Four 'Manni' Women

There are many songs that have encapsulated a moment in history but few have remained relevant through generations as Nina Simone's Four Women. It vividly depicts the conditions of four black women, four cloaks that continue to fit women across generations and across continents, as so eloquently demonstrated in a version by hip-hop artist Talib Kweli from his album Reflection Eternal where he transposes the song to reflect any modern day urban city.
Apr 2018

The song has also come to epitomise defiance against injustice to women. So it was no surprise when four iconic singers from Manchester decided to record and perform their version of Nina Simone’s Four Women as part of the centenary celebration of the suffragette movement.

The four ‘Manni’ women in question are Julie Valentine, Melanie Williams, Yvonne Shelton and Michele Udugu aka Ebere. To be exact, they are four women plus one, the fifth member being Alison Surtees the co-founder of Manchester Digital Music Archive, a singer in her own right, whose role is to help facilitate the project explained - “It is a very specific song, it is describing a specific history and it suited for the four singers who are doing it."

There are friendships and history between various members of the project. Yvonne’s relationship with Melanie began when Melanie got signed as recording artist and Yvonne featured on her recordings. It was in this setting they crossed paths with Alison, who was producing Melanie's video at the time. Julie and Yvonne met through mutual friend Jacqueline Reed when Yvonne sang with Heather Smalls from M People and Julie was touring with the Happy Mondays. They later worked together in Julie’s band. Michelle and Julie worked as part of the speakeasy collective in Manchester.

Yvonne Shelton sings the first verse. She explains that nowadays she is extremely selective about the music she chooses to sing. “It has to connect, I now get the chance to sign words that match my personal angst.” She goes on to explain that “it is the little things that help invoke emotions in a song like someone getting served before you even though you were first in the queue r being looked upon strangely as walk out of the store.”  About her verse in the song she says “when I sing my skin is black, my arms are not so long but they are long enough, I know what she is saying … my back is strong because it had to take the pain again and again, it doesn’t just relates to racism, it could be within your own family, your own culture that you encounter this as a woman”.

Melanie Williams sings the second verse. “I feel honoured to be part of the four women. At a time when people sang about love, Nina was brave enough to take on challenging subjects and was not afraid to make her audience feel uncomfortable and they responded, and this remains the case in today”. She says the struggle has changed, it has become more personal, with social burdens like raising a family and maintaining a career - something she struggled with personally. She hopes the performance will express the pain that women have gone through but also celebrate how far women have come and the different voices trigger a connection with the younger generation.

Michele Udugu aka Ebere  sings the third verse about ‘Sweet Thang’. Her rootsy and soulful vocals bring an urban intensity to a story that draws parallels with modern day exploitation of young women and girls that still plague our streets.

Julie Valentine who is also the brainchild of the project sings the last verse. She explains that she finds it difficult to disconnect from what she signs, “it has to come from a place of truth, I have to home in to my own perspective and pain which could be a number of things” - She goes on to explain that today's’ [music] environment is not conducive to building relationships and making connections, it is all very plastic.

The plan is to perform the song at various events throughout the year across the city. Alison explains, “we are trying to make it work on a number of levels, there are a couple of low key things that are already going on that it could be part of but what the women are trying to do will resonate with a bigger crowd, the subject matter to what it is speaking to demands a wider audience.”

Live performances will be backed by Julie’s current band NGUVU.