Before meeting Labi Siffre, I am intrigued by the varied reactions I get when mentioning his name. Many people I speak to have never heard of him. Some remember his 80s anthem Something Inside So Strong. Others are dimly aware of a solo career before that.
And then there are those whose eyes light up – those who, like me, regard him as one of the key figures in British pop history, and wonder why he’s not celebrated as such. “Labi Siffre’s fingerprints have been on popular music for many decades now,” wrote the electronic musician Matthew Herbert in 2012. “But his actual voice is rarely heard.”
Why is that? During the first half of the 1970s, Siffre released six solo albums, operating effortlessly across folk, soul, reggae and funk, while poetically addressing the political (his songs have tackled war veterans, homelessness and religion) and the personal (if there is a more perfect articulation of domestic bliss than his 75-second song Till Forever, I have yet to hear it). It’s not like his career went under the radar – Siffre scored three Top 40 hits, with Crying Laughing Loving Lying reaching No 11. And it’s not like he’s had no cultural impact since: Madness did the definitive cover of his song It Must Be Love, while artists including Kanye West, Jay-Z and Primal Scream have sampled his music. The inordinately catchy riff used on Eminem’s My Name Is was his. Rod Stewart and Kelis are among those who have recorded his music. Yet his name still registers lightly. Some of his songs don’t even have their lyrics available to view online.
In the decade since I discovered Siffre’s 70s catalogue, I’ve read stories about how being an openly gay, black folk singer held him back, and how he was dropped for refusing to stay in the closet. Being wary of the press, Siffre tends to avoid interviews. So I was thrilled to be granted an audience at his home and studio in north-east Spain, via Zoom, so I could get the full story.
Bespectacled and looking remarkably youthful for a 76-year-old – Siffre could easily be mistaken for an academic rather than a musician – his words are chosen carefully, and his answers extend occasionally into emphatic monologues. But he has a poet’s way with language.
“I was remarkably naive,” says Siffre when I ask what the music industry was like in the late 60s. “I went in believing that the music business would be run by – who else? – musicians. But you don’t blame a rattlesnake for biting you. A rattlesnake is a rattlesnake, and you’re stupid to wander around in sandals and no socks in a rattlesnake-infested area.”
Born in 1945 to a Nigerian father and mixed-race mother who refused to “pass” as white, Claudius Afolabi Siffre was raised in west London. He says he had already worked out his life plans at an early age. By 11 he knew he had to “find someone and make them love me for the rest of our lives”; by 13 he had resolved, thanks to one of his four brothers’ impressive record collection, to become a musician. Both of these things were under way before he was 20. Siffre wrote his first song aged 18 and, a year later in 1964, met Peter John Carver Lloyd; they remained together for 48 years, entering a civil partnership in 2005, until Lloyd’s death in 2013.
After playing jazz guitar for several years, Siffre brought his self-titled debut album out in 1970. By his third album – Crying Laughing Loving Lying – Siffre’s lyrics were no longer written as if for the opposite sex. “It occurred to me that I couldn’t do that any more,” he says. His songs are not soapboxes. Yet often they express romantic contentment in such a simple and relatable way – shared jumpers, waiting for telephone calls – that just having a black, gay singer perform them must have felt like a political statement.
“The most important thing in your life is what happens at home,” says Siffre. “Many people don’t understand this. It is head and shoulders above everything else. And from the moment Peter and I met, I never took [that love] for granted.”
Siffre found the music industry stifling. He trusted his management, but he says their attitude was often: “Can you bring me something that I’ve already heard, that has already been a hit?” Unsurprisingly, that meant a muted reaction to the album he’s most proud of, For the Children, which tackled mankind’s predilection for self-destruction. “My manager at the time said: ‘Every word on the album is true, but people don’t want to hear that.’ I thought to myself, I should leave these people – they don’t understand what I’m doing. But I knew I could trust them, so I stayed. And they did at least try and understand what I was doing, they did make an effort. Because I’m not easy … I’m not easy, even for myself!”
Songs on that album such as Prayer and Let’s Pretend had a strident atheist message. Was it brave to question religion at that time?
“I don’t think I was being brave at all,” he says. “I’m not a brave person. Pissed off? Yes! I’ve never taken kindly to being bullied.”
Listening to For the Children again in recent years, Siffre says he cried, not just for himself but also for humanity. “It occurred to me: ‘I wish I hadn’t been right’,” he says. The album was not a commercial success, but Siffre says it’s nonsense that he was dropped because of his sexuality. “Nobody would have dared say that to me.”
It is perhaps surprising that Siffre was so comfortable being out. His father was “born in 1900, an upper-middle-class Nigerian man with patriarchal views. He’d warned me about homosexuals in graphic terms when I was 12 and I remember thinking: ‘You’re eight years too late!’”
But then Siffre introduced Lloyd to his family. “And it was my father who just accepted it without a blink. There’s this rubbish about homosexuality being un-African. Bullshit!”
Siffre’s prolific spell ended with 1975’s Happy. But there was to be a renaissance. Siffre remembers the night in 1984 he left a pub and headed to his music room. He had recently watched a documentary on apartheid in South Africa, where white soldiers fired at black civilians, but the song he was about to write had a more personal meaning too. “I sat down, played a C chord, threw my head back and sang the first two lines of Something Inside So Strong. I realised I was writing about my life as a gay man and I found myself crying.”
That song reached No 4 in the charts when it was finally released in 1987, and was subsequently covered by Kenny Rogers (and, let’s not forget, Barry from EastEnders during the 2014 World Indoor Bowls Championship). It became an anti-apartheid anthem. Siffre performed it in Trafalgar Square for Nelson Mandela’s birthday – after being told that he was not the kind of artist who would “fit in” at the bigger Wembley concert. “My manager was outraged. Incandescent with rage. And I was on the sofa finding it hysterically funny. That didn’t surprise me at all.”
There was also a 90s/00s revival for Siffre. He didn’t know much about sampling when Eminem’s people got in touch to request the riff from I Got The … (Beck had been planning to use it for his post-Odelay comeback single before Eminem beat him to it). At first he turned them down. “I got pissed off with the ‘faggots’ and ‘hoes’ [in Eminem’s lyrics]. Because it’s just lazy, cowardly writing. It wasn’t the language that bothered me. I pointed out that my first poetry collection was called Nigger. What I cared about was attacking the oppressed rather than the culprits. Now, some will say, in the context of that song, that’s not exactly what was happening. However, that was my first reaction to it.”
Siffre signed off on the sample when they sent him a censored “clean” version, not realising that he was also allowing its use on the alternative versions. But having grown up with modern jazz and the Great American Songbook, he is at least content with his songs being reinterpreted. “That’s what musicians are supposed to do,” he says. Besides, he was never in doubt of his music’s longevity.
“I was brought up to have low self-esteem,” he says. “I grew up being told by society that as a homosexual I was a bad, wicked, evil person. However, at the same time, I’m someone who is very much aware of my own genius.”
He bursts out laughing at this. “That’s a joke! It’s a joke! But by my first album I knew I was writing good-quality work. And when things have not been as popular as I thought they should have been, I always felt that, eventually, they would be recognised as a good song. Because a good song never dies.”
Given his music’s lifespan, does he not feel that his artistic reputation should be stronger?
“I would say I’m not very good at selling myself,” he admits. “I grew up believing that real men, whatever real men are, don’t boast. Nowadays, everybody boasts. People will actually come up to you and tell you that they’re compassionate! But I don’t look at it like I was held back or that I should have been a superstar. Although it’s difficult for people to believe, being rich and famous never occurred to me in my plan. I realised by the time of my first album that I was not in the mainstream. So all I actually wanted was for my work to be useful. And For the Children made me realise that, well, the reason why you’re on the outside is because you’re actually trying to be useful.”
Perhaps one reason Siffre seems content with his standing is that music always came second to the great love of his life, which is love itself: not just Peter but also a “third husband”, Rudolf “Ruud” Cornelis Arnoldus van Baardwijk, who joined the pair in the mid-90s. The three of them shared an idyllic-sounding life – for some time – in a house halfway up a mountain in south Wales.
“I went looking for love,” he says. “But it was only when I met Ruud and we became three that I stopped looking entirely. For nearly 16 years the three of us lived together in a menage a trois. And I realised I’d made the family that I’d been trying to make for the whole of my life.”
He continues: “I had the perfect life. And then, in the space of two years, six months and 28 days, they both died.”
The exactness of this number is striking. “I’ve always taken love very seriously,” he says softly. “Not just what it is, but how disastrous it would be to be without it.”
Siffre spent a long time as Peter’s carer before he died. A stroke in 1998 had left him paralysed down the left side of his body.
“I was a little annoyed to find that some people expected me to continue with my ‘brilliant’ career,” says Siffre. “I couldn’t understand how they could possibly think that that’s what I would do. Not out of any noble feelings. We had to be together. Simple as that. And that’s what it was for 14 years. Nothing noble about it at all.”
To have two partners die in such a short space of time must have been a horrendous amount of grief to deal with, I say.
He pauses. “That’s something I’m still …” Then he trails off. “That’s something that I’m still … I don’t know what the word is.”
“No, it’s not a matter of processing. Suffering from? I can only say it quite inadequately. Yes, it is very difficult.”
I wonder if today’s world is better positioned to appreciate Labi Siffre, both as a masterly musician and a trailblazer for black and gay people. Last year, when Pride was cancelled due to the pandemic, he quietly released a reworked version of his song (Love Is Love Is Love) Why Isn’t Love Enough? An hour-long BBC documentary about his life is expected to air in early 2022 and there are even rumours of a new album too, although he’s a little coy about that. “I am working on … yes, a project … that’s true,” he smiles.
It would be a splendid thing indeed if, in the future, more eyes would start to light up at the mention of this magnificent songwriter’s name.