Labi Siffre was born in 1945 in London to a Nigerian father and a Barbadian-Belgian mother. He grew up on Jazz and Blues records, particularly the work of Jimmy Reed, Wes Montgomery, Mel Tormé. By 1970, after having played guitar in small groups all over Europe, Siffre was recording his first solo album, which saw him going in a more acoustic, folk music direction.
“It Must Be Love “ is from his second album, 1971’s The Singer and the Song.
Sound familiar? Maybe, like me, you knew the cover before the original. Madness always had good taste, and they had the good grace to include Siffre in the video at the 3:02 mark.
1972’s “Crying Laughing Loving Lying,” from the album of the same name, is an elegant critique of bravado and toughness. It would be covered by Olivia Newton-John three years later.
“Let’s Pretend” was an open critique of religion. It’s from the 1973 album For the Children, and it’s a good example of Siffre’s belief in the necessity of secularism.
Let’s pretend that the Pope sells all his jewels
To feed the hungry, ooh let’s pretend
Let’s pretend religous leaders say war is wrong
no matter who is strong, let’s pretend
Let’s pretend religion excommunicates those
who deal in hate and leaves them to their fate
Let’s pretend these evil people give a damn
and start loving their fellow man
He has carried this conviction to this day; Siffre is a prominent donor of the Atheist Bus Campaign, which raises funds to place atheist messages on the sides of London buses.
1975’s “I Got the…” is an ambitious song that goes off in a completely different direction at the 2:10 mark.
Anyone with a passing familiarity of late 90’s hip-hop will recognize that transition as the hook for Eminem’s “My Name Is.” Producer Dr. Dre had to get Eminem to change some of the lyrics to the song in order to receive permission to use the sample. As Siffre put it, “Attacking two of the usual scapegoats, women and gays, is lazy writing. If you want to do battle, attack the aggressors not the victims.”
An openly gay man who first met his partner in 1964, Siffre clearly had reason to take exception to lyrics that his music would be supporting. It brings up some interesting questions on the ethics of sampling: How much is too much to take? Are you taking one second of horns and mixing them with a number of other sounds to make a kind of sonic collage, like Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad famously did? Or are you lifting several seconds of one source and using that as the foundation and hook for the entire song, as Dr. Dre has done here? And if so, is the person taking the sample obliged to check with the writer of the original material to see if he is okay with his original material essentially promoting a message he might find objectionable? Food for thought.
Labi Siffre continued to record throughout the 1970’s. He then took a break from making his own records to writing songs for others. He returned to recording briefly in 1987, when footage of a white soldier shooting at South African children inspired him to write the anti-apartheid anthem “Something Inside So Strong.”
Siffre wouldn’t release another album until 2006, with The Last Songs. In the interim, he published three books of his poetry and became active on the internet. His website is worth checking out; Labi Siffre remains an eloquent, unique voice, one that we could stand to hear a bit more of these days.