Sinéad O'Connor used her voice for more than singing

Sinéad O'Connor used her voice for more than singing

Nick Levine remembers a brilliant artist and tireless activist who left the world just as it seems to be catching up with her.

"I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame," Sinéad O'Connor wrote in her wry and eloquent 2021 memoir, Rememberings. However, for the lion's share of her life, the two things were intertwined – sometimes painfully. O'Connor was such an incredibly talented protest singer that fame, though unwanted, was surely inevitable. And once she had the global platform it brought her, she used it to share truths so uncomfortable they affected her career and, at times, her own mental health.

O'Connor, who died last week aged 56, was an artist who will be remembered not just for her startling voice and searing songwriting, but also her willingness to put herself on the line. In 1990, she was lauded for her stunning cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," which became a global number one hit. The iconic video, in which a single tear trickles down her cheek at a pivotal moment, made her one of the most recognisable women in the world. The deeply felt emotion and complete conviction that pours out of the performance was also present in O'Connor's approach to fame and activism. Throughout her career, her radical honesty and preternatural empathy for marginalised and disenfranchised groups made her a beacon of hope to outsiders, oddballs and many who sometimes felt othered.

In October 1992, O'Connor famously made headlines by tearing a photo of Pope John Paul II in half on Saturday Night Live as she told viewers to "fight the real enemy." The action instantly branded her pariah; fair game to vilify and treat as a punchline in the mainstream media. When he hosted SNL a week later, actor Joe Pesci told the audience that he would have given O’Connor "such a smack" if the incident had occurred on his show. The boorish remark was greeted with laughter and a round of applause.

As a survivor of child abuse, O'Connor was ready to talk about rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and the systemic attempt to cover it up. In 2017, following numerous exposés including a landmark 2002 investigation by The Boston Globe, Pope Francis acknowledged that clerical sex abuse was so widespread the Vatican had a 2,000-case backlog. Back in 1992, though, the world wasn't ready to listen. "I am an Irish woman. And I am an abused child," O'Connor wrote in an open letter to the press after her SNL appearance, explaining her stance with a candour that would have felt shocking at a time when pop stars were rarely encouraged to reveal their trauma. "The cause of my abuse is the history of my people, whose identity and culture were taken away from them by the British with full permission from The 'Holy' Roman Empire. Which they gave for money and in the name of Jesus Christ."

The singer always maintained that her mother's cruelty, which manifested in physical, sexual and emotional abuse that O’Connor sang about on her devastating 1987 debut single “Troy”, was a product of the oppressive way that successive generations of Irish women had been raised. Pointedly, the photo of Pope John Paul II that O'Connor ripped up on SNL had belonged to her mother, who died in a car accident in 1985. "My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the Pope," O’Connor writes in her memoir. "It represented lies and liars and abuse." She also knew the suffering she experienced first at home, then as a teenager living in one of Ireland's notoriously brutal Magdalene asylums, was far from unique. As she writes in her open letter: "The story of my people is the story of the African people, the Jewish people, the Amer-Indian people, the South American people."

In turn, O'Connor was highly sensitive to, and incensed by, any form of injustice. Her chart-topping second album, 1990's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, featured a protest song called “Black Boys on Mopeds” that called out British police brutality and the hypocrisy of then Prime-Minister, Margaret Thatcher. "England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses," O'Connor sings on the chorus. "It's the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds."

Reflecting on the song's legacy and galvanising effect at her live shows, O'Connor told The Washington Post in 2021: "I always am thinking every night, 'Oh my god, isn't it sad that this is still so fucking relevant, you know, after 30 years?' That's sad." In Rememberings, O'Connor explains that it was a comment on a time when London's immigrant communities faced blatant discrimination. "If a burglar was apprehended, he was reported as a 'Black burglar' (or, alternatively, an 'Irish burglar')," she writes. "There was a lot of tension created between Londoners on the one hand and the Jamaicans and the Irish on the other."

O'Connor also felt a lifelong affinity with the LGBTQ+ community. In a 2000 interview with Curve magazine, she came out as a "dyke", but said in another interview five years later that she considered herself "three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay." In 2014, she told Pride Source that she didn't "believe in labels of any kind." She also spoke about being enraptured when she first encountered out queer people, and drag queens in particular, on London's LGBTQ+ scene in the 1980s. "I actually find the whole gay community an enormous inspiration to me because, Jesus, I've never taken the kind of shit gay people take," she said at the time.

O'Connor's bond with the LGBTQ+ community was never one-sided. When she broke through in 1987 with her astonishing debut album The Lion and the Cobra, her shaven head and androgynous style made her a radiant icon to queer people who felt constrained by heteronormative notions of masculinity and femininity. A year later, she underlined her allyship by performing at Gay Pride in London. As Aidsmap's Matthew Hodson noted on Twitter after O'Connor's death was announced, this was an act of political solidarity at a particularly difficult time for queer people. Just a month earlier, the Conservative government had passed Section 28, a barbaric piece of legislation prohibiting the “promotion” of homosexuality in British schools.

O'Connor also raised awareness of HIV/AIDS when it was widely stigmatised in the early '90s and, more recently, donated clothes to an Irish trans charity. Though she told The Guardian in 2014 that she did not consider herself a "feminist," she used her music and public profile to spotlight women's reproductive rights. More than 25 years before Ireland voted to legalise abortion in a 2018 referendum, she spoke at a pro-choice rally in Dublin in 1992. That same year, she released “My Special Child,” an unambiguous ballad about an abortion she had recently undergone. "I wanted you to know that, yes, you were precious to me," O’Connor says in the song’s powerful spoken word section. "She has chosen."

Ultimately, when reflecting on O'Connor’s legacy as a singer and activist, a section from her 1990 single “The Emperor's New Clothes” feels prescient. "Whatever it may bring, I will live by my own policies," she sings unapologetically. "I will sleep with a clear conscience, I will sleep in peace." The first part is undoubtedly true. Few musicians have lived quite as authentically as O'Connor. Certainly, she was never afraid to reinvent herself or attempt to reclaim her own narrative. Released in 2014, her tenth and final studio album was titled I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss – a welcome reminder that O'Connor never lost her sense of humour. In 2018, after a long and tumultuous relationship with religion, she announced she had converted to Islam and would go by the name Shuhada' Sadaqat – though she continued to tour, very successfully, as Sinéad O'Connor.

More recently, Kathryn Ferguson's excellent 2022 documentary film Nothing Compares, which featured new audio interviews with the singer, succeeded in showing that O'Connor was an artist ahead of her time who paid a heavy price for her uncompromising honesty. In 2023, pop stars are almost expected to take a stance on social and political issues and widely praised when they speak about their mental health. But 30-odd years earlier, O'Connor was mocked and excoriated for doing just that. It's a sad, cruel truth that this brave and brilliant woman has left the world just as it seems to be catching up with her.

Follow Nick on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Twitter and Instagram.