Born August 10, 1964, in Stockholm, Sweden; daughter of Swedish artist Moki Cherry; father, West African percussionist Ahmadu Jah; children: Naima, Tyson Cherry Kwewanda McVey. Education: Attended country school in the south of Sweden and a state school in New York; dropped out at age 14. Addresses: Home-- London, England. Record company-- Virgin Records, 30 West 21st Street, 11th floor, New York, NY 10010.
At first, critics identified her as the step-daughter of Don Cherry, the noted jazz trumpeter. But as her debut album began to catch on, Neneh Cherry stepped out of that shadow and found herself with an impressive following of her own. Her first single, "Buffalo Stance," shot to the top of the charts in both England and the U.S., earning praise in Rolling Stone as 1989's "best and boldest hit single." Then, following the release of her album Raw Like Sushi, Rolling Stone commented that while "many musicians have built retirement funds by imitating the musical and sexual paths of Prince and Madonna ... [Cherry] may be the first newcomer inspired by them who also poses a threat to their preeminence." The reason was clear: Raw Like Sushi delivered not only great music but the hope that America's pop-goddess icon might be reinvented in a more positive form. Cherry, to be sure, has beauty and sex appeal to spare. But unlike the vast numbers of MTV glam queens, she also exudes power, confidence, creativity, intelligence, and, having given birth to her second daughter during the making of the album, an uncommon level of maturity.
Cherry's songs are a groovacious blend of rap, pop, and jars; their content, as the New York Times noted, amounts to "streetwise pep talks urging self-respect." Her style is to alternate between rap and melody, which allows her to sound eloquent and tough in a single song. "People are beginning to use the power of melody in combination with the power of blatant aggression," the singer told Pulse!, "and I don't mean aggression as in violence, but as in reality, honesty, raw edge." That edge is part and parcel of her music: as Musician noted, "There's no coy nonsense or pouting in her spitfire vocals." But unlike the militancy and bravado that's so common among rappers, Cherry's rapping is also playful. "Using rap is fun," she told Rolling Stone, "because rap means that you can have a song song--a song with a melodic chorus that gives it the soul, and then with the rap you can hammer the blatant facts and truths down. And in a rap you can use phrases like cornflake packets. You can say things that really matter, in a fun way." As the New York Times Magazine pointed out, Cherry's "particular knack is for combining the socially uplifting message--the responsibilities of motherhood, the need for self-knowledge--with a sexuality that could safely be described as up-front."
Her song "Outre Risque Locomotive" is a good example of this two-sided message. "Baby," she sings, "you're an outre risque locomotive ... driving me crazy," and then elaborates on how attracted she is to her man. "I think the [girl] in the song is, before giving herself up to this person, questioning whether she really wants to," Cherry explained to Pulse! "She's telling the guy to slow down.... The thing is, she's not saying no because she doesn't want to do it; she's saying no because she's got self-respect and she wants to make sure it's something she wants to do before she gives him too much.
"Sex is probably one of the most important things in our society," she continued, "but unfortunately, it's been turned into this incredibly big deal ... It's almost been removed from us as something that's natural.... You see videos and things on TV and it's completely like manufactured sex, which makes it very unsexy, because it's not real. The things that are really sexy are the things that a person might be completely unaware of--a twinkle in your eye, or the way you do something. It's not the length of your skirt, necessarily.... A lot of people use sexuality and end up abusing themselves whilst using it. To respect yourself and to be proud of who you are and what you're doing, you have to have some dignity; and then whatever it is, you're gonna do with grace.
"The reason my album is so sexual is that sex is what obsesses so many people," she told the New York Times. "I once read about a study that discovered people have sexual thoughts at least once every eight seconds. I think it's accurate, even if that thought isn't direct. If there's a message in the album, it's that in order to survive you have to take control of your destiny and keep from being brainwashed by opening your eyes and seeing yourself clearly."
Neneh Cherry was born in 1964 in Stockholm to Swedish artist Moki and West African percussionist Ahmadu Jah. From infancy, however, she was nurtured by Don Cherry, who met Moki during a European tour with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Because of Moki and Don's respective careers, Cherry and her younger step-brother, Eagle-Eye Cherry, spent their childhood years being shuttled between Sweden and New York, where Don was based, and when Don went on tour, Neneh and Eagle-Eye often went with him. "It's the sort of life that could have become very confusing," she told Rolling Stone. "But most of the time we were traveling between two environments that we knew really well. And when we changed places, it was very natural. When we were on tour, it was in a bus with beds in the back, and the whole home went. And when we stayed in a hotel, we'd set up house. There's a classic story of my mother smuggling a portable camping kitchen into a hotel under her cape and dropping it in the lobby." For Don, who told the New York Times Magazine that he would not have toured without his children, those years left fond memories. "When we were on the road, it was always important for me to have the time to read the kids a story or relax with them before they went to sleep."
Don Cherry has been a pivotal figure of jazz's American avant-garde since his groundbreaking work in the 1950s with saxophonist Ornette Coleman. During the 1970s, not only did he share with his children his love for African, Indian, Chinese, and other musical traditions, he also introduced them to the vital scene that he belonged to. "I knew that it was different," Cherry told Rolling Stone, "and that it was about something else. But I think I appreciate it a lot more now. When I was about nine, my brother and I would be falling asleep next to the stage, thinking, 'God, not another twenty-minute solo.'" Nevertheless, Don's music made a deep impression on his young step-daughter. "Don used to take us with him to rehearsals at Ornette's place on Prince Street, in Manhattan," she told the New York Times Magazine. "And I can remember Denardo Coleman being, like, eleven, playing the drums and [my] being very fascinated by him. It was like 'Hmmm ... that boy is playing the drums.'" At the same time, Cherry was cultivating other tastes in music--the Jackson 5, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chaka Khan, a singer she has always revered, she told the New York Times, "for her aura of strength and fearlessness."
At the age of 14, Cherry dropped out of school. That move, she told Rolling Stone, is "not something that I'm particularly proud of, and I think it's because of a weakness that I didn't survive." The next year she went with her biological father to Sierra Leone, in Africa, to meet his family, and received an education of a whole other nature. "The first night there," she told Rolling Stone, "I cried the whole night, because it was so real. There was this overwhelming vibe of, like, 'You're in Africa': the smell, the heat, the way people looked. It was more real and more African than I thought anything could ever be, and I was convinced that I would never get out of there. But the weirdest thing was that it was very familiar. I think that's what people mean when they say 'going back to your roots.'... And I saw a security there in people that I'd never seen anywhere else, probably because they hadn't been taken away from there."
One source of Cherry's strength as a performer and lyricist seems to be her experience in Africa. That trip, she told Musician, exposed her to "a different side of female strength. The way African women relate to each other is so straightforward. I had a sense of belonging that was pretty mind-blowing." How, Musician asked her, would that kind of female strength go over "on the Brooklyn sidewalks, where even schoolboys think of themselves as God's gift to females?" "Most women find that kind of male behavior pretty boring," she answered. "I guess the message in my music is, 'Please don't give me this, 'cause I'm smarter than that.'"
Returning to New York, Cherry spent the next couple of years looking for her niche in the job world--"looking after kids," she told Virgin Records, "working in a couple of offices, cleaning whatever I could get my hands on." Nothing held her interest, though, and so in 1980, she went with Don to England. There, in London's arty, late-punk scene, she found her calling. First she joined the all-female proto-punk band the Slits, playing a bit of percussion and singing background vocals; from there she went on to sing for Rip Rig and Panic--a jazz-funk-punk outfit--and its offshoot, Float Up C.P. "It wasn't until I was thrown into music that the passion surfaced," she told Rolling Stone, "and all of a sudden it was, 'Oh, yeah, this is what I love.'" But more than the music itself, it was the spirit of the punk scene that drew her in. "It was a real identity that I could cover myself with," she explained in the New York Times Magazine, "that would give me an excuse to be more fearless." During that period, when she was 17 or 18, she gave birth to her first daughter, Naima.
While singing with Float Up C.P., Cherry ventured into rap music. She began hanging out at a London club that paid five pounds to anyone who would rap onstage. "I used to go there every week to get a fiver," she told Rolling Stone. Attracting the interest of an A & R man (a talent scout), she was asked to record her first single. "Stop the War" was the result, a song protesting England's war in the Falkland Islands; on the B side, "Give Sheep a Chance" pleaded for the island's majority population group.
Following the single, Cherry and her boyfriend, London musician/producer Cameron McVey (who goes by the name Booga Bear on her album), began writing the songs that would comprise Raw Like Sushi. They blocked out a demo recording in their small pink bedroom (which they dubbed Cherry-Bear Studios), and then brought in outside producers to polish each track. In the midst of recording the album, Cherry gave birth to her second daughter, Tyson Cherry Kwewanda McVey. (Tyson, she told Musician, "as in Mike. As in Cicely. She was born on International Women's Day, so we figured we'd better give her a heavyweight name, you know?") Tyson's arrival sparked a new song--"The Next Generation," a powerful and tuneful rap song that spells out Cherry's view of parenting. "I'm not saying that having kids is what everyone should do," she told Rolling Stone. "The song is saying, 'Yes, I've had a baby, and I'm really happy,' but it's also saying that children are our future and it's up to us to give them a fair break, so they can do something about our mistakes."
by Kyle Kevorkian
Neneh Cherry's Career
Background singer and sometimes-percussionist for underground cult bands The Slits, Rip Rig & Panic, Float Up C.P., all in the mid-1980s; solo performer, 1989--.
Neneh Cherry's Awards
Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, 1989.
- Selective Works
- Raw Like Sushi (includes "Buffalo Stance," "Manchild," "Kisses on the Wind," "Inna City Mamma," "The Next Generation," "Love Ghetto," "Heart," "Phoney Ladies," "Outre Risque Locomotive," and "So Here I Come"), Virgin, 1989.
- Musician, June 1989; August 1989.
- New York Times, June 28, 1989; July 9, 1989.
- New York Times Magazine, December 10, 1989.
- Newsday, January 7, 1990.
- Pulse!, August 1989.
- Rolling Stone, August 10, 1989.
- Virgin Records, publicity information, May 1989.