The two icons delve deep into Black Lives Matter, COVID conspiracies, and collaborating on O’Connor’s powerful new version of Mahalia Jackson’s ‘Trouble of the World’
Some creative unions just seem destined to be. In a year that has seen unprecedented activism and mass mobilisation on the world stage, Sinéad O’Connor teaming up with British filmmaker, DJ, artist, and broadcaster Don Letts is a case in point. Released in aid of Black Lives Matter, O’Connor’s take on American gospel queen Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World” with Letts’ accompanying video is an emphatic joint statement from two people who embody punk’s essential spirit of resistance.
Sinéad O’Connor’s mark on contemporary culture – which is as much musical as it is personal – can’t be overstated. Named TIME magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1992 after famously challenging the Catholic Church by tearing up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, her career has often seen song and speaking out as one and the same thing. Albums like Universal Mother and the Grammy-nominated I Do Not Have What I Don’t Have are the definition of heart-on-sleeve musical statements, offering up uniquely intimate insight into a musical mind that pandered or answered to no one.
By the time O’Connor exploded on the scene via the runaway success of her 1990 single “Nothing Compares 2 U”, Don Letts’ status as a titan of British counterculture had long been watertight. In a dizzying CV stemming back to 70s London (where, as a DJ, he helped turned punks onto dub reggae), his output, not least as the official videographer for the Clash, saw him emerge as a catalyst for positive change. And that’s before even touching on his musical output as a member of Big Audio Dynamite and solo, his work as manager of feminist punk heroes the Slits, and, more recently, his endlessly listenable weekly slot on BBC Radio 6 Music.
Back in the tail-end of a year that has felt like no other before it, these parallel lines overlap in a collaboration that feels remarkably meant to be. Letts’ stark, black-and-white video for “Trouble of the World” – essentially taking him out of retirement on the videography front – has a sense of prophetic timeliness all of its own. By itself, the single, which was produced by David Holmes just after lockdown in Ireland, is a staggering reimagining from a peerless voice. Combined with Letts’ visuals, which explicitly flies the flag for Black Lives Matter, it possesses a whole new degree of potency.
Many things unite O’Connor and Letts, but it’s a lifelong commitment to truly telling it like it is, and acting upon those inclinations with their art, that defines them as allies and spiritual kin. Blessedly, the following conversation suggests that’s not going to change any time soon.
Hi both. Let’s get the obvious out of the way. How have you been finding this year?
Sinéad O’Connor: It’s been alright, really. I didn’t record this song until after the lockdown in Ireland. Before that, there was no recording done or anything for that matter, obviously. It was the same with going to London to film the video with Don. I had to isolate for two weeks after that but our lockdown has been over for some time.
Don Letts: Lockdown has been difficult for me because, like a lot of people in entertainment, I’ve lost a lot of means of staying alive, i.e. my earnings. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t have been constantly psychologically beaten up by the present climate in the wake of the whole George Floyd thing. So I’ve found the last four or five months very difficult.
Sinéad, your version of “Trouble of the World” makes for a powerful statement. You’ve said that your take on the lyrics isn’t one of despair but of hope. That feels significant.
Sinéad O’Connor: Yeah. On the surface, the character in the song is talking about death. But to me they are equally talking about the certainty that we will arrive at a place of paradise on earth. I don’t know why I interpreted them that way but that’s the way I do interpret it and I like the fact Mahalia embodied that certainty. Not just Mahalia but a lot of the artists of that time. The whole civil rights movement embodied the certainty that there is a destination to which we will all get, which is love and peace. Not to sound too corny. I guess that to me is what the song is talking about under the surface.
Was making a statement about Black Lives Matter this year a no-brainer for you?
Sinéad O’Connor: It was a no-brainer, absolutely. It was such a no-brainer that I’m not even sure I’m able to explain it. Obviously, I was as moved as anyone else was by what happened not only to George Floyd but so many others, and what’s been going on for years. But the trigger for me was when Public Enemy released their single “State of the Union”. Chuck D did a number of interviews wherein he pretty much called upon all kinds of artists to get up and start making music about this. He talked about the importance of musical artists contributing creatively to the whole situation, so that triggered me to do it.
Don Letts: I really like the fact that Sinéad’s choice of song puts the whole thing in the context of an ongoing struggle. And also the way it shines a light on Mahalia Jackson. People might know her as the Queen of Gospel, but she was also a major civil rights activist. In fact, if I remember rightly, she was once described as the most dangerous Black woman in America. Then again, that’s what the system does to anybody that speaks the truth. She saw music as a tool for social change. She saw that it could bring Black and white people together in America.
You’ve once said that punk is a “constant spirit” and a “refuge from racism”...
Don Letts: It’s funny, I said that once and it’s been quoted quite a few times. Lately I’ve been very wary of the press, because a couple of months ago I stuck my neck out on Channel 4. I call things as I see it. And as Sinéad will know too well, they can use this stuff to crucify you, man. So it’s not something that I like to pussyfoot around, you know?
Rightly so. Your video for “Trouble of the World” is quite special. Did you want it to be as explicit as possible that it was in support of Black Lives Matter – that there could be no ambiguity whatsoever?
Don Letts: Yes. And I think that’s a good segue from what I said about not pussyfooting around. I love the fact that Sinéad, as always, is passionate, on-point and not afraid to call it as she sees it, for better or worse. That’s what really attracted me to it. I mean, it was all there: the artist and the choice of song. I couldn’t have wanted for a better means of staying proactive in the current climate without putting my own neck on the block.
Sinéad O’Connor: We both felt very strongly that it should be very explicitly in support of Black Lives Matter. There were people around that were a bit nervous about that but myself and Don were certain that that’s what we wanted.
Don Letts: Anybody catch that news report last night about the complaints against that dance group Diversity? They were on Britain’s Got Talent or one of those things. I’m not really down with that shit, but I know that they were the nation’s darlings when they won it however many years ago. Anyway, apparently they did something a couple of weeks back that was about Black Lives Matter. Ofcom received something like 27,000 complaints about a dance routine that all these people thought was too political. That’s the world we’re living in, man.
Sinéad O’Connor: In Ireland there used to be riots outside the theatres when there used to be a play on. That’s what’s supposed to happen with art. Art is supposed to get people up out of their chairs and talking, even if they’re being angry or stupid. At least they’re getting up and talking. 27,000 complaints is a massive success.
Don Letts: Absolutely. I just hope that they can deal with the backlash. They should give you a call, Sinéad.
Sinéad O’Connor: Exactly!
“I don’t think it’s an obligation (for artists to speak out) at all. It should be something that you genuinely feel” – Sinéad O’Connor
Sinéad, like Don, fighting against fascism is something that you’ve done countless times in your career. “Black Boys on Mopeds”, from I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, springs to mind. In that song you sang “England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses / It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”
Sinéad O’Connor: It makes me very sad to think that it’s still relevant in 2020. If I may be controversial, I think things are slightly better in the UK than they are in America, insofar as the death rate of black people in police custody is concerned. But yeah, in the world generally, it’s sad that the song is still relevant.
A lot of people in the UK are naturally concerned about what’s going on in the States but whether you look to direct provision in Ireland, or Windrush, or Grenfell, we have no shortage of issues, both historical and current. Do you feel like there’s an obligation there for you to speak out?
Sinéad O’Connor: No, I don’t think it’s an obligation at all. It should be something that you genuinely feel. It’s the same as a song choice. I wouldn’t sing a song that I can’t identify with. I wouldn’t sing a song that’s not in my character, otherwise I’m not going to do a good job singing it. It’s the same as anything else. You either feel it or you don’t. I don’t think there’s too many people out there standing up for issues that they don’t feel.
Don Letts: And yet it’s hard to find artists with an opinion these days.
Sinéad O’Connor: Yeah, it is. There’s been a very detailed, clever grooming and silencing of artists and songwriters like Miley Cyrus and all those Disney kind of artists. They sexualise them young, and it’s all about sex. All “Oh baby, please don’t leave me. I can’t live with you” bomboclaat, as Peter Tosh would say. They groom a whole generation of songwriters to write about nothing and make you feel nothing. But they are victims of the situation. I don’t think that they are responsible for it. They don’t even know the way they’re being used. The higher the level, the greater the fucking devil. The devil is very clever and artists are very vain, so you can appeal to our vanities. They get trapped by that for a start and they don’t know how they’re being used.
Don Letts: Thank God there’s a tradition of people, from Dylan to Chuck D.
Sinéad O’Connor: And Mahalia.
Don Letts: Yeah, those who shine a light and hold a mirror. It’s a tough road and very few people can handle it. That’s why you’ve got to respect those that do.
Sinéad O’Connor: Irish people can fucking handle it. We’ve been used to it for 900 fucking years.
Systemic racism, especially in relation to police brutality, has occupied a prominent place in a lot of our minds this year. What practical ways do you think people can take a stand?
Don Letts: I just think everybody needs to be proactive. Giving likes and being aware on social media ain’t enough. Things are too dread for that. You’ve got to be proactive but it doesn’t mean you have to pick up a molotov cocktail. I know it sounds it lame, but voting is a start. Consumer power is a start. These things are lot less messy than fucking up the place.
Sinéad O’Connor: Some of the civil rights artists like Curtis Mayfield used to say that even if all a person can do is get up and dance to a record, that’s something. If all you can do to express how you feel about George Floyd is to put on “Fuck tha Police” and jump around your sitting room then you’re doing something. Do you understand what I mean? I don’t think any of us have the right to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do. This why there’s chocolate and vanilla and strawberry and mint chocolate and fucking cherry ice cream, because there’s different types of people in the world. Everybody has a different way of contributing. Everybody has different ways of expressing themselves.
Don Letts: I’m going to quote James Brown and say “get up and get involved”. People who feel connected to the planet just can’t help themselves from calling out injustice. To those other people who want to be like sheep and just follow what the media says, good luck to them. But thank God there’s people like Sinéad out there that are prepared to stick their necks out and not take things at face value.
This is the first video I’ve done in ages. To be honest with you, I’m not really into selling people sneakers. I grew up with music that helped you change your mind, man. That’s the kind of shit that I want to put out there. I’m so grateful to have got the opportunity to do this, I ain’t going to lie.
“(The song) shines a light on Mahalia Jackson. People might know her as the Queen of Gospel, but she was also a major civil rights activist. In fact, if I remember rightly, she was once described as the most dangerous Black woman in America. Then again, that’s what the system does to anybody that speaks the truth” – Don Letts
Noted cons aside, a lot of people obviously use social media to be proactive and do the right thing. Don, you once said “that the internet has killed the mystery of the planet, it’s removed the pain, the passion and the strife.” Do you stand by that?
Don Letts: In a way, yeah. Don’t get me wrong: technology isn’t the problem, it’s people. There’s load of examples from around the world where platforms like Facebook or Twitter have helped galvanize people, create movements and let the rest of the world know what’s going on. The Arab Spring comes to mind. Whereas in the west people are showing what they’re eating and their ugly fucking kids, do you know what I mean? So it’s not the technology, it’s the people.
Sinéad O’Connor: I think there’s more pros. As said Don, it’s people. It’s 50-50. You’ve got 50 per cent assholes and 50 per cent people who are okay. But I think altogether there’s pros. It’s just like the world. The beautiful thing about social media is that you can block assholes. You can’t really do that in real life. My favourite part of social media is blocking fuckers.
Don Letts: Yeah, it really reveals what people are like. If you check out what they do, it really reveals where they’re at in the bigger scheme of things.
Much of what we’ve touched upon revolves around the very human desire for contentment and belonging within a community, both locally and broadly. You’ve both flown the flag for those over the years. What does contentment and belonging mean to you both in 2020?
Sinéad O’Connor: Well, I was able to sit today from 8am to 4pm knitting. That’s contentment. I had nothing to do but knit. I didn’t think about jack shit. I just sat knitting and it’s great that life has got to the point where I can do that. That’s contentment for me. You need to take up knitting, Don.
Don Letts: Contentment? Shit, man. Well, I think a level playing field would be good. I could get quite angry about some of the shit that’s been brought up, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or Windrush or colonialism. I ain’t looking for favours. I ain’t looking for fucking reparations, I ain’t even looking for Black History Month, do you know what I mean? All that I’m looking for is a level playing field, man. Let’s start there. That would make me content and we can work it out from there. Just level the playing field.
Well said. You both have scheduled tour dates for next year.
Don Letts: Hooray!
Here’s hoping everything pans out. Do you think it’s important that we should all make plans for the future?
Don Letts: Yeah! Not plans exactly but that’s why so many young people are getting involved now. They realise that it’s their future that they’re talking about, so that’s very important.
Sinéad O’Connor: We’re not fucking dead, are we? I mean, you’re planning to go to bed tonight. You’re planning to eat some dinner later. You’re planning to wake up.
Don Letts: It’s funny, you talked about how people have spent lockdown, and I’ve found that a lot of people revolve around either what boxset they’re watching and conspiracy theories, which is really boring. Did you hear the Illuminati got fucked by 5G and they had COVID as a baby? I’m kidding, but that conspiracy shit drives me nuts. It seems to me that what’s real is bad enough without people confusing things. We should deal with the real before moving on to the conspiracy shit.
Of course, anti-mask protests in Dublin and many other places are a perfect example of this.
Sinéad O’Connor: Yeah, Jesus Christ. I don’t know what anti-maskers are smoking but I don’t want any of it.
Don Letts: All I can tell people about this conspiracy shit is that I personally know four people who have died from COVID. As regards to conspiracy, there might be some weird shit about how it came into the mix but there’s no denying that it’s here.
Sinéad O’Connor: Exactly. There is a virus. Whether or not there is a conspiracy is beside the fucking point. You don’t stand outside a burning house full of people and discuss how the fire started or whether or not there’s a fucking fire, do you? First you put the fire out and you sort the rest later.
On that note, the near future is looking a little unpredictable. How do you think we can all go about supporting each other over the coming weeks and months?
Don Letts: Man, I’m trying to work out how to do that myself, I’ll be honest.
Sinéad O’Connor: Wear a mask and don’t fucking vote for Trump.