National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Neneh Cherry (b.1964)

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While the term ‘world music’ has come to describe material that absorbs and embodies a collective global perspective, world music by way of individual execution has been consistently reflected in the career of Neneh Cherry.

Born in Hassleholm, Sweden on 10 March 1964 to Sierra Leonean percussionist, Amadu Jan and European artist Monika Karlossson (Moki Cherry), Neneh Mariann Karlossson would, before her fourteenth birthday, call esteemed jazz trumpeter Don Cherry her step-father and Stockholm and New York her home cities.

From her travels and musical inheritance, Neneh Cherry possessed a broad and informed musical outlook. She was attracted to the rebellion of punk, the non-verbal insurrection of jazz, Europe’s pop culture and the challenge of making all of those, and the burgeoning rap scene, her own.

In keeping with her travels, Neneh Cherry hop-scotched through musical genres that both provided the sound track of her youth and inspired her adult creativity. While in London she joined punk bands the Slits and the Nails, was a member of transient musical humorists Rip Rig + Panic before joining their spin-off group, Float Up CP.

Cherry signed her solo recording deal with Virgin Records after being spotted rapping on-stage in London and followed the release of the Anti-Falklands ‘Stop The War’ single with the album, Raw Like Sushi (1989). It became an international hit and its impact and success made Neneh Cherry a star.

Cherry’s seemingly ‘sudden’ arrival in the pop mainstream created a stir that was only enhanced by her live appearance on ‘Top of The Pops’. Neneh proudly performed her single ‘Buffalo Stance’ when she was eight months’ pregnant, wearing the current hip hop attire and attitude: high top trainers, door-knocker earrings, dookie chain and exposed, swollen stomach. Musically she was already successful, but after that performance, Neneh Cherry would never be forgotten. She received a Best Newcomer nomination in the 32nd Grammy Awards on the strength of Buffalo Stance and Raw Like Sushi but was canny and articulate enough to work with the media. She co-organised a tour of Japan for Bristol sound system-cum-producers The Wild Bunch and spoke openly about women’s rights, sexuality and politics.

By 1990 Cherry and composer and long-time collaborator Cameron McVey were married. She received the Brit Award for Best Single, and Best Female Vocalist but also suffered for a time with Lyme disease. She was still able to appear on the AIDs awareness album, Red Hot & Blue (1991), a collection of reinterpreted Cole Porter classics to which Cherry produced her own contribution: I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Her charitable work continued when, working alongside Cher, Chrissie Hynde and Eric Clapton, she recorded the single, Love Can Build A Bridge, for Comic Relief.

Cherry’s personal, diverse, musical network was reflected by the talents she invited to join her on her second album ‘Homebrew’ (1992) who included US rap duo Gangstarr and REM frontman Michael Stipe. In two albums and over four years, Cherry’s work reflected her place within the burgeoning British hip hop scene.

Two years after the release of Homebrew, an album that, like Raw like Sushi, was a witty and occasionally damming critique of social and personal ills, Cherry recorded another surprise. The starkly beautiful single, Seven Seconds. A duet with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, it captured the musical and social mood of the time, when more artists were reflecting their social and political consciences. Seven Seconds, co-written by Jonny Dollar and McVey (under his production pseudonym of Booga Bear), was so named in tribute to the immediacy of birth when a child is unaware of the world’s social and political ills. The song was a tri-lingual hit, recorded in the Senegalese tongue of Wolof, French and English and would go on to become Number One in France (remaining at the top for 17 weeks) and selling 3 million copies there alone. Inevitably, it was awarded the European Music Award, attracted a Grammy nomination in 1994, and won the World Music Award for Best African Single in 1995.

1995 was also the year that Neneh Cherry toiled over her third album and the year her step-father, Don Cherry, died. Neneh Cherry concedes that Man (1995) is an album ‘about life and death and sex’, but it also brought her back to the collaborating with another member of the British hip hop scene: Tricky. Their track, Together Now appeared on both Man and Tricky’s CD God and is one of a rumoured ‘vault’ of collaborations said to exist between the pair.

The emergence of Brit Pop led to many offers for Cherry, and she accepted one from Sheffield’s Pulp, appearing on their This is Hardcore album (1997). After a closing performance at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Cherry undertook ad hoc DJ sets in London, Amsterdam and Ibiza as well as appearing in the British short film Assumption (2002). Cherry provided guest vocals on British dance duo Groove Armada’s Think Twice single, from their Lovebox album (2003) and two years later featured on the Gorillaz acclaimed Demon Days (2005) CD – performing ‘with’ the animated musicians at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom that year.

By 2006 Cherry had relocated back to Sweden where she has since recorded with Swedish rock band Teddybears and rapper Pettter. She currently hosts a cookery programme on BBC television with former Rip Rag + Panic band-mate, Andrea Oliver. In September 2006 an online petition was launched by fans on social networking website MySpace to demand that Virgin Records release Neneh’s unheard material.

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