Labi Siffre
Labi Siffre (Photo: YouTube)

Although ostensibly inspired by the apartheid-era in South Africa, “Something Inside So Strong” by Labi Siffre is an anthem that resonates with many gay people. Siffre has since said that his experiences as a gay man also influenced the lyrics.

A big hit in the UK upon its release in 1987, it’s become a song regularly performed at Pride festivals or protest rallies.

The song begins:

“The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become / The further you take my rights away, the faster I will run / You can deny me, you can decide, to turn your face away / No matter ’cause there’s, something inside so strong / I know that I can make it, though you’re doing me wrong, so wrong / You thought that my pride was gone, oh no, there’s something inside so strong.”

Upon its release, protests against apartheid laws in South Africa were escalating. Anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was still in jail. He’d been imprisoned since 1962. He was finally released in 1990 and became the first democratically elected President of the country in 1992.

Early life

Claudius Afolabi “Labi” Siffre is a British singer, songwriter and poet born June 25, 1945, to an English mother of Bajan-English roots and a Nigerian father.

He began playing in jazz and folk bands in the 1960s. He found success as a pop, folk and R&B singer-songwriter in the UK the following decade. He released six albums between 1970 and 1975, notching up beloved hits such as “It Must Be Love” and “Crying Laughing Loving Lying.”

Siffre was wary of press interviews but also did not go to lengths to hide the fact he was gay. As noted by the Guardian in a 2022 profile, even back in the 1970s, Siffre’s lyrics were not clearly aimed at the opposite sex. Instead, “they express romantic contentment in such a simple and relatable way – shared jumpers, waiting for telephone calls.”

He says his father, an upper-middle-class Nigerian born in 1900, “warned me about homosexuals in graphic terms when I was 12 and I remember thinking: ‘You’re eight years too late!’”

Siffre met his partner, Peter John Carver Lloyd, in 1964. Thankfully, his family accepted the relationship. The two men remained together for 48 years until Lloyd died in 2013.

In the mid-1990s, they became a throuple with a third man, Rudolf van Baardwijk. Siffre and Lloyd entered into a civil partnership when they were able to do so following a law change in 2005. Following Lloyd’s death in 2013, Siffre married Baardwijk, who died in 2016. Siffre now lives in Spain.

“The most important thing in your life is what happens at home,” says Siffre. “Many people don’t understand this. It is head and shoulders above everything else. And from the moment Peter and I met, I never took [that love] for granted.”

1980s comeback

Siffre found himself frustrated with the music industry by the mid-1970s and the demands of record labels. He partially withdrew to try concentrating on management for a while.

However, a documentary he saw in 1984, about apartheid in South Africa, moved him to write “Something Inside So Strong.” The film showed troops shooting at Black civilians in the street.

Siffre said he wrote the song with the idea someone else would sing it. However, it was suggested he release it himself. It ended up going to number four in the UK singles chart. This makes it his biggest hit. It also won him a prestigious Ivor Novello Award and gave his career a late-1980s resurgence.

In 2014, Siffre told the BBC that as well as apartheid, his experiences as a gay man also fueled the lyrics. It’s a song of defiance that resonates with anyone who feels they’ve been held back in life, and who have had to tap into their inner strength to survive.

In 2022, he told The Guardian about the process of writing it after watching the apartheid documentary.

“I sat down, played a C chord, threw my head back and sang the first two lines of ‘Something Inside So Strong’. I realized I was writing about my life as a gay man and I found myself crying.”

Although not a hit in the US, country singer Kenny Rogers covered it on his album of the same name in 1989.

Eminem

In fact, although not enjoying any hits himself in the US, Siffre’s music is instantly recognizable thanks to the most unlikely of sources: Eminem.

Here’s a funk-heavy album track Siffre wrote in 1975 called “I Got The…”. See if you recognize this specific part.

The sample was picked up in the 1990s by US hop hop artists, most notably by Eminem on his 1999 hit “My Name Is…”

In 2012, Siffre revealed he’d initially turned down Eminem’s request to use his song because of the rapper’s lyrics.

Eminem and producer Dr Dre then apparently sent Siffre a ‘clean’ radio-friendly version of their track. Only then did he grant permission. However, he didn’t realize that his permission also meant they could go ahead and release their ‘uncensored’ version.

“Dissing the victims of bigotry – women as bitches, homosexuals as faggots – is lazy writing. Diss the bigots, not their victims,” Siffre explained in 2012 when asked why he’d initially refused.

“I denied sample rights till that lazy writing was removed. I should have stipulated ‘all versions’ but at that time knew little about rap’s ‘clean’ and ‘explicit’ modes, so they managed to get the lazy lyric on versions other than the single and first album.”

Siffre, 78, is still an active songwriter and poet. He occupies a unique, often overlooked position within the history of both British music and Black, gay artists. He lived an authentic life even at a time when homosexuality could lead to jail.

In 2022, he was the subject of a great BBC documentary entitled This Is My Song, which is still available to stream in some territories. He’s also very active on X, where he continues to advocate for the rights of those who face discrimination and oppression.

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