When I Grow Up I Want To Be Neneh Cherry

In an anecdote I sometimes tell my younger friends to amuse them, a considerable part of my late childhood and early teens were spent in front of our TV set, in a sort of limbo. I would turn on MTV and wait for songs I liked. The songs that came in between were marginally interesting too, bringing a wealth of information about how people in that West of dreams (at that point a fairly non-descript mass of Europe and America) danced, dressed and generally went about things. Sometimes I liked songs that were hardly ever played, and that made me a little sad and sent me on trips to find pirated tapes at our local market. Disclaimer to those horrified by the fact: much coveted original tapes were neither available, nor affordable, if by a miracle they did show up in some local shop.

Sometimes I happened to like something that went big enough to be played almost on repeat, and thus Neneh Cherry’s arresting black and white image, as seen in the 7 Seconds video, became an inseparable companion for a while. This was the time before Google told you everything you need to know about the world, and my Larousse encyclopedia, which I liked to study letter by letter, was not yet updated with the exotic knowledge of popular culture, so Neneh was more an image I constructed for myself from the videos I saw of her than the real Neneh- or so I thought. I was wildly fascinated by her looks, by what she wore, the way she moved and also noticed that she smiled a lot, which was not a behaviour I attached to musicians, especially to those who rapped, who were generally very stern and serious.  I thus concluded that she was, in the vocabulary of a 10 year old, very nice. An adult, but an intriguing one, who wore clothes I would have liked to wear too if my mum let me and did something I would have liked to do too if I had any skill whatsoever at it: she sang. Come to think of it, her name was wonderful too, I was firmly convinced that Cherry was her real surname and cherries are my favourite fruit.  So, the next step of my conclusion was that I would really have liked to be Neneh Cherry when I grew up.

What happened then, naturally, was that I grew up, the Internet spread and I could watch videos whenever I liked, there was no sweet limbo anymore, I came to the sad grown up realization that I could neither sing nor play an instrument and went for the humanities instead. Neneh slipped off my radar, occasionally making a melancholy return when I’d inadvertently hear 7 seconds in a café or supermarket that played one of the ubiquitous 90s classic hit radios. Truth be told, it was not only me, it was Neneh too as after Man, released in 1996 her next solo album came almost 20 years later, 2014’s Blank Project, which in all honestly slipped by me. These days the sweet limbo has been replaced by the musical fear of missing out, songs, demos, mixes, albums bombarded at us at an alarming rate- there are no minutes in my life to match the length of my possible Spotify playlist.

Then one day last October a new song landed on my release radar, Kong, by Neneh Cherry, and suddenly I was flooded by the giddy feeling of 7 seconds coming on after a prolongued wait. Kong felt instantly familiar too, perhaps a bit mellower than some of her old work, taking on an almost hypnotic quality which reminded me of mid 90s Massive Attack- as I later discovered the song is indeed co-written with Robert Del Naja, on a break from trying to convince the world he is not Banksy. And of course, she is still, has always been political too- strangely enough, although I could not understand all of her lyrics back in the day, I always intuited that they must mean something more than I could at that point figure, though I had not yet realized how grateful I would once be to someone who does not shy away from singing about abortion, refugees or fake news.

Later on in October she released an album, Broken Politics, which embodies and enhances all the qualities of its first single, and is what I like to call a necessary album, an outspoken but gentle album of melodies that work like medicine in our often desperate times, never avoiding to confront them head on, but also suggesting that some hope is perhaps yet to be had. Her A38 show was included in the album’s promotional tour, and thus featured a large number of songs from it plus the well-loved classics, including ‘my’ 7 seconds graciously sung by Neneh even in the absence of Youssou N’Dour.

The first thing to strike me as it began was how right I had been as a child: Neneh Cherry is indeed thoroughly nice. She is open, engaging and charmingly self-deprecating, calling herself an idiot for introducing the wrong song, makes funny banter between songs, paying the usual compliments artists make when they visit a city, especially for the first time, but in her case, it sounds very real. She also has her lyrics in a booklet by her microphone which is pleasantly old-school and also taps into my curiosity about how artists remember all their songs, particularly those whose text is not simply a bridge and a three word chorus.

She is excited about A38’s ‘boatness’, that quite wonderful fact we tend to forget, and her enthusiasm, both for this particular night and life in general is contagious, spreading through her band onto the audience. There’s a tremendous positive energy, which translates into physical energy is well, so when she quips that she’ll turn 55 in March the crowd is rightfully incredulous, and someone asks about her face cream of choice. Of course, it’s not the cream, common place as it may sound, it’s never the cream, these things come from the inside, and from someone’s will to still stay connected with the world and care deeply, Broken Politics itself sounds like a record made by someone who is young at heart but wise in years. There are poignant moments interspersed with the lighter-hearted ones, such as when she introduces her song Black Monday, inspired by Polish abortion rights demonstrations which took place on a Monday. Having mentioned light-hearted things, I shall indulge in a quick concert footwear analysis to remark that Neneh’s game is strong on this level as well, immaculate white Superstars are exactly the kind of shoes I’ll wear when I’ll be mature enough to keep them clean. Because times might have changed, and some of us might have grown wiser, but watching Neneh Cherry without the cold screen of a television between us has convinced me of one thing: I stall want to be her when I’ll grow up.

PS: Her opening act was the rather fabulous Charlotte Adigéry, whom I wrongly assumed to be French-Senegalese on the strength of one song which rhymes Aboubakar with Dakar and what sounds dangerously like placard, and I here imagined some sort of convoluted story with an Aboubakar who sits in a placard in Dakar perhaps in the company of a cafard. This being said, Charlotte is Belgian-Caribbean, arrived in a rather arresting piece of black headgear matching a pair of delightfully seventies black pants and plays pleasant tropical electro-pop, though its club vibes may have worked even better if played at a later hour, and not as the preamble to another concert.

 

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