Sinéad O’Connor: Hip hop’s unlikely hero


Sinéad O’Connor: Hip hop’s unlikely hero

The Irish singer, who died on July 26, was an honorary member of the hip hop fraternity, which turns 50 next week. In 1994 she even came out with her own hip hop song, remembers FRED DE VRIES.


FOR obvious reasons, I’ve been playing a lot of Sinéad O’Connor over the past week. Of course I love Nothing Compares to You, one of the few songs where the cover beats the original. But I particularly like Universal Mother, her fourth, somewhat underrated album from 1994. It’s quieter, which makes her strong voice shine even more brightly, certainly on songs such as My Darling Child and her cover of Nirvana’s All Apologies, which sounds less self-pitying but equally sad when she sings it. She also throws in some powerful reggae with Fire on Babylon. Then there’s what I think is the key song, Famine.

But we’ll come to that later, because I really wanted to talk a bit about hip hop. Next week we celebrate its 50th birthday. Yes, it’s exactly half a century since Kool Herc DJ’d at a party in the Bronx where he used two record players to extend the break, so dancers could show off a bit longer. Along the way, he also invented “scratching”, moving the records backwards and forwards with your fingers to create rhythmic sounds.

Initially, it was party music, made with two turntables and a microphone for people who couldn’t afford the pricey New York clubs. It would  take another six years before the first rap record came out, Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang. From then on, what was initially dismissed as “kids' stuff" has turned into the best-selling musical genre, infecting everything else, from metal to country.

Officially, hip hop has four pillars: DJ, MC (rapper), breakdance and graffiti. I think it’s time we added a fifth: the use of the N-word. This truly became part of the subculture when NWA appeared on the scene. NWA, or Niggaz With Attitude, released their first album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988. And we, the unsuspecting listeners who were used to the righteousness of Public Enemy, the cleverness of LL Kool J and the jokiness of Beastie Boys, were awoken from our happy slumber by barrages of deep beats, nihilistic anger and a full dictionary of swear words. The N-word appeared 46 times on Straight Outta Compton, and would henceforth become the staple for most black American hip hop acts.

Its use is highly contentious. Just ask Mimi Groves, a white girl from Leesburg, Virginia. As a 15-year-old, she made a three-second selfie for Snapchat, breaking the news that she had passed her driving test. “I can drive, n******," she exclaimed. The snippet circulated among Mimi’s peers. Nothing much happened. Until several years later, when it suddenly went viral. A former classmate had saved it on his phone, waiting for the right moment.

That moment came when Mimi used Instagram to express her support for Black Lives Matter, after the death of George Floyd in 2020. “I wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of that word," explained Jimmy Galligan, the former schoolmate who had pressed “share". Galligan, who has a white mother and a black father, couldn’t stand what he perceived as her hypocrisy. 

It didn’t end well for Mimi. She lost her position with the popular cheer team at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and after heavy pressure decided to leave university as well. Later she said: “At the time, I didn’t understand the severity of the word, or the history and context behind it because I was so young." She added that the word was used in “all the songs we listened to, and I’m not using that as an excuse".

She has a point. Ever since the heyday of NWA, the slur has appeared in many thousands of songs, many of them topping of the charts. The late Tupac Shakur used it no fewer than 451 times on his album All Eyez On Me from 1996. No one batted an eye. No one called him out. No one cancelled him. On the contrary, it increased Tupac’s street credibility.

Clearly, Mimi Groves didn’t know the rules: black people can use it, whites cannot. Black Americans have reclaimed it and given it new meaning. The N-word is the trump card in the lexicon of race relations. It is a weapon, a piece of dynamite that can explode in your face. And although white music fans love hip hop and are its biggest market by far, they cannot touch it; it belongs to the African-Americans. It is the only relic from their slave days over which they have any control. Blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, they all fell into white hands. The N-word did not. It was owned by whites, but no longer. Now it is part of the black identity, a metaphor for the endless road to full emancipation.

As hip hop star Kendrick Lamar explained in Vanity Fair: “Let me put it to you in its simplest form. I’ve been on this earth for 30 years, and there’s been so many things a Caucasian person said I couldn’t do. Get good credit. Buy a house in an urban city. So many things — ‘you can’t do that' — whether it’s from afar or close up. So if I say this is my word, let me have this one word, please let me have that word."

Let me give you a brief history lesson. The N-word derives from niger (Latin for black) and negro (Spanish for black), hence colonial names such as Niger and Nigeria. Negro was originally used — without too much value judgement — to refer to people of darker skin colour. Africans who had been shipped to America as slaves were “Negroes". The moment of the shift to “n*****" and the derogatory use of that term is hard to pinpoint. Professor Neal A Lester believes it happened as early as the 17th century. Black clergyman Hosea Easton wrote in 1834 that white children were warned that they were “worse than n******" and “ignorant as n******". 

Unsurprisingly, it also made its appearance in music. One of the first recorded songs with the N-word was Oh! Susanna from 1848, the story of a man looking for love in the Deep South, written by the white “father of American music", Stephen Foster. It’s an innocent enough tune, until the composer gratuitously throws in the line “…and killed five hundred n******".

The huge success of Oh! Susanna saw the birth of a new entertainment category called Nigger Minstrel Show, mostly performed by whites with black faces. The combos had names such as Two Good Niggers, and Nigger Trio. With them came a plethora of songs ridiculing black people, with titles such as An Awful Wicked Nigger, Nigger in a Fit, Nigger, Nigger, Never Die and Nigger Loves a Watermelon. Even nursery rhymes of those days contained the N-word: “Eenie, meenie, miney mo. Catch a nigger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go."

But during the turbulent 1960s things changed. Young people were out on the streets, protesting against the war in Vietnam and a million other things. Students at the historically black Howard University in Washington, DC, reappropriated the word when they coined their battle cry: “Are you ready, niggas? You’ve got to be ready! Are you ready, niggas? You’ve got to be ready!" Their use of the N-word felt liberating. It had taken the sting out of the enemy’s vocabulary. Now it was theirs.

Again, music followed. In 1969, Sly and the Family Stone wrote a song called Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey. And around the same time, the New York poetry collective The Last Poets released their first album, which included no fewer than three songs with the N-word in the title: Run, Nigger, Wake Up, Niggers and Niggers are Scared of Revolution.

The Last Poets, who performed in Johannesburg in 2005, are often referred to as “the godfathers of rap". A few years before DJ Kool Herc performed his turntable trick, they recited angry poetry over jazzy percussion, and it’s not surprising that they were sampled by the likes of NWA, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and The Notorious B.I.G. The Last Poets belonged to the radical wing of Afro-Americans who were pining for a real revolution, the overthrow of the capitalist, racist system. They scolded the “lazy" ones, those who were happy to be fooled by a society that fed them sex, dope and television. “When the revolution comes, some of us will probably catch it on TV, with chicken hanging from our mouths," the poets declared. “When the revolution comes …! But until then you know and I know niggers will party and bullshit, and party and bullshit."

White progressives also started using the N-word. In 1969, ex-Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono released Woman Is the Nigger of The World, drawing parallels between sexism and racism. And nine years later, New York punk poet Patti Smith recorded Rock 'n' Roll Nigger, in which she sees the N-word as a refuge for outcasts and vagabonds of any skin colour. “Outside of society, that's where I want to be," she snarls. And towards the end she screams: “Jimi Hendrix was a nigga/ Jesus Christ and grandma, too/ Jackson Pollock was a nigga/ Nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga."

Lennon and Smith weren’t the only ones. Bob Dylan used it (Hurricane), and so did the Dead Kennedys (Holiday n Cambodia), Elvis Costello (Oliver’s Army), Guns N’ Roses (One In A Million), X (Los Angeles), Rolling Stones (Sweet Black Angel), The Offspring (LAPD) and Swedish metal band Clawfinger (Nigger). The word can even be heard on a South African pop tune from 1962. In the chorus of Ag Pleeze Deddy (Ballad Of The Southern Suburbs), singer Jeremy Taylor mentions “Nigger balls", which at the time was the name for a kind of hard candy. In 1979 the song was included in A New Book of South African Verse in English, published by Oxford University Press. But the editors, Guy Butler and Chris Main, without consulting Taylor, changed the sweet to “acid drops". Soon enough, Taylor himself also realised it was problematic, so when he toured the US he used “sugar balls" instead.

So how does Sinéad O’Connor fit in? Sinéad was an honorary member of the hip hop fraternity and sisterhood. After the news of her death, Public Enemy’s Chuck D saluted her on Twitter, and Ice-T wrote, “Respect to Sinead … She stood for something … Unlike most people …Rest Easy.’

Sinéad identified with black people, which is not surprising given the signs in post-war Britain that said “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs". In 1988, she added American female rapper MC Lyte on the remix of her single I Want Your (Hands On Me), which, said Kathy Iandoli in The Daily Beast, “changed the game for women in hip hop moving forward, offering new possibilities in sound and commercial experimentation".

The following year at the Grammy Awards, Sinéad sported the Public Enemy logo on the side of her shaven head during her performance of the hit Mandinka. Next, Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee remixed her single The Emperor’s New Clothes.  In 1990, she released the extraordinary song Black Boys on Mopeds, a cry against the killing of black youths by cops, more than 20 years before the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And in 1994 she came with her own hip hop song, Famine, which can be found on Universal Mother. Over a breakbeat, Sinéad talks/raps for nearly five minutes about the Great Famine that traumatised Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Roughly a million people died and 2.1-million left the country. That means Ireland lost between a fifth and a quarter of its population in 30 years.

The general assumption was that the Irish depended on a single crop, potatoes, and the crop failed repeatedly because of potato blight. Not so, says Sinéad. In her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, she wrote: “Everyone believes there was a 19th-century famine, but in fact, there was lots and lots of food in the country, it was just being shipped out of the country. It was just that you were shot dead if you were Irish and you went near anything but a potato. The fact is that to call it a famine is a lie."

In Famine she sings: “Our history books, the parent figures lied to us/ I see the Irish as a race like a child/ That got itself bashed in the face/ And if there ever is gonna be healing/ There has to be remembering and then grieving/ So that there then can be forgiving/ There has to be knowledge and understanding." And then, in great hip hop fashion, she “steals" a few poignant lines from another song, The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?").

A truly powerful song, with a great video to match. And she didn’t need a single N-word to get her point across.

Playlist: Spotify

♦ VWB ♦

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