An Interview With British Activist, Multi-Instrumentalist, & Protest Songwriter Sadie Jemmett

Inspiration has always been at the forefront for singer-songwriter Sadie Jemmett.

When it comes to her creative process, she is plenty attune to the idea that much of the music we consume is a direct product of pain– and that it is a necessary sacrifice towards the creation of something influential to have feelings that are heavy. Wholeheartedly, Jemmett is very experienced at using pain to create a fresh take on the human experience. 

In fact, coming face-to-face with pain is something deeply etched in Jemmett’s DNA. Not only is she both a mother and a daughter– which subjects any person to a full range of emotions and experiences in their own right– but more specifically, she was born into a family that prioritizes equality by taking a stand against social injustice. After a childhood full of attending protests in London with family and witnessing racism and police brutality as an adult, she has taken her activism to the next level. 

The past couple of years have been incredibly instrumental for her in regards to bringing awareness to pressing issues. Her first musical venture into activism was debuted with her single, “Don’t Silence Me,” off her 2018 album, Phoenix. Written for a friend, Mhairi Morrison, Jemmett voices her support for the #MeToo movement through her discouragement of sexual violence from aggressors who use positions of power to manipulate victims.

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Receiving critical acclaim from outlets such as CBS News and BBC News, “Don’t Silence Me” became a recognized protest song. However, this format of activism would become one that she would return to. Just last month, Jemmett released “The Killing of George Floyd” as a single. The song tells the cold, raw story of the tragically unjust murder of a Minneapolis resident and Black man, George Floyd, by police– an event that ignited a new chapter in the Black Lives Matter movement. All proceeds that come from the sale of the single go directly towards the NAACP. 

We had the opportunity to speak to her about everything activism, music, and growing up in London. 

Activism seems to be the backbone of a lot of your music. How did your journey with activism start?

Well, I’ve always been socially and politically aware, and activism has been in my family for a couple of generations. In fact, there is a story in our family that my grandmother was once arrested for handing out Maoist literature on the Tottenham Court Road in London. My dad was very political too, and I remember going on CND marches with him as a child. He felt social injustice very deeply, especially on matters of racial and gender oppression, so I guess it was partly how I was brought up, and that has always been there in my songwriting. More recently though, I have begun to feel a real pull to use the small platform I have as a singer-songwriter, as a way of documenting injustice and oppression. 

What avenues have you taken as an activist to learn and gain the knowledge you have now? 

Alongside my music, over the years, I have worked on and off with people from underprivileged backgrounds in North London. This work gave me a real insight into how poverty and oppression, and often racism, can coincide in people’s lives, creating a perfect storm. It really educated me on just how unjust our society can be. Wherever I can I try to add my voice to the uprising against any form of oppression, whether it be #blacklivesmatter demonstrations, signing petitions, writing songs or just reminding people to educate themselves on the history of oppression. It all helps in the fight for equality and justice.

So you’re currently based out of the UK– how has living in the UK influenced your music? 

As a kid, I had an older brother who was really into music, specifically British punk, so believe it or not this has been one of my early influences. Then there are, of course, The Beatles. I mean they are part of the collective unconscious in this country, so they must have been an influence at some point! And Joan Armitrading, another great British musician. I’m also very influenced by British folk music. I spent some time living on the west coast of Ireland, in Connemara, and I used to hitchhike to the traditional sessions they would have in the little pubs over there. In fact, I even learned to play the spoons! And I think this has had a huge influence on how I structure my songs and my chord structure. l am often told, I have a Celtic quality. I am also a massive Van Morrison fan- I love the Celtic mysticism in his music, and he’s been a big influence on me. 

You received much acclaim following the release of your song, “Don’t Silence Me,” which represented the #MeToo movement. When writing your new single, “The Killing of George Floyd,” representing another influential movement, how did your approach to the topic differ from your approach to writing “Don’t Silence Me?” 

“Don’t Silence Me” was written for a close friend who was suffering from PTSD following a serious sexual assault, so it was very personal for me. With the George Floyd song, I felt the same anger and outrage of course, but honestly, as  a white person I felt that I could not have any real experience of what black individuals and communities have had to live through, and I feel it’s important to say this. But what I can do is write a protest song that stands in solidarity with the BLM movement.

With George Floyd, it was about documenting exactly what had happened. I was appalled at the time at the apathy of the white communities around me, people trying to excuse and underplay the racist brutality of this murder, and of the many other similar murders that have taken place for hundreds of years. So I spent time researching, in order to be clear with people exactly what had happened on that terrible night. The lyrics are really just an account of the events, to me this is the job of the protest song, it’s about documenting in song form, the injustices that exist in the world, that song will then remain and hopefully be listened to, even after the event has passed. 

Police brutality has taken the lives of many in America and is a very polarizing subject. What made you want to speak on George Floyd’s story specifically? 

For a number of years, I lived in the Tottenham area of North London, where there is a large black community. There had been a change in the policing system at the time, and the police had been given more power to stop and search people. Every single time I saw a young man being stopped by the police, he was a young, black man, and often there was physical enforcement. I spoke to friends about it, both black and white, who confirmed that they had had the same experience. Police brutality towards black communities is a documented fact, it is oppression and institutional racism, and it has to stop. Now. 

What has been a moment in your career so far that you hold the closest to you? 

There have been a few, and it’s hard to choose, but I guess opening for Judy Collins in London and then meeting her and having her sign me to her label in New York was pretty incredible. I’ve been a big fan of hers ever since I started playing guitar aged 11, and she was so gracious and complimentary about my music. I also got to tour with her which was a real honour. And having the “Don’t Silence Me”  song picked up by CBS news, who called it an “Anthem for the #metoo movement” was pretty amazing too. 

Unfortunately, your 2020 tour had to be postponed due to COVID-19. How have you been spending the extra time? 

I’ve been writing a lot, songs, but also blogs, and I have a blog page on Medium. I’ve been really getting into livestreaming, which has been a big learning experience, but also a lot of fun, and I’ve loved discovering other artists’ livestreams too. I’m really into Grace Potter’s live stream right now- she’s amazing! And also Ryan Bingham … what a dude! I’m also lucky enough to have a garden, so I’ve been growing a lot of veggies, another big learning experience. I’m also a mum to a teenage girl so that keeps me busy too!

We’ve noticed that you have a web series called Home Alone streaming from your Facebook and Instagram accounts. What has the adjustment been like transitioning from live performances? 

Y’know, at first I was really nervous about it. For me, I was concerned about not having that immediate contact with an audience that you sort of bounce off as a performer, and I really wasn’t sure how it would go, whether I would be able to feel a connection. But actually, at the first livestream, when the first little hearts and messages started to bubble up on my laptop, it felt like everyone was right there with me in the room, and I was fine. I know this hasn’t been the case for everyone, and I guess we are all different in that respect. I’ve been lucky enough to have a partner who is with me and can help out with the technical stuff. I think also, the key for me has been to be very zen about it, and remember that the audience will be pottering around their home doing their own thing while they listen, so there may not be the same intense attention that you get at a gig. Realizing this has helped me to relax more about it and embrace the imperfections and technical difficulties that come with livestreaming. 

What do you hope is on the horizon musically for you in the latter half of the year and going into 2021? 

There are lots of exciting projects I’ve been working on. I was commissioned to write songs for a movie script which is currently being developed in the U.S. The script has two fictional singer songwriters in it, so they needed original songs. It’s a great story that was a lot of fun to write for, so I’m hoping that it will get the green light soon and we can start producing the songs. I’ve also been working on a live album of the covers that I’ve been playing during my Home Alone sessions, which I will be releasing. And of course, like everyone, I’m hoping that we will start to get some more clarity on when live venues will be up and running again so I can re-book the tours that I had to cancel. We can only pray it will be soon!

All proceeds from “The Killing of George Floyd,” are going directly to the NAACP. What other forms of action do you recommend listeners of the song use to additionally propel the BLM movement? 

Education is one of the biggest. Educate yourself on the history of black oppression and slavery and learn how racism is intrinsically woven into our way of life both socially and economically. Find out about grassroots organizations in your area and get involved, offer support however you can, it doesn’t just have to be money. Demonstrate peacefully. Call out racism wherever you see it, on the internet and on the street. If you see a black person being stopped by police and it looks like they are in distress or being manhandled, you can always approach and peacefully ask why this person is being arrested and whether force is necessary. It could make all the difference.

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