“I don’t believe in ageism.” It’s just as well, really, because the pop/hip-hop survivor is more relevant now than ever.
The stepdaughter of avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry, Neneh Cherry certainly has more jazz in her veins than most. But she also has more hip-hop, pop and fashion than many, too. Sylvia Patterson is invited round Cherry’s West London ex-council house for tea and meditation.
In London’s Westbourne Park, green space with high brick walls, there’s a stunning graffiti-art exhibition: b-boy characters, a perky Pink Panther and the huge, kaleidoscopic bubble-words: LOVE PEACE UNITY AND HAVING FUN. Dotted throughout these positive vibes, there’s now the jarring, freshly-painted slogan: Justice For Grenfell. We’re around the corner from Neneh Cherry’s home, 10 minutes’ walk away from the Grenfell Tower horror, smoke from which she could smell last summer in her own garden. “One of the heaviest days I’ve ever experienced,” sighs Cherry, who volunteered at the nearby Acklam Village venue, set up as community hub in the days afterwards. “And the council are trying to take it back, surprise,” she withers. “Oh, they’ll put a little shopping centre there or something. Just what we need. More shit.” She wanders through the community she loves, waving hellos to locals, round to the canal where barges rest on water so algae-toxic green it looks like a meandering lawn. Cherry, in a caramel industrial boiler suit, places her white trainered feet on the lip of the canal, pretends she’s diving in, perhaps a metaphor for living-on-the-edge. “Oh at 54, I’m so edgy,” she scoffs. “Still edgy… and relevant. I am trying to celebrate my age. A new state of mind, trying to fit into my Big Mama Thornton shoes…”
Like Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the Alabama blues singer who recorded Hound Dog in 1952 four years before Elvis, Neneh Cherry is a born frontier spirit. At 54 she’s as stylish, mischievous and infectiously warm as she was in 1992, when Q first encountered the spring-haired, hoop-earringed, trainer-wearing jolly-child-of-the-universe. She was in New York, promoting her second album Homebrew with her husband and collaborator Cameron McVey (who executive produced Massive Attack’s Blue Lines), the pair burdened by their edgy relevance, hiding under the duvet in Q’s hotel suite, giggling, wasted, on-the-run from endless US promo. Twenty-six years later, though, some things have profoundly changed. “I’m somebody’s grandmother,” she cackles, biffing Q’s arm, her first daughter Naima (from her first brief marriage) now a young mother herself. McVey, too, had a child from a previous relationship, Marlon, before the pair became parents to Tyson, once the seven-month pregnancy bump Cherry celebrated in Lycra on Top Of The Pops in ’88 with the scratchy pop-rap innovator Buffalo Stance (from her also era-defining debut Raw Like Sushi). Then came third daughter Mabel, now a 22- year-old R&B pop star who supported Harry Styles throughout European stadiums in early 2018 (Mabel’s hit song Finders Keepers was
co-written with Marlon). She describes her youngest daughter the way you could describe Neneh Cherry herself, “very soulful, figuring it all out with a lot of heart and a lot of balls”.
We reconvene to the Cherry-McVey home where there’s little evidence of their musical achievements, no trace of Cherry’s Britwinning, Ivor Novello and Grammy-nominated triumphs. These two prominent left-field musical forces are living, instead, the freewheeling, ramshackle, bo-ho dream. It’s a modest, narrow, three storey ex-council house, also home to Mabel and Cherry’s sister Amanda, her make-up artist today, the pair conversing occasionally in their native Swedish. “It’s a family business,” nods Cherry. “That’s how I survive, that’s how we’ve survived. And maintained some so-called sanity. Cam and I met around Raw Like Sushi and we always took in people around us, with us. Collaboration is delicate, families don’t always get on but fundamentally there’s trust, comfort, a connection at the core. It’s not mindless. Well, sometimes it’s mindless!” We’re in the chaotic kitchen/diner which comprises almost all the ground floor, once a tiny kitchen and living room, rebuilt into an open-plan rectangle with no back wall, replaced with two glass doors wide open to a small, square garden surrounded by ivy. The kitchen units run along one side, the ironing board is up, fairy-lights droop over the opposite wall where cables spill from newly-wired plug sockets situated half way up, framed photos hang at wonky angles interspersed with gaffer-taped family snaps. The white kitchen door is daubed in grey smudges, possibly handprints from not only the four adults living here but the temporary “extras” they’re always taking in. A lengthy wooden table hosts make-up, candles and mugs, the tiled floor strewn with an empty Sports Direct shopping bag and a large green bucket filled with Tupperware and pots (doing the job of a cupboard). “And it’s a broken bucket,” hoots Cherry, cheerfully. They’ve lived here for four years since moving from Sweden and many art-works remain in storage. “It’s the usual work-in-progress,” she says, a huge smile exposing a Gypsy-gold tooth.
“Artists have just been wanking around in reality telly land. We need positive anger. That’s the gift we get from the dark.”
Cherry’s accent remains a charismatic hybrid of New York/ London, the Sweden-born, partly-New York-raised lifelong nomad who’s sporadically lived between Sweden, New York, Spain and London, her home today “the bunker”, from where she and McVey go travelling (also the business hub for their Nomad Productions company). They also own a much bigger house in Camden, rented out, preferring both the West London community atmosphere and this modest dwelling, the least pop starry home Q has ever seen. “Less is more,” she decides, now seated under the sunshine at a white latticed-iron garden table (with wobbly legs) in a T-shirt which reads POWER FULL WOMAN. “Stuff doesn’t give you emotional bliss,” she carries on, being not only what she calls a “punk grandma” but a freedom-searching hippy. “I’m a typical Pisces, sensitive, a dreamer, affected by my environments. I love life, but I’m very slow. I can just hoomp-de-hoomp de-doop-de-doo around and be quite content.” Broken Politics is her fifth, exceptional solo album, co-written with McVey and produced by Four Tet (Kieran Hebden), a sensitive, dreamy, dubby, trip-hoppy soundscape affected by the world environment today. Woodwind flutters, African rhythms stir, steel drums seemingly spiral in outer space. She swears she doesn’t smoke weed any more, “but Cam does”. In a turbulent, speedy world, perhaps slowness is The Answer. “Well, if I’m stressed and panicked I just freeze,” she muses, “so I’m faster when I’m slower, if you see what I mean.” That’s a very jazz thing to say. “I am quite jazz.”
Neneh Cherry is very jazz: there were 18 years of mostly child-rearing between her third album Man (’ 96) and her fourth Blank Project ( 2014), though she collaborated in 2012 with Norwegian/ Swedish jazz trio The Thing, and in 2013 with RocketNumberNine (the London duo named after a song from psychedelic jazz madman Sun Ra). Her stepdad, who died in 1995, is all jazz, the US trumpeter Don Cherry who raised Neneh with her Swedish artist mum Moki, who died in 2009 (her biological dad, Ahmadu Jah, was the son of a Sierra Leone chief ). Broken Politics was written at home and recorded at the New York Woodstock studio of jazz pianist and old family friend Karl Berger, Don Cherry’s late ’ 60s- era bandmate. Over dinner in Woodstock, Berger told stories of her parents and on one new track, Synchronised Devotion, played the same vibraphone he’d played alongside Don Cherry when Neneh was a toddler. “It felt like connecting all the dots of my life,” she says, now nibbling from a bowl of sliced apple and walnuts. “Threads going all the way back to my birth place. I felt like I found my wings, like being in orbit. It felt like… arrival, like I’m in my time now.” In an era where social conscience in musicians is suddenly almost compulsory, Neneh Cherry has been righteous forever. In ’ 82, aged 18, she released Stop The War, a protest song against the Falklands War. In ’ 94, her anti-racism duet with Youssou N’Dour, 7 Seconds, was a melancholy global colossus. Broken Politics is less protest, more sonic balm, her mission to “create something beautiful” post- 2016’ s rip in the existential fabric. The single Kong, written with Massive Attack’s 3D, is seen through the eyes of Calais refugees with the hypnotic chorus, “Bite my head off, still my world will always be/ A little risk worth taking”. “Artists have just been wanking around in reality telly land,” she announces, with some disdain. “We need positive anger. That’s the gift we get from the dark.” She deplores today’s political class. “They’re all useless, it’s bully-ism, a freak show, actually,” she snorts. “With no solutions! Trump, Brexit, Theresa May, dreadful people everywhere with absolutely no empathy for other people. We’re dividing, living in fear of one another, racism is over the radar, all these displaced people. If your back’s up against the wall, no money, no one’s looking after you, you’re told a bunch of lies, you just wanna fight, basically. And we’re living in a bankers’ hell. We have the riches, if we ran things differently, to fix things for a lot of life.” If the world was run on her values, of family, community, openness and sharing, perhaps there’d be some meaningful evolution. Her non-existent wall says it all. “We’re trying to bring out in,” she nods, ruefully. “With open arms, as much as we can. With all these crazy forces that are out there bollocking you.”
“I’m not gonna be in the middle lane where Mabel is. So I feel a sense of freedom. And some of the best-dressed people are grannies. At 80 I’ll be wearing trainers, bling and a twin set.”
Suddenly, Amanda shouts from the kitchen. The strip of panelling below the kitchen units has come unstuck, smacked onto the tiled floor. “That fucking thing again,” yelps Cherry. “We had mice. Oh, nothing works, everything’s a façade and behind it everything’s falling apart!”
Neneh Cherry first moved to London aged 16, arriving into the postpunk atmosphere of political chaos and creative possibilities. Don Cherry had toured with pioneering reggae-punks The Slits which led her to their teenage singer Ari Up and her mother, Nora, John Lydon’s lifelong partner. She moved into a squat in Battersea with Ari Up. “Nora helped us break in,” cackles Cherry. She briefly joined The Slits, then Bristol’s trumpeting jazz troupe Rip, Rig + Panic, before becoming a central figure on the DIY London scene where she met flamboyant stylist visionary Judy Blame (who’d go on to style Boy George and Björk). Their partnership made both their names, the collaborative force behind the “Buffalo” look which defined Neneh Cherry in 1988: outsize hats, dollar-sign medallions, enormous stateof-the-art trainers. Today, piled on her ironing board, are two Judy Blame neckpieces made from black fabric, safety pins, buttons and a champagne bottle wire cage. He’d been due to creatively oversee Broken Politics when he died in February this year, aged 58, from cancer. He was, says Cherry, the “godmother” to her kids. “Without Judy, without Cameron, without my creative relationships, there would be none of this.” In the days leading up to Blame’s death, the Cherry-McVey family and associates gathered in his flat (including the world’s most celebrated milliner, Philip Treacy), sharing their funniest stories. On Valentine’s Day, told by palliative care nurses his death was imminent, phone calls were made. “So we were all there, a tribe, with candles, incense and music,” she recalls. “And the stubborn old goat lived for another five days. And we just stayed. That’s another thing about reality, suddenly there isn’t all the time in the world to fuck about with. And that’s coming from a slow person!” Cherry’s 50s so far have been a “coming to terms” with life. The first two years were emotionally hard, seeing her kids grow up and away, “the core of my life”, and the menopause, “which I didn’t know fuck shit about and not knowing made me feel ashamed as a woman: we don’t talk about it because it’s not sexy.” She felt lost. “A bunch of unresolved stuff put me to the wall,” she admits. “And below that wall was a lid and below that lid was loads of… shit. That needed to come out. From a young age I’ve programmed myself to be a survivor. So I’m finding ways of not being overshadowed by… redundancy.”
This year, Neneh Cherry is as productive, edgy and culturally timely as she’s ever been, now a pioneer for veteran womanhood, too. “There is ageism, but I just don’t believe in it,” she decides. “Sometimes I wake up and look like shit and feel really old but… it passes. So fuck it, I’m kind of old but that’s… kind of cool! I don’t need to pretend I’m 25. I’m not gonna be in the middle lane where Mabel is. So I feel a sense of freedom. And some of the best-dressed people are grannies. At 80 I’ll be wearing trainers, bling and a twin set. Don’t worry, it’s happening!” Her only purpose now is to keep forging an independent living, as she’s always done. “I’m not making an amazing living right now,” she notes, in her breezily honest way. “But it’s about having freedom and choice, right? Ultimately, we don’t think about bank notes when we do what we do. Which is maybe quite obvious!” It’s a few days before this year’s Notting Hill Carnival and her next task today is to “clean up my yard”. She’s hosting her annual party for around 50 people, over several generations, welcoming any “extras”, cooking with her chef friend Andi Oliver, immersed in her beloved community. It won’t be a party-til-dawn affair. “Oh, those days are gone,” she assures, gold tooth flashing in the fading summer sun. “Midnight, Big Mama gets them out.” There will be love, peace, unity and having fun, no doubt. At least most of the time: the way it is with a real family.
Cherry pics: (clockwise from above) Neneh in Rip, Rig + Panic, 1981; 1988 single Buffalo Stance; performing with husband Cameron McVey in 1993.
Neneh Cherry: always hanging in a Buffalo stance, London, 2018.
“I feel a sense of freedom.” Neneh Cherry lets it all go, Westbourne Park, Notting Hill, London, August 2018.
We are family: with daughter Mabel, London, 2017.