When George Floyd was killed by police in May, Sinéad O’Connor knew she wanted to do something to honor him. She felt she only had her voice at her disposal, but decided the best track for these times had already been written: Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World.”
“I was very moved that when George Floyd died he was calling for his mother and, as a result, there sprang up a movement of other mothers around America; they were in the streets with placards saying, ‘When George Floyd called for his mama, he cried for all mamas,'” O’Connor tells Rolling Stone. “I guess that was part of why I wanted to release the track now — because it’s the very least that I can do. There’s not much I can do, but there is something small, which is singing. I also wanted to reintroduce artists like Mahalia Jackson. Every movement needs a soundtrack and the soundtrack for the Black Lives Matter movement was written and recorded in the Fifties by artists like Mahalia Jackson.”
Jackson, a.k.a. the Queen of Gospel, was born in New Orleans in the early 20th century, later moving to Chicago to sing gospel in the Twenties. She toured with Thomas Dorsey in the Forties and went on to inspire generations of musicians like Aretha Franklin before her death in 1972; she was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame posthumously by Mavis Staples in 1997. Jackson also became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and performing at the March on Washington in 1963. Dr. King once said of her: “A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium.”
Jackson’s “Trouble of the World” struck O’Connor particularly because it seemed hopeful, despite being a song about death. “I always liked how she and the song embody a certainty that we get to God,” she says. “On the surface, the song is talking about death, but, to me, it’s talking about how there is a journey and a destination toward peace and love on Earth — and that we will get there.”
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With this cover, O’Connor hopes to bring Jackson back into the public eye. While filming the video for the song in London, she carried a poster with the singer’s face on it and was surprised by how many people came up to ask who the woman was. The black-and-white clip — directed by Don Letts — also features ample footage from the BLM movement. David Holmes produced the track, with all the proceeds going to BLM charities.
O’Connor initially recorded the song for her next record but decided to drop it early in light of recent events. That album — No Veteran Dies Alone — is set for 2022, she says. It’s named for a program she volunteered with in the U.S. where participants provide solace and company for hospitalized veterans. While the pandemic keeps musicians homebound, O’Connor hopes to complete a college program to get her healthcare assistant diploma. “I’m hoping I have the guts for it,” she says. “My desire is to work in palliative care as a companion for people who are isolated from their family for whatever reason.”
As for the album, O’Connor says: “I’m writing more about personal matters, being a mother. The record is like letters to my children. The songs are very subconscious. I don’t know what the tone of the whole record will be, but that’s what it is so far.”