‘Being famous’ is one of those weird concepts that seems simple when you’re a 12-year old. You do significant stuff; people notice it; the media draw attention to you and you’re famous. Job done – happily ever after etc.
But being famous is like the sea.
There’s little waves of recognition that please and tease; the feeling that it’s coming in and getting stronger.
There’s the regular coming and going of fame that makes you a living or makes you think twice about going out unshaven.
There’s uncontrollable crashing waves that are thrilling from the safety of the pier, but difficult to survive unless you have the skills.
And the tide can go out for a long long time.
Neneh Cherry is a household name to music-lovers of the 1980s and ’90s. Synonyms for famous that apply to Neneh Cherry include:
I’ve never met Neneh Cherry, but she seems to be an outstanding* musician who has experienced fame and recognition in its different forms throughout her life. She’s a mighty* example of someone who bridges the gap between punk and other musical styles and continues to be musically creative.
Don Cherry, Neneh’s stepfather since birth, is a world-renowned jazz trumpeter, who had played in the US with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman before travelling around and developing World Fusion music in collaboration with Middle Eastern, African and Indian musicians.
Whilst we would never define someone by their father’s identity, the two important background details are:
1) Neneh was exposed to a rich mixture of musical talent and awareness of diffrerent musical styles as she grew up;
2) She was born into a famous life and grew up seeing the obligations, the pressures and pleasures that come from being near that spotlight.
Neneh reports living with her family in a Long Island apartment block where Talking Heads also lived:
“That was quite a crazy building. Tina Weymouth from The Talking Heads gave me a bass, a little red Fender. I had a friend that lived in the same building, she played the drums and we sounded awful, but it didn’t matter. We started writing our own lyrics and making little weird songs.”
Aged 15, Neneh experienced the London punk scene when Don Cherry took his daughter on tour with Prince Hammer, Creation Rebel and The Slits. Neneh bonded with Tessa Pollit, Viv Albertine and Ari Up of The Slits and ended up dropping out of her American high school and living in a squat with Ari. The multi-racial element of that punk scene obviously appealed to her
“I just felt compelled by something here, culturally, that I hadn’t really experienced before… I think in America – it was a very segregated place still when I was growing up. It was very divided by colour and, you know, racial divisions”
At this point, punkgirls like The Slits and Neneh Cherry were just getting on with it as teenagers do; leading enriched creative lives, being mavericks on a budget. We suspect that the drive was for fun, novelty and sticking it to authority rather than any quest towards being famous.
Ironically, it is this period in their lives that is now making them increasingly famous. Neneh Cherry has been celebrated* for decades for her many collaborations, solo albums and musical projects from all genres. However, the 2018 wave of fame is driven by interest in and nostalgia for the 1977 London punk scene.
Neneh’s recent involvement comes following comments she made in various interviews about the inspiration she got from X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene even before Cherry moved to England.
“I found my voice listening to X-Ray Spex. She made me feel that I could sing. She was a really important woman and human being and a great songwriter and she still resonates so much vitality …… there’s an honesty and a kind of brutality, and every time I hear her I get goosebumps and shivers up and down my spine. “
A crowd-funded documentary film originated by Poly Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell and written by Zoë Howe is due out soon. Already the ‘I am a cliche’ merchandise is available and the interest in Poly, The Slits, Neneh and that whole ’70s punkgirl scene is due to erupt as a whole new generation become intrigued with the lives of such young girls achieving musical and fashion firsts.
Whilst a lot of Neneh’s best known musical work has been in the merging of different styles of dance music with her jazz roots, we like this reworking of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream complete with sax solos, a-gogo bells and breathy Neneh vocals. Pure jazz-punk!