In an in-depth interview, we look at the life and legacy of the groundbreaking musician Sinéad O’Connor, who converted to Islam and also started using the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat in 2018. O’Connor died last week at the age of 56 and was known for her music as much as for her outspoken activism. In 1992, she performed Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live, then proceeded to rip up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live TV to protest systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, of which she was a survivor. The move provoked widespread uproar. O’Connor was also an ally to LGBTQ communities, an opponent of police brutality on some of her earliest records, a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, and marched for abortion rights decades before it was legalized in Ireland. We are joined by Jamie Manson, president of advocacy group Catholics for Choice, and Allyson McCabe, music journalist and author of the recent book Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We spend the rest of the hour remembering the remarkable life and legacy of the groundbreaking Irish singer, songwriter, political activist Sinéad O’Connor, who has died at the age of 56. She was found unresponsive last Wednesday in her London home. Her friend, the musician and activist Bob Geldof, has said she sent him text messages, quote, “laden with desperation and despair” in the weeks before her death as she coped with the tragic death of her son Shane O’Connor by suicide about a year and a half ago at the age of 17. Sinéad had four children. This is part of a TikTok video. It’s the last video Sinéad O’Connor shared, shortly before her death.
SINÉAD O’CONNOR: You know the way your kids, unfortunately, passing away, it isn’t good for one’s body, or soul, to be fair. But anyway, look, let’s not dwell on that. Anyway, hi, guys. Here’s my nice flat. Let me see, can I flip the camera over? Anyway, there’s a bunch of flowers my friend gave me today in my nice flat. There is my new Martin, Johnny [bleep] Cash guitar, that I am going to write some tunes on.
AMY GOODMAN: Sinéad O’Connor rose to stardom in 1990, when she released her version of the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The song was on her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which also included her own song, “Black Boys on Mopeds,” about the 1983 death of a 21-year-old Black man in London named Colin Roach in police custody, after they accused him of stealing his own moped.
SINÉAD O’CONNOR: [singing] Remember what I told you
If they hated me they will hate you
England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds
AMY GOODMAN: The police said Roach had died by suicide. The inner sleeve of Sinéad O’Connor’s album showed a photograph of Roach’s parents standing next to a poster of their son.
In 1992, Sinéad performed Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live, then proceeded to rip up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live TV, declaring, quote, “Fight the real enemy.” The move, a protest against systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, of which she was a survivor, provoked widespread uproar. She addressed her SNL performance days later during an interview with Entertainment Tonight.
SINÉAD O’CONNOR: Ireland has the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. I experienced it myself. And I find his presence in Ireland, telling the young people of Ireland that he loved them, hilarious. At least when I studied the history, I found out that the people who were responsible for telling lies in the first place were at the Vatican, who, through permitting the invasion of countries and the destruction and murder of entire races of people in the name of God and for money, and then their subsequent overtaking of the educational systems of all the countries that they went into, led to distortion of historical fact.
AMY GOODMAN: A week after her Saturday Night Live appearance, Goodfellas star Joe Pesci appeared on SNL and had this response during his monologue.
JOE PESCI: She was very lucky it wasn’t my show, because if it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack.
AMY GOODMAN: Two weeks after Sinéad’s SNL appearance, O’Connor was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden after being introduced by Texas country singer Kris Kristofferson.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: I am real proud to introduce this next artist, whose name has become synonymous with courage and integrity. Ladies and gentlemen, Sinéad O’Connor.
AMY GOODMAN: Sinéad O’Connor was set to perform Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You,” but as the crowd continued to boo, she responded by singing part of “War” by Bob Marley, the same song she sang on Saturday Night Live.
SINÉAD O’CONNOR: OK, turn this up.
[singing] Until the philosophy which holds one race superior
Everywhere is war
AMY GOODMAN: A decade later, in 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe shined a spotlight on sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Church. Sinéad O’Connor was an ally of the LGBTQ communities, marched for abortion rights decades before it was legalized in Ireland. She converted to Islam and started using the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat in 2018, alongside the name Sinéad O’Connor. She spoke out for Palestinian rights, respecting the Palestinian civil society call for BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, once saying, quote, “on a human level, nobody with any sanity, including myself, would have anything but sympathy for the Palestinian plight. There’s not a sane person on earth who in any way sanctions what … the Israeli authorities are doing,” Sinéad said.
Earlier this year, in March, Sinéad O’Connor was met with a prolonged standing ovation at the RTÉ Choice Music Awards when she received the new award for classic Irish album for I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got. And judges called her album, quote, “a stunning body of work by an Irish artist, scorching with originality in songs that are as resonant today as they were more than 30 years ago,” unquote. One of the last photographs of Sinéad shows her beaming as she accepted the award and dedicated it to, quote, “all refugees in Ireland.”
For more, we’re joined by two guests. Jamie Manson is president for Catholics for Choice, and Allyson McCabe is a music journalist and author of the book Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters, which was published in May. Her new piece for Vulture is headlined “Sinéad O’Connor Was Always a Protest Singer.”
Allyson, let’s begin with you. Give us that history and your response to her passing last week.
ALLYSON McCABE: Well, thanks so much for having me on the program, also for describing her as a political activist. I think that’s something that the world is just really catching up on now. Of course, I’m gutted and I’m shocked and really haven’t had much sleep since Wednesday, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to join you and to talk about her music and her life and her legacy.
Like a lot of the world, for a long time I knew that her hair was shaved. I didn’t necessarily know that that was something that she decided to do very early on in her career, before the release of her first album in '87, as really an act of defiance against the recording label, who wanted to market her on her appearance rather than the strength of her music. I knew that she had had a megahit in 1990 with Prince's “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but I didn’t know that she was not one of Prince’s protégés and that that was not a major hit in his repertoire before she recorded it and made it into a worldwide hit. I knew that she tore up a photograph of the pope on Saturday Night Live, but I didn’t necessarily know that she was trying to draw attention to the crisis, the child abuse crisis, in the Catholic Church, which we all now know was real.
So, it really was catching up on all of that, as an adult and as a journalist, that made me go back and reexamine different things that she had said, the statements that she made over the years, the music that she made, not just up into '92 but really to the end of her life. She continued to make music, and she always spoke out against injustice. And sometimes she didn't say something perfectly. Sometimes her message wasn’t always heard. But she never stopped trying. And I think that’s really the key takeaway, is that she never, ever, ever stopped trying. And it’s not enough for us to now say that she was a brave warrior. We have to be brave warriors, and we have to have those conversations that she tried to spark from the very beginning of her career.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice. When she tore up that photo of Pope John Paul II in 1992, you were living in Long Island in a traditional Catholic Italian family. What was your response then? And how do you assess her life?
JAMIE MANSON: Yeah, I was surrounded by men like Joe Pesci, and I had a very different experience, though, of that incident than my family did. I, too, felt called to the priesthood the way Sinéad did. And I think what’s so important to understand about her is that what she did came out of great love of the church, and she said that in the recent documentary. She felt she had the right to fight this evil because of her love of the church, and she felt she had a contract with the Holy Spirit to speak out. And not to diminish the importance of child sex abuse, but Sinéad understood the pervasive harm John Paul II was doing, setting back women’s rights by potentially centuries, creating the theologies that develop so much sexual shame. And she understood that this was happening globally. What she was seeing in Ireland had global consequences. And so, it’s so important to understand. You know, she’s like a true prophet. She saw things no one wanted to see. She said things that no one wanted to hear. And she risked everything for that, and she basically lost everything. And a sense of — in terms of assessing the current state of things, it’s important to remember that Pope Francis canonized John Paul II in 2014. So it shows you how far we still have to go and how prophetic she really was.
AMY GOODMAN: Allyson McCabe, we only have two minutes to go in this segment, and then we’re doing Part 2 and posting it at democracynow.org. But if you could then talk about the rest of her life? Because every aspect was acclaim, praise, pushing the limits, being attacked, but it never stopped her.
ALLYSON McCABE: It never stopped her. And, you know, she said that what happened on SNL didn’t derail her career. She said it rerailed her career, because it set her back on the path of what she saw as her calling, you know, as your other guest said. She never intended to be a popstar. That’s something that just happened when that song blew up in '90. But if you look at the rest of her catalog, before then and after them, she continues to make music with meaning, excellent music, music that we really have a lot to catch up on in terms of the issues that she was raising, not just talking about child abuse, but, as you mentioned at the top, you know, talking about — she was antiracist. You know, she was speaking out against sexism. She was, early on, talking about HIV/AIDS awareness and so many other issues. We could go on and on. I know we don't have a lot of time. But it was all in there. And when I saw that, you know, that was really what inspired me to reframe her narrative. And, you know, now there’s this outpouring of love, and my only regret is I wish she were alive to experience that. You know, it’s coming now, but I wish that she had experienced some of that during her lifetime.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, in a blog post that was widely shared, the musician Morrissey slammed the music industry, the media, celebrities and others. He said we’re hypocritical and cynical for paying tributes to Sinéad O’Connor only after her death. He wrote, in part, “You praise her now ONLY because it is too late. You hadn’t the guts to support her when she was alive and she was looking for you.”
We’re going to end it there but continue our discussion with Allyson McCabe, music journalist and author of the book Why Sinéad O’Connor Matters. Her new piece for Vulture, “Sinéad O’Connor Was Always a Protest Singer.” And thank you so much to Jamie Manson, president for Catholics for Choice. We’ll speak to you both about Sinéad O’Connor and post it at democracynow.org.