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Annie Lennox: artist, activist, role model

In an exclusive interview, pop music icon and committed HIV / AIDS campaigner Annie Lennox shares with MiNDFOOD her strong feelings about the current state of the world and how we too can become “agents for change” and live a fully engaged life.

As you walk out of Glasgow Airport, there is an enormous billboard featuring a line-up of great Scots. There’s the likes of Sean Connery and Ewan McGregor, and to the left – on her very own plinth – a woman dressed in white with an unmistakable cropped hairdo: it’s one of Scotland’s finest exports, Annie Lennox.

An only child, Lennox was born in Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland on Christmas Day 1954. Her father was a boilermaker in the local shipyards and her mother a housewife. The family lived in a two-room tenement house directly opposite an old textile factory, with a slaughterhouse down the road. In 1971, at the age of 17, Lennox left her native land to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London, with the potential to become a classical flautist.

“It is a very unlikely story, I have to say,” she says with a laugh. “I sort of broke free from my conventions, and my hometown in a way, but it wasn’t an easy ride. It had its twists and its turns and its bumps and its occasional smooth bits.”

Leaving the Royal Academy before her final exams, Lennox went on to form a band called The Tourists with singer-songwriters Dave Stewart and Peet Coombs. In 1980, the band broke up and Lennox and Stewart formed the Eurythmics, named after the dance technique eurythmy, which Lennox had encountered at school. The duo went on to become a household name, and Lennox quickly became a pop icon and a singer-songwriter in her own right.

“I feel so connected to music and performance and all of those things I feel so glad that I just love doing,” she says. “And I still feel very cutting edge in my own world. I now appreciate what it’s like to be a performer even more than when I did when I was younger, because it’s such a struggle. You were like, ‘This is tough’, but now it’s like, ‘Oh, this is great’.”

So has it become any easier? “Oh, aye, I don’t know if it gets easier with age. I mean, what has age got to do with being creative? I think, in a way, I have more of a value for things. You don’t take anything for granted when you’ve had life experience, and you have already put in quite a lot of that as you get more mature. You know the value of things. But when you are a kid, you are just not as aware of the pitfalls, and when things are 
just really great you are not feeling it properly.”

Her first marriage was a short-lived union to a Hare Krishna monk, Radha Raman. Lennox has two daughters, Lola, 19, and Tali, 17, from her second marriage to Israeli film and record producer Uri Fruchtmann. “Obviously, when you have children you influence them one way or another, but you don’t really have a great deal of control over what your kids think. I mean, they think independently, don’t they, so they might be influenced in 
a good way from you. I would hope so; it’s hard to say.”

The Eurythmics went on to sell more than 75 million 
albums and achieve over 20 hits worldwide. Lennox and her solo career continued to soar. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 2004 for the song Into the West, which appeared in Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and she has received multiple Grammy and Brit awards. In 2009, an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh recognised Lennox’s extensive work as an advocate for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. Indeed, it is this brand of social activism – she has also worked with organisations such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and Greenpeace – that has become a focal point for Lennox. In June of this year, she was appointed as an international goodwill ambassador for UNAIDS.

“It feels like all the work that I did up to that point was 
kind of acknowledged and that the people from the UN saw me as someone who would be a great partner with them,” she says. “It’s a mutual feeling of appreciation, in a way. I think it’s a strong partnership because I am a committed campaigner; I’m not someone who flies by night because it’s a fun thing to do. I’ve been doing this for many years and it feels like a very obvious partnering.

“Slowly, slowly I’ve been able to turn my attention and focus into doing this kind of work, and I just don’t think it’s something you can maybe always do at this level when you are a younger artist. I am at a stage in my life when I can do this and it’s so hugely satisfying for me to have this level of engagement and at the same time be an artist.”

Using her name and fame, Lennox has managed to shine a very bright light on some major issues, so how do the worlds of music and social justice sit alongside each other? “The two things go extremely well together. I am not using one to exploit the other, it’s just that ostensibly I am a communicator. I have been around for a long time so people know my name and they know my face. I don’t view myself as a celebrity. Today it seems that people just want to be a celebrity; you know, fame for fame’s sake. If I’m well known it’s because I’ve done something: I’m a performer, I’m a writer, I’m a singer, and so there is more to it than just simply wearing the latest fashion, if you know what I mean.”

When MiNDFOOD interviewed former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark (in the September 2010 issue), the current administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, she spoke of the Millennium Development Goals and the hope to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. “Yes, that is the number one Millennium Goal. It’s a slightly ambitious one,” says Lennox. “But, you know, these are simply goals, and the fact that those issues are even being discussed by politicians and by the people who can make a huge difference is a very, very seriously important thing.

“The fact of the matter is that we live in a world that is extremely divided between those countries that have tremendous resources and those populations that have absolutely nothing. We are really talking about those people who are living in chronic and endemic poverty, and that is incredibly cruel and unjust in a world where there is definitely enough food for everyone to eat and yet there are billions that go hungry.”

In addressing this challenging goal, Lennox believes it 
comes down to basic human rights. “How can these issues be resolved? That is really the question; that is what the goals are about. How can we address fundamental rights? You are born into this world and by circumstance you or I could be born into a family that is living in a slum dwelling in [a] country like South America, Africa, or parts of Asia, and the parts of countries where people just have so little in terms of resources, and 
the struggles you can see for yourself.

“You compare it to your own life and to your own resources; it’s another planet. I think we do have a moral, ethical responsibility. This shouldn’t happen, you know? A child shouldn’t die from a preventable disease; a child shouldn’t die 
of hunger. This is insane.”

It was a trip to South Africa in 2003 as one of the artists invited to perform at the launch of the 46664 Foundation, Nelson Mandela’s global HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention campaign, that led her to get involved more deeply with the issue. She has worked with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which was founded in 1998 in Cape Town and advocates for increased access to treatment, care and support services for people living with HIV.

“When I go and see activists like this organisation, these are people living with HIV themselves. They are not wealthy people that are just dipping in; they are people right at the coalface of the issue. They are having to struggle with all their problems and challenges on a daily basis, so you’re right there when you’re with TAC and the issues as they’re lived out.”

Lennox’s fourth solo album, Songs of Mass Destruction, released in 2007, included the song Sing, which helped launch SING, a campaign that works to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa and support women and children affected by the disease. After personally witnessing Nelson Mandela standing in front of his former jail cell on Robben Island conveying the message that the pandemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa was, in fact, akin to genocide, Lennox resolved to do as much as she could 
to bring attention to the crisis.

She cites the generosity of people “from all levels who contribute completely anonymously, who are not well known and are not wealthy, and yet they devote this time and everything about their lives to giving”.

“I meet individuals who are working in organisations that are doing such incredibly generous things with such dedication. There are people out there in Ethiopia when wars are going on, they are at the front lines and they are busy trying to save people’s lives and you know they are risking their own. Those are the people who inspire me.”

That drive and conviction within Lennox is inspiring, but how can we make a change in our own lives, to not only be more aware of these issues but actively involved in social justice?

“I think it’s really important that people don’t feel that you are preaching, because that is just a turn-off, and it is the last thing I want to do. I would far rather inspire. I think the best way is to inspire people in the same way that I am inspired – to do something. I know I’m not going to solve the issues, but that’s not the point. The point is our engagement and contribution and to do something rather than nothing.”

As an example, she points to the charity Oxfam, which says that the backbone of its support comes from people making regular small contributions, say the equivalent of a price of a cup of coffee. Lennox says that rather than telling people how to spend their money, she would rather inspire in them a feeling of being “a social investor for change”. “It’s a sense of ‘I want to be an agent for change and I’m going to feel good about it. That money that I could have spent on that cappuccino, you know what? I’m going to give it to a regular donation to Oxfam.’ Now that is change, that is investment that makes a huge difference, it truly, truly does.

“In a sense, it’s about really stimulating your understanding that actually we are all in the same boat and then you get a sense of empathy for others,” Lennox adds. “It’s that shift within yourself about caring and not switching off, and not saying, ‘It doesn’t matter to me I’m just living my life.’ So I think it starts with that awareness. If you see something and it moves you, and you say, ‘I wonder what I can do’, then that’s the beginning. [After that], you have to figure it out for yourself.”

Lennox has strong feelings about the “obscenity of money spent sending people into stupid, brutal wars” and likewise the massive bonuses paid to bankers, especially when poverty is such a pressing global problem. “It just seems the world is mad, and we are all living here in our little bubble. When you see the suffering that people go through and have to endure, it’s a wake-up call.   

“Whether you help the little old lady who lives on her own, who lives in your street, or whether you want to get really active and become an activist or a campaigner or you just want to send a little bit of money to an organisation, there are lots of ways you can contribute and engage – lots and lots of ways.”

Lennox’s latest music project, A Christmas Cornucopia, is a range of reworked Christmas carols and songs, including Silent Night, The First Noel, The Holly and the Ivy, plus an original track, Universal Child. “I was bought up with these songs just like everyone else,” she says. “I sang as a kid in choirs and stuff like that, so I really do know the songs very well and I carried them with me in my head.” She wants the album to reinvigorate the songs, stripping away some of their commercialised sheen and restoring their heart and “soulful sentiment”. 

All the income Lennox earns from Universal Child will 
be paid to the Annie Lennox Foundation, which raises money 
for projects supporting and educating women and children in Africa with HIV/AIDS. In producing A Christmas Cornucopia, Lennox and her co-producer, Mike Stevens, travelled to South Africa to record with the African Children’s Choir, an organisation with which Lennox has had a long association. She has met the members of the life-changing choir on numerous occasions, through the Nelson Mandela foundation 46664, and has said that she couldn’t imagine recording any other children’s voices but theirs. 

 

Having been born on Christmas Day, it would appear to be Lennox’s destiny to record a Christmas album. “Oh absolutely!” she says and laughs. “I have been singing Christmas songs all year. We would laugh, me and Mike – he lives in another part of London, so he would give me a lift home but it was kind of an excuse to listen to the work we had done in another environment. We worked in his little private studio at the bottom of his garden, it’s like a garden shed, really, and there we would be sort of waving our hands about in the car with full pumped-up volume, ‘Oh Angels from the realms of glory’, and it’s just spring and people were like: ‘What the hell is going on in that car?’”

So do you feel Christmassy at all? “Listen,” she says, “I feel Christmassy all the time.”

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