Matthew Herbert On Labi Siffre

Circles of influence

“Considering Labi Siffre has had at least a couple of Number Ones, directly or indirectly, he’s maybe not an obvious choice as an outsider.

From being sampled by Eminem for ‘My Name Is’ to the Madness cover of his song ‘It Must Be Love’, his fingerprints have been on popular music for many decades now. In typically modern fashion though, his actual voice is rarely heard.

We may inadvertently know about what restaurant Rihanna is eating in tonight via Twitter, but we probably can’t note one important thing about Labi Siffre – one of the most important British musicians of the last fifty years.

You might be able to say he wrote ‘Something Inside So Strong’ which topped the charts in the late-’80s, or even spot him sampled on a recent Kanye West album, but the UK record industry has done a pretty good job of pretending he doesn’t exist. Which is a travesty.

I can’t name a single musician in this country that has so perfectly mastered the craft of songwriting as Labi Siffre. I’d go further and say nobody comes close. He takes suspiciously simple sounding chords and strings them together in ways that still surprise me years later.

One of the most intense concerts I ever went to was on his ‘Last Songs’ tour. Just him and an acoustic guitar. Stripped of all music’s usual excesses, these songs with their uncomfortably direct lyrics skewered me to my chair with their emotional, visceral, elegant, bespoke punch. Here was his world in all its bare glory, burnishing brighter than any golden coat of arms or regimental cuff links.

You can see why a music industry, so enamoured with surfaces, would scurry from this intensity; it just structurally can’t cope with such authentic, genuine, justified rage or political potency.

In this system, the money always comes first. It’s a colossal betrayal, because if a gay black man can’t even feel safe or at home in a supposedly creative, liberal environment like the music business, then where can he?

He was, of course, dropped for being gay and having the temerity to talk about it in public. It makes the irony that little bit more delicious – that he’s such an accomplished musician and songwriter that it’s impossible for his music (and thus politics and sexuality) not to creep in to our world again and again.

We should treat him as an elder, a guru, an authority. Instead he’s an outsider.”

Read more Circles Of Influence features from Andrew Weatherall, Micachu and Gravenhurst.

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