Frances Black: Delivering music and a message

As a senator, Frances Black has recently been battling against Israeli settlements, but she is also looking forward to gigging again with her old friends, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Frances Black: Delivering music and a message

As a senator, Frances Black has recently been battling against Israeli settlements, but she is also looking forward to gigging again with her old friends, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

It’s a debate that’s been raging for some time in the world of music. Musicians including Nick Cave and Radiohead have been accused of crossing a cultural picket line by playing gigs in Israel.

BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) activists are urging acts to uphold their boycott of the country they believe is perpetrating human rights abuses against Palestinians in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, a BDS supporter and advocate for Palestinian rights, has been weighing in with increasing frequency, penning open letters to acts planning Israeli shows asking them to reconsider. In response, he’s been met with accusations of anti-Semitism, which he denies.

Roger Waters In Ireland calling for support of Frances Black's Occupied Territories bill

Some would argue that music has always been a political tool, from Woody Guthrie to Pussy Riot, while others, like Lana Del Rey, see music’s unifying, healing powers: in response to demands for her to cancel her performance at September’s Meteor Festival outside Tel Aviv, she composed a tweet asking if “a singer with a loving energy can help shift the energetic vibration of a location for the higher good, even if it’s just for a minute?” She has since cancelled her show in Israel.

Either way, the debate’s not going anywhere soon and Irish voices have joined the fray, with calls for a boycott of Eurovision 2019, due to be held in the hotly contested city of Jerusalem, backed by the Musicians’ Union of Ireland and Irish Equity.

Frances Black has sung all over the world, but she says she wouldn’t play a gig in Israel and will support a Eurovision Boycott.

“I think it would be making a huge statement to Palestinian people and to the rest of the world, to hold the Eurovision in Jerusalem,” the 58-year-old singer and politician says. “And I wouldn’t support it.”

But as the Senator who, just weeks ago, got a controversial bill outlawing the import of Israeli products from settlements on Palestinian land through the first stage in the Seanad, perhaps this doesn’t come as such a surprise.

Black, who has combined her singing career with political life and her work as an addiction counsellor since she was elected to the Seanad in 2016, has been a supporter of Palestinian rights for years.

But she says a recent trip to visit the West Bank and Gaza cemented her determination to get the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill passed.

“The reality for the people there is just horrendous,” she says. “The water in Gaza is polluted and they only get electricity for a couple of hours a day. In Hebron, soldiers stop people from walking down their own streets. They’re building more and more settlements and tearing down villages to do it, and it’s all illegal.”

The stark contrast between cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, with its palm trees and trendy restaurants, the Gaza strip was a shock to Black. “You walk through a tunnel covered in barbed wire, and then you’re in Gaza, and it’s like another world. There are horses and little carts, dirt roads and no street lights.”

Having passed the first stage in the Seanad with the support of a coalition of parties — excluding Fine Gael — Black envisages a long battle ahead to get the bill through the various remaining stages before it could be enacted. She’s had numerous detractors to date, including Fine Gael’s Alan Shatter and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who both say that the bill amounts to anti-Semitism.

She gives short shrift to the charge. “What the government is doing over there is wrong, and if I criticise that government I get called anti-Semitic? I find that quite offensive. They’re using that as a tool to get people to back off. I’m not anti-Semitic by any means. It’s emotional blackmail, and it’s wrong.”

It’s not the first time Black has been outspoken on a political topic she cares strongly about; having trained as an addiction counsellor following her own battle with alcoholism in her late twenties, she founded the Rise Foundation to support families fighting addiction and went into politics with the express aim of getting a new bill enforcing a minimum price on alcohol passed.

It all seems a far cry from A Woman’s Heart. But Black, from the renowned Dublin folk family, a former member of Arcady and a frequent collaborator with Kieran Goss, says she’s managed, for the most part, to balance her musical and political careers with her work in addiction counselling and her family.

“I have cut down on the gigs because I take my work in the Seanad very seriously,” she says. “I’m in five days a week and I might be staying late too. I take it really seriously and I’m doing work that I’m very passionate about.”

The early nineties phenomenon of Celtic girl-power that was A Woman’s Heart, the record-selling compilation album of Irish female musicians including her sister Mary, can still be considered a landmark in Black’s career, catapulting her as it did towards a solo career that included tours of the US and several well-received albums.

Now, Black is reuniting with two of the women from the album: she’s set to perform a series of gigs with Mary Coughlan and Sharon Shannon this autumn, and she’s looking forward to it.

“There was a whole gang of us when we went out on the road with A Woman’s Heart in the ‘90s and it was brilliant,” she says. “I’ve been friends with Sharon for 30 years because we were in Arcady together, and then myself, Sharon and Mary toured Holland ten years ago. But we haven’t had a gig in three years so I’m looking forward to rekindling the bond we’ve always had.

“It comes so organically to us at this stage that we rehearse things during the soundcheck. Myself or Mary start the set, but Sharon’s music is so lively that she always finishes the gig. Then we all come on together to do a couple at the end. It’s great fun.”

The Black family musical dynasty has carried forward into the next generation and no mistake; her elder sister Mary is mother to Danny O’Reilly of The Coronas and singer-songwriter Róisín O, while Black’s own daughter, the singer Aoife Scott, was awarded Best Irish Folk Act at the Irish Post Music Awards this summer and is about to embark on a September tour of the US.

It may seem like Black is trying to weave together very diverse elements of life, but she says the unifying factor is a desire to connect with people.

“Being part of a journey for someone, a connection to people, is what drives me,” she says. “Whether that’s people at gigs, Palestinian people, my own family, or the people who I see who suffer from addiction, that’s what makes me passionate about life. And now I work in three different areas where I get to connect with people on that level. That makes me feel very blessed.”

- Sharon Shannon, Frances Blackand Mary Coughlan are at Cork Opera House on Thursday the 13th of September:

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