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Lessons Learned: What Neneh Cherry taught me about being a woman

Lessons Learned: What Neneh Cherry taught me about being a woman

Assistant Music Director at triple j and host of the J files on Double J, Gemma Pike reminisces and shares her thoughts on why the iconic Swedish singer-songwriter's message is more important than ever.

I remember when I first came across Neneh Cherry.  Sitting in my cousin’s bedroom taking quiet refuge from a family gathering, who with a good 10 years on me had immeasurably cool music taste while I was still finding my feet in a post-Take That/Peter Andre world, by the CD player sat Neneh’s 1996 album Man.

Neneh Cherry album art for 'Man' (1996)

What struck me first was the cover. When I’d been told I was a “mysterious girl” or that boys wanted me “back for good”, instead I was staring at a photograph charged with immediacy. A group of powerful women, Neneh standing in the middle wearing blue foiled sunglasses, pouting and leaning in towards the camera with equal measures of humour and seriousness. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. These women were candid, strong, short haired, bold, joyous, unapologetic. The opposite of what the other music made me feel.

I carried the CD home in the car that night, clutching it between my hands the whole ride. Thus began my journey with Neneh Cherry, and my own youthful self-discovery. On my own stereo in my own bedroom, hours of listening – and learning - began with album opener ‘Woman’. Before I even knew what feminism meant, this song was peeling back the layers of what I knew and had experienced as a young girl. Ringing out it’s trip hop sensibilities and playing on the almost unconscious familiarity of James Brown, beyond the hair-trigger of the chorus’ torch bearing catch cry: 

“I’ve born and I’ve bred;
I’ve cleaned and I’ve fed,
And for my healing wits I’ve been called a witch,
I’ve crackled in the fire and been called a liar,
I’ve died so many times;
I’m only just coming to life”

Lyrics that would only reveal themselves to me after many more years of living. What I didn’t know at the time was, listening to these songs were having an indelible impact on the rest of my life. 

Channeling the spirit of Neneh Cherry

The further into Neneh Cherry’s music I got, the more resounding her advocacy for women, sexuality, and gender politics became. In the time I’ve spent listening to her work, sharing in her poetry and her stories, I have vowed to channel the spirit of that woman on Top Of The Pops, seven months pregnant and undeniably proud when I am a mother. I have learned to allow myself softness without guilt in moments like ‘Trouble Man’. I can be empathetic when trying to understand, such as ‘Manchild’. And between the heart hitting ‘7 Seconds’ and ‘Kong’, I will always be mindful of others and not dismiss their stories as less important than my own. 

This is merely the beginning of the things Neneh Cherry has taught me over the years, in lessons both instant and more delayed.

Over twenty years on, I take a moment to reflect. Why do I feel that the lessons of Neneh Cherry are needed today more than ever? Of course, it’s reassuring to see the new artists bringing in the latest wave of feminism in pop culture, but it’s also hard to see us grappling with a lot of the same issues we did back in the eighties when we first met Neneh. 

In the age of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, conversation about what it is to be female and to exist in this space without compromise is as rife as ever. At times I feel elevated being a woman, on others, utterly deflated.

Why do I feel that the lessons of Neneh Cherry are needed today more than ever? Because there are more girls and young women who, like me, are sitting in their cousin’s bedroom discovering this music for the first time. 

If they can see it, if they can hear it, they can be it.

Counter-culture pop icon Neneh Cherry plays Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday 22 January

Gemma Pike


Gemma Pike is triple j’s Assistant Music Director, and host of The J Files – a weekly two hour music documentary on Double J and available via podcast. 

Check out The J Files online and listen here

Follow Gemma on Twitter: @pike_gemma

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