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Something So Strong

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


What makes an anthem? How does a song become so strongly iconic that the anti-apartheid movement will adopt it, that gays will brandish it, that the UN will use it and the IRA will proclaim it on the streets of Northern Ireland?

When I first heard “So Strong,” I immediately wanted to know more about the singer and the composer. I used “So Strong” as a theme song on “Morning Meditations,” a long-running Sunday morning radio program I hosted for a number of years.

It’s hard to wear out a CD, but I damn near did. I had both the album and the CD single—over time its cardboard cover became frayed and wrinkled. New listeners always called at the end of the program wanting to know the name of the song. Old listeners wanted to hear the song’s entire five-plus minutes uninterrupted by outro announcements and station IDs.

The album may not be as good as the title song, but it also contained a potent mixture of non-gender specific love songs and socially conscious declarations. 


Siffre's record starts off sounding like a dead-ringer for another wah-wah and funky-bass classic, The Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby.”  If Siffre had simply rode out that initial funk for three or four minutes, he’d have had a good record. But unsatisfied with mere goodness, he goes for outright greatness.


Two minutes in, he drops everything; leaving just the drums and bass. Breaks are great in general, but this particular break is a winner among winners. Gradually, Siffre builds the groove back up, adding percussion, guitar, keyboards, and strings. When he sings again, it’s as if a new song has started. Before the break, he uses the same ‘Soul Brother In Love’ tone we already know and love from many R&B Hits of the 1970s.


But following the break, his tone is much more conflicted — Siffre sounds both ecstatic and regretful as he sings in soaring tones: “I was smiling hard / But I was lying / Then you sailed along….you stole my heart.” 


What Siffre has is the blues!


But Siffre just doesn't write classic tunes, he writes excellent poems too. Born on  June 25, 1945. Siffre’s father is Nigerian and his mother is Barbadian / Belgian. He was educated in West London and his first poetry book “Nigger” (1993) was based on his view that you don’t have to be black to be one (though it helps). This was followed by “Blood on the Page” (1995) and “Monument” (1997).

His poetry addresses wide ranging themes of theology, childhood, supposed adulthood, sociology, love, hate, language, critical thinking and the lack of it, communication, various “isms” and the methods by which the mainstream dismisses the marginalised and dispossessed.

His fourth hit song, "Something Inside So Strong" won the 1986 Ivor Novello award for best song musically and lyrically. It has been used as an anti-apartheid anthem in apartheid South Africa; used worldwide by gay groups, women’s groups, disability groups, Amnesty International and sexual abuse recovery groups as an anthem of self-empowerment.

Siffre had a moderately successful career as a soul singer in the 1970s, with a clutch of minor hits—"It Must Be Love" (1971), "Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying" (1972) and “Watch Me” (1972).

By the 1990s, he was phasing out of music and concentrating on creative writing. Siffre did "The Last Songs Tour" in 1998-1999 and began working exclusively in the literary arena. He expanded his writing to include writing for radio and the stage.

Siffre publicly acknowledges he is gay and lives with his long-time partner, Peter Lloyds. It is ironic that the piano hook on Siffre’s song, “I Got The,” was sampled for Eminem’s 1999 debut hit single, “My Name Is.” Jay-Z and Wu-Tang Clan have also sampled Siffre’s music. 

He released his last album, The Last Songs, in 2006. To many, Siffre is the quintessential example of a socially conscious artist.

Check out his website at: http://www.so-strong.com


Labi Siffre on Labi Siffre:

Well, I write about what interests me. I suppose I tend to focus on love and the lack of love and how we treat each other. I tend to write in an up-front manner; I’m not interested in writing crossword puzzles. The hardest part is having the courage to be vulnerable. I’ve never believed in this idea of giving people what they want because you invariably give them less than they deserve.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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