Politics

Bless you Sinéad

In 1992, when Sinéad O'Connor transformed Marley's key track 'War' to an acapella plea for the world to recognise institutional child abuse in the Catholic Church - on the rather surprising platform of SNL - the performance almost 'derailed her career' to use the common assessment of the time (and Internet since).

All these years later, leaving aside all the fuss and carry-on of the time among many forgotten types, we can appreciate this act as a supremely courageous gesture as well as a sublime musical performance, just on the basis of her voice, her conviction, alone. For me this is bravery incarnate, and when you know something of O'Connor's childhood, the fact that she could speak out like this is inspirational.

O'Connor was one of those rare prodigies, having written 'Troy'

when she was a teenager. The song makes reference to lines from Yeats' 'No Second Troy' ('Why, what could she have done being what she is?/Was there another Troy for her to burn?').

One of her loveliest songs, while still being one of her most political - even though that word feels leaden in this context, as it is so much 'more' than this - is 'Black boys on mopeds'; a song that is also a very touching representation of motherhood. For me this song shows the value of stepping past the categories we find ourselves in and the value of empathy that crosses racial and other categories. O'Connor sings of wanting to protect 'her boy' while singing of the suffering of 'black boys' shot by the police; they are one and the same.

The song was inspired by the death of Colin Roach who died from a gunshot wound inside Stoke Newington police station in London, in 1983. From wiks:

The 1990 album by Sinead O’Connor “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” featured a track called “Black Boys On Mopeds.” Although the lyrics do not mention Colin Roach directly, the entire album is essentially dedicated to his family, and contains a photograph on the inner sleeve of his sad-faced parents standing in the rain in front of a poster of their son. Below the image is the inscription: God’s place is the world; but the world is not God’s place.

The French often talk about being curious and how this is a valuable quality, more and more I think it is the essential quality - not love, whatever that might mean for you, that's too individual - but curiosity and openness to the experience of others. (And yet all over the place, perhaps particularly in progressive spaces, I see people closing in, seeking some kind of purity of experience based on identity. This seems so misguided ... nothing is, or can be, pure).   

Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her
I’ve said this before now
You said I was childish and you’ll say it now
Remember what I told you
If they hated me they will hate you
England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving
Young mother down at Smithfield
Five a.m., looking for food for her kids
In her arms she holds three cold babies
And the first word that they learned was please
These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to dig your own grave
Remember what I told you
If you were of the world they would love you
England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving

    

'Jerusalem' Mark Stewart & The Maffia (Learning to cope with cowardice: On-U Sound, 1983)

For a long time this piece of music by Mark Stewart and produced by the god-hero Adrian Sherwood was a favourite, if not my favourite track.

Sampling the so-called 'unofficial anthem of England' (the same hymn I used to sing at morning assembly at my private school in Melbourne) it deconstructed the hymn that had in turn hijacked William Blake's original intention. Returning Blake's poem to its original mental-space of political protest and defiance, and in so doing created music of great beauty and power. 

Even though this hymn has become a symbol of 'Englishness' - 

as the YouTube comment below the video states: 'A tribute to the generations that have gone before us to preserve that 'green and pleasant land' for 'England & St. George!' anyone with any knowledge of Blake knows that he never intended his poem to be a 'tribute' to anything, and especially not to English nationalism. As Kate Maltby writes 'There is nothing patriotic about William Blake's Jerusalem':   

Blake asks four questions in succession, and the answer to each is a resounding no. Christ’s feet never trod in England; the Lamb of God didn’t gambol – preposterous as the image is – around the Cotswolds; the Holy Spirit wasn’t regularly spotted in London fog; and most directly of all, there was no sense of Jerusalem in the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Age. The consequent fantasy of building a New Jerusalem in England is widely understood by anyone who studies Blake to be a stonking parody of Napoleonic Era nationalism. Even in 1804, no one sung and danced about their own ‘mental fight’ and expected to be taken seriously.

Instead, Jerusalem encapsulates Blake’s fears about the all-too-easy suppression of the individual spirit. The ‘Satanic mills’ may refer to the Albion Flour Mills, large-scale mills near Blake’s home which were burned down anonymously after they threatened to put smaller millers out of business. (So, Jerusalem as an anthem would celebrate anti-capitalist arson. Which makes us virtually French.)
— Kate Maltby, 'There's nothing patriotic about William Blake's Jerusalem' 14 January, 2016, The Spectator

Mark Stewart/Adrian Sherwood understood this of course; and the greatness of their achievement lies in the way they introduced a Black musical idiom - dub - to provide this political counterpoint to the classic trope of (white) Englishness.

Starting with the mix of a crowd, perhaps a football crowd and rain, a warm/welcoming sound and Stewart's extremely earnest delivery (the epitome of the sincere/committed artist) where you can barely make out the words: 

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The final verse of the poem, which would normally have acted as a conclusion, is brought to the top, as an expression of Stewart's conviction - but under the production, this statement of conviction is barely heard, almost muffled and hidden.    

The wonderful single drum beat that keeps shifting (at times deeper and at other times more sibilant-snare, sounding different each time it's hit) is interrupted by a scream twenty seconds later. This beat, with its changing intensity, sounds like a simplified military drummer's beat. So sweet then the swirling, rousing orchestral sample (that is also so familiar to people from my background) that offers a kind of comfort and resolution, while Stewart snarls: 

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

'Jerusalem' is a hymn re-interpreted; indeed the samples from the hymn seem slightly out of sync (sped up, spliced and forever truncated), so that they become just one more element with the others: the crowd/the rain/the beat and the classic elements of dub production; the bass and drums meandering together. Still, the music retains a majestic aspect. 

None of this is ironic, it seems to me, in the mocking idiom of much contemporary music, where references are made as a kind of in-joke; to demonstrate 'knowledge'. It's more subtle than this. Don't forget Mark Stewart's vocals are also submerged deep in the mix, avoiding his characteristic style that could at times verge on the dogmatic/bombastic.

And it is also extremely moving; as it subverts while recognising a shared cultural heritage. In this sense, Sherwood demonstrates his true knowledge of the dub aesthetic and spirit, where creating 'versions' allows the producer to return to the originals, to re-imagine them. The intention is not to ridicule what had come before but to give it a new life.

Wilson Neate's AllMusic review of Stewart's album Learning to cope with cowardice includes the following comment on 'Jerusalem' 

The standout track is the cut-up version of “Jerusalem,” the English hymn (using William Blake’s visionary words) that has come to stand almost as an unofficial national anthem. Stewart’s “Jerusalem” embodies the multiple sonic facets of this album, juxtaposing jarring electronics, hectoring vocals, and heavy beats with more expansive layers of melody.

Here, Stewart mixes his own strident declamation of Blake’s verses with samples of a traditional arrangement of the hymn and with echo-heavy dub textures in such a way as to craft a complex meditation on issues of race, class, and tradition in Thatcher-ite Britain. Ironically, although Stewart doesn’t use his own words, this ranks among his most powerful political statements.

Snare and hiss within the sibilant-heavy production sound, offered foundation by the bass-line and that solitary beat: 'Jerusalem/Jerusalem ...'