that we only now have language for. Date rape wasn’t a thing back then. It pre-dated us having words and language to describe the situation. John Peel used to play it, but obviously he was on at night. But Capital Radio thought they’d play it Saturday afternoon. Obviously loads of complaints flooded in and it was taken off the shelves, and then we didn’t sell any more. It being banned was a shame. But was the world really ready for it? I don’t know.”

The Specials - Nelson Mandela (Official Music Video)

Recording ‘Nelson Mandela’

“Elvis Costello was drafted in to produce it, and it was great being in the studio with him. I was a complete fan girl, completely starstruck. Having the chance to work with him was great, I absolutely loved it. We were in Air Studios, which used to be right by Oxford Circus. Paul McCartney used to have a studio permanently on hire there, so you’d be in the break room just getting a cuppa and he walks in. Once he walked out and where he’d been stood there was money on the floor. I think it just comes out of his legs.”

Madness - On The Town (feat. Rhoda Dakar)

Duetting with Madness on ‘On The Town’

“Madness sent me the tune and I thought it really suited my voice, it was in the right key. The fact it was one of their very best albums is the icing on the cake. I did gigs with them, like the O2 Arena. I’d never played anything that big indoors before, so that was remarkable. Normal for them but a new experience for me. It was great to work with them and see how they make it work, because they’ve managed to make it work for much longer than all the other bands I’d been around. You can see how they’ve grown and developed because they have a long-lasting friendship that binds them. They trust each other implicitly.”

Curating compilation album Ska Madness 

“I got to choose what tracks featured on the album, and in what order, and I wrote the sleeve notes. It’s important to know the history of ska music and where it came from and who did it, and why they did it. When I DJ, I always report my sets, so although it’s not a huge amount of money, the people who wrote the songs that I now play will get a little pay out. That’s another way I acknowledge the people who originated the music. They deserve it.”

My first solo album deal

“I had put out a couple of solo albums myself through crowd funding. But this was the first time anybody ever offered me a deal for an album without ever hearing it. I’ve been in the business 40 years, and nobody had ever offered me an album deal. It gives you a bit of faith in yourself, and it was good to have someone else have faith in me too, and for that to be a woman. We didn’t get loads of air play in the UK, but we got played every day on French radio, for about two months, so that was amazing to get that kind of recognition.”

Rhoda Dakar - What A Wonderful World (Official Video)

First UK No.1 chart position, with Version Girl

“The fact that after 40 years in the music business I could go to No.1 in the Breakthrough Chart sounds ridiculous. But that’s what it was. I’d never had anything else in the charts under my own name before. I know it was only one week, but wow. No.1! It’s validating. I’d been on Top Of The Pops with The Specials when they had a No.1, but I’d never had anything go to No.1 myself. I didn’t really celebrate because I was still doing the release tour. I was too busy to take the time to actually enjoy it. But I should keep enjoying it, really…”

Get tickets to see Rhoda Dakar on the United By Music tour, at venues throughout the UK in August and September

Photo credit: Virgina Turbett/Contributor