Song No. 268: “Black Boys on Mopeds” by Sinéad O’Connor - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Throughout the 885 Greatest Songs By Women (As Chosen By You!) countdown, we’ll take you on deeper dives into select songs that pop up each day.

Known as a singer of heartrending, introspective and deeply emotional songs, the late great Sinéad O’Connor has just as much of a legacy advocating for social justice. The most famous example of this is probably a Saturday Night Live appearance in 1992 where she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II while covering Bob Marley’s “War” a cappella, protesting sexual abuse in the Catholic church with the phrase “fight the real enemy.”

Take a close look at the Irish singer-songwriter’s double-platinum 1990 LP I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and more signs of Sinéad the activist can be found. The inside sleeve of the album features a photo of an older Black couple standing in the rain with sorrowful expressions on their faces; next to them is a poster bearing a young man’s face and name: Colin Roach. He was a 21-year-old from the London borough of Hackney who in 1983 died under mysterious circumstances from a fatal gunshot wound to the head in the foyer of a local police station. The authorities called it suicide, a claim that was publicly disputed by the family but never officially debunked. O’Connor was living in London and getting her career started as the aftermath of Roach’s death played out, and in the album art, she captioned the image “God’s place is the world but the world is not God’s place.”

Echoes of Roach’s story resonate in “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a pensive song at the album’s midway point that depicts a Britain so fixated on foreign policy that it neglects domestic policy; so hung up on its image internationally that it ignored racism and injustice at home. “Margaret Thatcher on TV, shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing,” she sings over solitary folky guitar strums, referencing the Tiananmen Square uprising. “It seems strange that she should be offended. The same orders are given by her.”

The hypocrisy here played out in aggressive policing of Black and Brown communities in 1980s London, instances of brutality, racial profiling, and stop-and-frisk tactics. The song also directly references the story of Nicholas Bramble, a Black man who in 1989 was pursued by police on suspicion that he had stolen a moped that he actually owned. Bramble careened off the road and crashed while under pursuit, dying from his injuries. “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses, it’s the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds,” O’Connor sings. “And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving. I don’t want him to be aware that there’s any such thing as grieving.”

Bramble and Roach’s stories are strikingly reminiscent of innumerable instances of violence against Black citizens here in the United States; high-profile cases like Trayvon Martin being pursued and killed by neighborhood watch for wearing a hoodie, and Sandra Bland’s death in a jail cell not the least of which. It’s why “Black Boys on Mopeds” found a resurgence in the 20-teens with covers by Sharon Van Etten and Boston’s Shea Rose. In many ways, O’Connor used her art to give voice to uncomfortable truths, she forced audiences to confront things they were not ready to hear. The next part, though, is the most difficult – and most urgent: getting listeners, and society at large, to learn from the mistakes of the past, lest we continue to repeat them.

Sinéad O'Connor - Black Boys on Mopeds (Official Audio)
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