The Selecter’s longtime leader reveals what’s on her radio: “Certain songs are pivotal in your life because they make you stray off the path”, in our MAY 2023 issue of Uncut, available to buy here.
I suppose I was 13 or 14 when I first heard it. It was a revelation to me because she wasn’t like all the other black women who were around at that time in groups like The Supremes. She was a fully formed woman in all respects, and she was just so challenging.
She’d taken an Otis Redding song, which is really just unrequited love nonsense, but somehow she imbued it with the time she was living in, when feminism was first coming to the fore and black women were becoming more visible. That opening line, “What you want!” – she makes it confrontational. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow!’ She was a performer who knew what she was about and where she was going.
“Long Shot Kick De Bucket”
BEVERLEY’S RECORDS, 1968
The school I went to was in Romford, but some of the kids who went there were from Dagenham. There was a little posse of skinheads among them, both boys and girls, and they used to play records in the common room and do this line dancing thing. I was fascinated, because I’d never heard that kind of reggae music. Millie [Small] had been around with “My Boy Lollipop” and things like that, but this was completely different. It wasn’t all as good as The Pioneers, I have to admit, but that one stuck in my brain. So, yeah, you’ve got a young black woman being introduced to ska music by white skinheads in Romford, which is fairly bizarre!
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
I was studying biochemistry at Lanchester Polytechnic, now Coventry University, and got in with a whole different set of people. I got really absorbed into The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but particularly into “Oxford Town”, because I was the only black student in this place of further education. I thought, ‘If I was in the Deep South of America, none of this would be happening, I would be fighting to try and get into a university’ – and that’s what “Oxford Town” is about. I’d just come out of Romford and was thrust into all this, but it opened up the mind. I started playing guitar around folk clubs in Coventry and it went from there.
The Old Dyers Arms in Coventry used to have ‘stay-backs’ on a Sunday afternoon. The Fureys would sometimes turn up and sing Irish songs, there’d be people doing Richie Havens stuff and then there’d be real finger-in-your-ear business as well. Again, I was the only black person, and the only woman, but I started doing a few songs and nobody asked me to leave. I used to do Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country”, and from that I picked up on other things like Joni Mitchell. The song “Blue”, the way it starts: “Songs are like tattoos”… and they are like tattoos, on your soul. Certain songs are pivotal in your life because they make you think about different things or stray off the path you were on.
FELA KUTI & AFRIKA 70
International Thief Thief (ITT)
I always knew my father was Nigerian, but being adopted, I didn’t really have any more information than that. The Selecter’s rhythm guitarist Compton Amanor, whose mother was Ghanaian, was the first mixed-race person I could really sit and talk to. He introduced me to both highlife and Afrobeat. As soon as I heard Fela Kuti, I just felt at home with what was going on, even though I didn’t really understand what he was saying. He showed how you could be free, and kind of own the stage. I got to interview Fela once for Channel 4. A week later he rang me up late at night and invited me to become one of his wives! He was that crazy.
LITTLE INDIAN, 1993
This was a favourite of mine in the ’90s when The Selecter reformed. I wore the damn CD out on one of our American tours. Again, it had that same quality of being quite confrontational, but in a completely different way. This woman had come from Iceland, which was a million miles away from Aretha Franklin, but nonetheless they seemed to be sort of plumbing the same kind of area, ie, themselves, how they operated in the world and a fascination with what goes on between people. Björk is a bit of an outsider, and that was always something that I could relate to because for most of my life I’ve felt othered for all kinds of reasons.
TOP DAWG/AFTERMATH/INTERSCOPE, 2017
I’m always very attracted to the words that people use and how they use those words to get across what they’re thinking. He’s having this kind of polemic with himself all the time, and I really like that. The opening – “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness?” – is such an amazing start to a record, and it really made me think about the time that I was living in: it was very Trumpian, Brexit had happened, and also the whole Ferguson thing. It seemed crazy that black men are gunned down on the street for hardly any reason at all in America, but here they were handing this black guy a Pulitzer. It was two huge extremes in a country which is full of extremes, obviously. But we were going in that direction here as well.
AGE 101/AWAL, 2021
I met her when I went out to South America with Damon Albarn and Gorillaz. I had such fun on that tour and I was so in awe of her talent. The track “Woman” is so original. She’s independent because she doesn’t want to be influenced by all the usual tropes, which allows her to maintain an authenticity about herself. Also she’s Nigerian, so I obviously have a degree of kinship there. For me, I guess it all started with Billie Holiday. There are so many iterations of “Strange Fruit” through the years, completely different [musically] but still with the same subject matter and the same degree of intensity. It seems to be a through-line, and Little Simz is holding the baton at the moment.