How a 1980s song about childbirth became a tribute to Black Lives Matter

MUSIC is a salve for the woes of modern times. The protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s delivered anthems for freedom and peace during the American Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Today’s musicians continue to raise their voices.

In the summer of 2016, tragedies demanded attention from the music community. Christina Aguilera released “Change” to honour the victims of the Orlando massacre on June 12th. In July, Jon Regen sang “All the Same” in response to the Bastille Day attacks in Nice. During their summer tour, Sting and Peter Gabriel repurposed The Police’s 1981 song “Invisible Sun” to draw attention to the plight of refugees. Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé used appearances at awards shows to call for social change. Ariana Grande and Victoria Monet posted “Better Days” in response to the killing of black men in Baton Rouge and St Paul and the police shootings in Dallas. In August, Terence Blanchard, a jazz trumpeter, dedicated a New York performance of his song “Breathless” to Eric Garner. In September, Rosanne Cash and Jackson Browne headlined Concert Across America to End Gun Violence.

Yet one of the most powerful responses to this year’s heartbreaks was also the least expected: soul singer Maxwell’s tear-jerking performance of “This Woman’s Work”, a song by Kate Bush. On his world tour, the Brooklyn-born singer uses Ms Bush’s plaintive ballad as a moment of unity and reflection among otherwise upbeat grooves. Ms Bush originally wrote the song for the soundtrack of the John Hughes film “She’s Having a Baby” (1988); it amplifies a scene in which one character almost loses her life—and her baby’s—during a complicated birth. Nine years after the film was released, Maxwell performed a delicate live arrangement of the tune on an episode of MTV’s Unplugged. Now Maxwell’s version of Ms Bush’s classic tone poem takes on the weighty mantle of our times.

In late summer at the Peace Centre in Greenville, South Carolina, Maxwell performed the song mid-set. The lights dimmed and a voice began to sing the words “Pray God you can cope.” The crowd quickly recognised it as “This Woman’s Work”, a studio version of which had been a hit for Maxwell in 2001. He wasn’t singing it, however: Ms Bush was. (The reclusive Briton wasn’t performing live—she appeared via video.) As her lyrics flashed behind the stage in bold type, she sang in a lilting soprano:

“I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show.

I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking—

Of all the things I should’ve done but I never did,

All the things I should’ve said that I never said.

Make it go away.”

When Maxwell segued into a signature falsetto run, the audience sang along. Suddenly, the ruminative and contemplative became a temporal, collective cry:

“I know you’ve got a little life in you yet.

I know you’ve got a lot of strength left.”

Images of lives lost in the past year flickered on the screens above Maxwell’s head—the faces of the men and women who symbolise the #BlackLivesMatter movement, including India Beaty, Rekia Boyd, Jamar Clark and Michael Brown. In the space of a few minutes, the original meaning of “This Woman’s Work” had morphed into an anthem for all the mothers and fathers who had lost children to acts of injustice. As this violent year draws to a close, this song became protest, dirge and battle cry. It stood as an emblem of the regrets and realities of 2016:

“Give me these moments back.

Give them back to me.

Give me that little kiss.

Give me your hand.

I know you’ve got a little life in you yet.

I know you’ve got a lot of strength left…

All the things that you needed from me.

All the things that you wanted for me.

All the things I should have given, but didn’t.

Oh, darling, make it go.

Just make it go away.”

Taking his concert tour to Europe and America through December, Maxwell reflects upon the events of the summer. He says the year’s troubles—terrorist acts, racial strife, political discord and the deaths of beloved figures such as Muhammad Ali and Prince—bubbled to a boil just as he headed out on the road. “It was unavoidable. [How could I not address] the fallen souls, senseless crimes and situations that should never have occurred?” he says.

Maxwell is grateful for “the genius” of Ms Bush, whose lyrics have helped shape his career. He says the combination of her words and his voice is a means for his audience “to leave the room and take a stand to make a change for their children and their children’s children.” Night after night, by juxtaposing black and white, man and woman, today and yesterday, “This Woman’s Work” has been reborn as a plea for social change and an olive branch of inclusivity. “Who’d have thought we’d end up here, like this?” Maxwell asked the crowd that summer’s night in South Carolina. It was a loaded question, but a necessary one.


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