Sade, a Smooth Operator, sings of No Ordinary Love, and Is That A Crime?
Diamond Life, which yielded the popular singles “Smooth Operator,” “Your Love Is King,” and “Hang On To Your Love,” was the album that introduced the band to the world, and my own favorites from the album are “Frankie’s First Affair,” “When Am I Going to Make A Living?” “Sally,” “I Will Be Your Friend,” and “Why Can’t We Live Together?” Most of the songs on the album were written by Adu with Matthewman, and it is an unusually accomplished, distinctly cosmopolitan recording.
“Frankie’s First Affair” is about a charmer who falls in love, someone who now understands the people who had been infatuated with him: “You know now they really did care, ‘cause it’s your first affair...Where is the laughter you spat right in their faces?...It’s your turn to cry.” And in “When Am Going to Make A Living?” Adu sings about the ordinary working world: “They’ll waste your body and soul if you allow them to,” and notes: “See the people fussing and stealing, too many lies, no one is achieving. Have I told you before? We’re hungry for a life we can’t afford. There’s no end to what you can do, if you give yourself a chance. We’re hungry but we won’t give in. Start believing in yourself. Put the blame on no one else.” The song’s last line is “Hungry but we’re gonna win,” and, of course, win she has.
I was never sure if “Sally,” who opened her arms to many young men, was a friend, a social worker, or a sexual exploiter, as described in the song that bears her name—but in light of the male plights Adu describes and the fact that it is Adu singing, I’m inclined to think Sally’s a friend: “Put your hands together for Sally. She saved all those young men...She’s doing our dirty work...She’s the only one who cares...” The intentions in “I Will Be Your Friend” are unmistakable. “I’ll love you for a thousand years,” sings Adu.
It is easy to hear how such a thematically varied work would be welcome in an English world as represented in the Hanif Kureishi/Stephen Frears films My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). In his introduction to a collection of his screenplays, Kureishi has written, “This was the mid-1980s—that fevered time...In London new clubs and restaurants were opening to sell-out crowds. Soho was full of people making pop promos and commercials. Good newspapers and magazines were being started. Parts of London seemed gripped by money madness... Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was an attempt to reflect the fragmentation of that time: a young affluent middle class with 1960s values gentrifying working-class areas; riots and the creation of an unemployed and alienated underclass, necessitating the growth and increasing empowerment of the police; and a Third World Muslim whose country was being Westernized, coming to the West and being bewildered by the spiritual chaos he discovers.” ( London Kills Me, Penguin Books, 1992.) In a journal about the making of Sammy and Rosie published in the same book, Kureishi writes, “I know now that England is primarily a suburban country and English values are suburban values. The best of that is kindness and mild-temperedness, politeness and privacy, and some rather resentful tolerance. The suburbs are also a mix of people...At worst there is narrowness of outlook and fear of the different. There is cruelty by privacy and indifference...My love and fascination for inner London endures. Here there is fluidity and possibilities are unlimited.” ( London Kills Me, p. 163.)
Diamond Life, which sold about six million copies internationally, closes with Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together?” and the band’s tight groove and the pointed lyrics issue a question and a promise: “Tell me why, tell me why can’t we live together? Everybody wants to live together. Why can’t we be together? No more war, no more war, just a little peace. No more war, no more war. All we want is some peace in this world...No matter, no matter what color, you’re still my brother.”
One of the interesting things about Adu is that she hasn’t become negatively entangled in the racial confusions of our time. I’ve never heard her asked to take sides in the usually foolish arguments involving race in America. I don’t know if things are the same for her in England, Spain, Nigeria, or elsewhere. (“I try to write for the world,” said the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta, who has long lived in England, when asked about her intended audience. Emecheta’s reputation, based on books such as The Bride Price, Double Yolk, and Second Class Citizen, has not protected her from acrimonious personal and political attacks from fellow Nigerians. See: Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1992, pgs. 85-87) Sometimes we actually do accept people for who they are—rarely, it’s true—and it’s possible that Adu and her band are one case.
Often it is people of African descent in America who insist on racial allegiances.
People who see themselves as being on the margins of society tend to both fetishize normality—inordinately adore house, family, job and the symbols of security and success—and also have a special regard for outlawry—self-indulgence, sex, violence, excess of various forms: and they understand the acceptance and rejection of social norms but not indifference to them, not genuine independence. The great thing about “white’ history and culture is that there are so many examples and counterexamples of virtuous and vile behavior that one is never in doubt that one is dealing with human behavior, whereas “black” behavior has been so circumscribed, especially in the public or popular mind, between the servile and the transgressive that it is easy to think of an act as very black or not black at all. One can imagine a black man who is heroic or weak by white or black standards but not one who is independent of both standards: it may be then impossible to imagine a genuinely free black man, and that is very dangerous and very sad. Is it possible to imagine a free black woman; and is that what the Nigerian/English Sade Adu is?
What is the burden of “race”? It is entering a discussion about music and transforming it into a commentary on politics. It is the confusion of subject, object, and meaning. This is exemplified by the substituting of political meaning for personal or artistic meaning. The burden of race? It is an attempt to achieve or contemplate beauty that is then distracted by thoughts of slavery and social discrimination, by the horrors of history—the destruction of personal impression by a terrible historical imprint.
And, Kwame Anthony Appiah has written: “‘Race’ disables us because it proposes as a basis for common action the illusion that black (and white and yellow) people are fundamentally allied by nature and, thus, without effort; it leaves us unprepared, therefore, to handle the ‘intraracial’ conflicts that arise from the very different situations of black (and white and yellow) people in different parts of the world.” ( In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Oxford Univ. Press, 1992, p. 176)
Yet, the burden of race is often mindlessly accepted.
Sade Adu, a singer and writer and woman who has never slavishly served the market nor politics, deserves better, deserves specific consideration.