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Sir Lenny Henry sings the blues

MAN OF MANY TALENTS: Sir Lenny Henry

HE’S ONE of Britain’s best-known talents, having flexed his muscles as a comedian, actor, writer, TV presenter, charity ambassador and campaigner – yet, Sir Lenny Henry’s got the blues.

But rather than channel his thoughts through comedy, Henry chose to unleash his feelings through song. Well, 14 songs, actually, which make up his new album, New Millennium Blues.

To the sceptics, it may sound like a joke. (A comedian walks into a recording studio…) But to those who know Henry well – or those who have followed his career in recent years – it will come as no surprise that the 57-year-old has decided to challenge himself once again.

Having already made the transition from one of the UK’s most popular comedians to bonafide Shakespearian actor, Henry decided to demonstrate his singing ability with the release of New Millennium Blues. It’s an offering that features a mixture of covers, along with original tracks, which see the star lament on subjects including media hacking, the risks of getting romantically involved with a preacher’s daughter, and police brutality against black Americans – all set against a backdrop of contemporary blues. Why is the genre so dear to Henry’s heart?

“Well, my mum used to have blues parties – that’s one thing,” he recalls with a chuckle. “You’d come home from school and there’d be no furniture in the front room – everything would be in your bedroom!

“It’s funny, when hip-hop came along, it put the focus on that whole thing of two turntables and a microphone. But Jamaicans invented that long before! I saw two turntables and a microphone in the 60s – they would show up at my house!

“I also grew up with a phonogram in the front room – which we were never allowed to go in,” says the actor, who was born in Dudley, West Midlands to Jamaican parents, both of whom are deceased. “But when we did go in there, and we walked along the path of plastic to sit on the sofa – which was also covered in plastic – you’d look in the record cabinet and there’d be records by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters.

“A bit later on, my brother Seymour collected the entire collection from [soul, jazz and blues record label] Stax. So I grew up with a broad appreciation of R&B and blues – that music was always in my life.”

More recently, Henry explored the genre further in the Sky Arts documentary Lenny Henry’s Got The Blues, in a bid to find out why there are no internationally renowned black British blues artists. Henry spoke to a host of musicians and several of them felt that blues had been shunned by black people in the 60s, because the music drudged up thoughts of slavery days and hard times.

“In the 60s, when the blues explosion was happening in America, young black people were into Motown, Stax and [James Brown’s] Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud. So their opinion of the blues was a man in overalls drinking Moonshine and singing about the [underground] railroad.

“But to me, in the 21st century, there is still so much that can be done with the blues to make it more than, ‘I woke up this morning…’ You can put a hip-hop beat to the blues like Gary Clark Jr, or give it a classical influence like Laura Mvlula, or funk it up like The Black Keys. So I think the blues is incredibly relevant.”

Perhaps the most poignant and topical track on New Millennium Blues album is The Cops Don’t Know. The song sees Henry reflect on well-documented incidences of police brutality against black Americans, and the Black Lives Matter movement that was born in the wake of such injustices.

“The Cops Don’t Know was one of the last songs I recorded. I’d never written a song like that before, but I was reading a lot of stuff – and reading is good. I read articles by [renowned black British journalist] Gary Younge about gun crime in America, as well as other articles online and I decided to write the song.

“I wrote about [black victims of police brutality] Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Rodney King – all the people I’d read about and could remember. I wanted to pay tribute to all those people and say that black lives do matter.”

Does Henry not find it disheartening that, even in 2016, there is still so much blues to sing about in the black community?
“I think the stories are important. And the fact that there’s still so much blues to sing is the result of real life stories and situations.

“I talked to Chuck D [of hip-hop group Public Enemy] when I was doing a documentary about hip-hop and he said: ‘Music for us is like CNN – it’s how we talk to each other.’

“If a black musician wants to say something, they’ll write a song. And they can often pack more into four minutes than some of these guys can pack into an hour of news.

“I mean, if you think back to slave songs, there was a lot of code in the blues. The songs about going over yonder and following the North Star and crossing the river – a lot of that was code about escaping from the plantations. So when I listen to modern day blues, I hear musicians trying to tell us something about the times.”

One issue of our time that Henry has been immensely devoted to addressing is the lack of diversity in British television.

The entertainer, who was knighted in the Queen’s 2015 Birthday Honours for services to drama and charity, has campaigned tirelessly, calling for greater opportunities for BAME talents, both on screen and behind the scenes.

“The thing that caused me to speak out about diversity was the simple fact that there were a lot of people of colour who were very good at their jobs, but were leaving the industry because they’d hit a glass ceiling. At one point, the business fell with 2,000 people of colour leaving the industry – and that number kept growing.

“It wasn’t just actors, it was people behind the scenes too. And for every black or Asian person leaving, two white people got a job. When I saw those figures, my colleagues and I were moved to start talking about it.

“I think the BBC needs to write diversity into its charter and I think we, as [BAME] consumers, need to realise that our licence fee is just as valid as everybody else’s and we deserve to be heard.

“When you constantly see yourself not being represented, you start to think, ‘what’s going wrong?’ We have some seriously talented people. Danny Sapani, Adrian Lester, Michaela Coel, Rudolph Walker, Hugh Quarshie, Paulette Randall, Barbara Emile – it’s extraordinary that there isn’t more output that’s reflective of our society and our talent. So I think this issue is going to be something that occupies people for a lot more time to come.”

Frankly, if the BBC wants a lesson in diversity, they needn’t look any further than Henry’s career. His 30 years in entertainment have seen him find fame as a stand-up comedian, become a co-founder of Comic Relief and demonstrate his prowess as a serious actor, with roles in theatre productions including Othello and Fences. The latter earned him the best actor prize at the 2014 Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards.

Additionally, he’s presented several documentaries; he launched the production company, Douglas Road in 2014; and he wrote the 2015 BBC drama, Danny and the Human Zoo, which was a fictionalized account of his life as a youngster growing up in Dudley.

With Henry now making his mark on the music world, what would he say to the cynics who might struggle to take him seriously as a singer?

“There’s always gonna be someone who doesn’t like you – that’s the world,” he says. “But I was always advised to present a moving target; have a lot of things that you want to do, because you might not be able to do the same thing for an entire career. So I’ve always tried to do different things.

“I always wanted to act and I take acting very seriously. My mum used to say I was blessed and I do feel blessed that I’ve been able to have a career as an actor and as a writer. I also feel blessed that I’ve got a production company called Douglas Road, and we’ve been able to work with BAME writers and nurture new talent.”

He adds: “With the blues album, I did that because I wanted to, but I don’t profess to be anything other that an actor and comedian, who wants to enjoy his career at this stage of my life. I’ve got a lot of things I like doing so I am very blessed.”

New Millennium Blues is out now, available to download on iTunes

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