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Neneh Cherry on stage in 1989.
‘What’s she like, anyway?’ Neneh Cherry in 1989. Photograph: London Weekend Television/Shutterstock
‘What’s she like, anyway?’ Neneh Cherry in 1989. Photograph: London Weekend Television/Shutterstock

Growing up, every girl has a pop star they idolise – for me it was Neneh Cherry

Emma Forrest

The singer and rapper gave me my template of how to be a grown woman, and now my daughter is transfixed, too

If you read all of these columns, you may have spotted a recurring theme: “watching old movies my mum got me in to because I’m scared she’s going to die”. To this, I would add another habit: “sharing music videos from my youth to get through the weekend alone with my primary school-age child”.

Both ideas feed into the plot of Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s beloved film in which a little girl befriends another girl of the same age in the woods behind her recently deceased grandma’s house, before discovering her playmate is actually her mother as a child.

Sciamma’s film was very much on my mind one Sunday evening while watching some old music videos with my daughter, CJ. During one, we come to an artist who stops CJ in her tracks. “Her!” she says. “I love her”.

She is half delirious, as I was too, the first time I saw Neneh Cherry on TV when I was around CJ’s age. So my daughter and I meet in the “woods”, which in this case, is the surrealist beach of her video for Manchild, its shoreline strung with laundry drying on a line and other things she recognises from our daily life. But instead of Neneh’s wet hair still wrapped in a turban as I go into the world, it’s mine; and instead of handing the baby to a trusted friend before bursting into her rap verse, I am sending her on a playdate when I’m trying to meet a deadline. In the video, Neneh is maternal and caring but needs, momentarily, to let go when it’s time for her most demanding vocals.

Neneh’s Cherry’s Manchild video

Styled by the punk iconoclast, Judy Blame, I could write a thesison the impact of Neneh’s style. The heavy gold earrings. The Lycra cycling shorts, the high top sneakers. An Earth Mother who could feel the ground beneath her and a Goddess who would take you higher. At a pivotal age, she became my template of how to be a grown woman in domestic life.

My daughter replays the moment when the baby is handed to the friend (in the video it’s the artist Barry Kamen, who features alongside Neneh’s real best friend, chef Andi Oliver) several times. It thrills her to think the baby might be the pop star Mabel, who is Neneh’s youngest daughter in real life – though it’s not true. The baby is actually her middle daughter Tyson. Her eldest, Naima, is on a swing in the right corner of the screen. But CJ likes her version, and sticks with it.

Neneh Cherry was born in Stockholm but her parents moved to New York (living in the same loft building as Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads). Her stepfather, the jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, took her along when he toured with the Slits. Punk and new wave shaped her as much as hip-hop (and it may be that mashing of genres that meant she was never embraced in the label-obsessed US the way she was in Europe). Transfixed by the Slits’ front woman Ari Up, and then by Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, she dropped out of school at 14 and headed to London.

Buffalo Stance, the first single from her seminal debut album Raw Like Sushi, came out in 1988, and she famously danced in Lycra to it while seven months pregnant on Top of the Pops. It is an image seared into so many women’s memories – as it was for the Swedish pop genius, Robyn, who covered it for The Versions. When you consider that Cherry has also duetted with Youssou N’Dour and Michael Stipe, I think there should be a word like “schadenfreude” for when people you hold in high esteem respect you back.

We watch a few more Neneh Cherry videos. Then, emboldened, I put on Deee-Lite. Lady Miss Kier was also huge for me around that time, but when I show her Groove Is in the Heart, CJ finds it very frightening – the mania, Q-Tip’s disembodied head floating in space. The same had happened when I switched her from Audrey Hepburn – she’d watched Roman Holiday and Sabrina 20 times – to Marilyn Monroe. She could feel Marilyn’s anxiety and asked me to turn it off right away. Maybe she saw the vulnerability to come with adolescence, the woman being wanted without wanting, the walls closing in.

Girls look to female pop stars to understand: what kind of woman are you going to be? For Neneh Cherry in these videos everything is possible, which then extends to us. She’s beautiful, but not in a way that makes men want to hurt her. I don’t ever want my daughter to experience thoughts like this: that Neneh Cherry has cycling shorts and trainers, so if she needs to, she can run away.

I’ve tried to track the brand of trainers she wears – Fila, Champion, Reebok – as if that could be key to us staying safe. Or it could be that her heavy gold jewellery becomes a self-defence weapon. But she wouldn’t need that because she can talk her way safe, to form a connection with the craziest, bleakest human. She could escape. Neneh Cherry’s whole look, her entire sound is “if a woman could run at night with headphones on and not have to be afraid”. I don’t know if she feels that way. It may be as much something to dream into for her as it is for me.

Writing these columns, I’ve been trying to clarify (as they say at the end of one particular 12 Step meeting) “what has been given us, what has been taken and what has been left behind”. I wrote to Cherry when I was 12. She didn’t reply, which doesn’t matter, a good early lesson in putting prayers out to the heavens, knowing there may not be a response. Just saying: “this matters to me and here’s why” is a ritual that creates motion. I’ve carried her vibrations with me for three decades, now. My interpretation, via Cherry, of what motherhood could be was naive. But I want my daughter to see me still stretching for it, the shape I make, the muscles flexed, as I move towards something out of reach.

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