27 July 2023

Boycotts, bans and activism — Sinead O’Connor’s most radical moments

The polarising Irish singer-songwriter was an unlikely pop superstar, but she became just as much known for her activism over the years.

As tributes flood in from around the world for Irish musician Sinéad O’Connor following the news of her death aged 56, the singer is being remembered for more than just her music. Her recording of the chart-topping hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ made way for O’Connor’s multiple Grammy Award nominations and in 1991 she was named artist of the year by Rolling Stone magazine. But aside from her successful musical career, O’Connor was also well-known for her activism and challenging the political landscape. Here, we look back at the singer’s most radical moments over the years.

The Pope picture scandal

In 1992, during the height of her success, 25-year-old Sinead shocked the world when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live (SNL) in the US in a protest against the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church.

Shaven-headed and wearing a white dress, the Dubliner performed a stark, a cappella version of War, Bob Marley’s 1976 polemic on racism, adapting the words to address the issue of clerical child abuse.

The show came a little over a year after the singer had won a Grammy for the ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ video, and it was her second SNL appearance in two years. But it was to be her last, as she was blacklisted by the show at the peak of her powers.

New York radio ban

In 1990, O’Connor sparked outrage after refusing to have the American national anthem played before her concert at the Garden State Arts Centre New Jersey. Officials were informed of her decision just minutes before she was due on stage, and reluctantly agreed not to play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. She ended up being banned from several radio stations in New York after the decision.

READ MORE: The Interview: Sinead O’ Connor

Sinead said: “I sincerely harbour no disrespect for America or Americans, but I have a policy of not having any national anthems played before my concerts in any country, not even my own, because they have nothing to do with music in general,” she said.

“I am concerned, though, because today we’re seeing other artists arrested at their concerts, some threatened with having their albums taken off the shelves or not even released at all. There is a disturbing trend toward censorship of music and art in this country, and people should be alarmed over that far more than my actions of last Friday night.”

Boycotting the Grammys

Back in 1991,  the ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ singer said “no” to the Grammys, refusing to accept an award on the U.S. music industry’s biggest stage. The boycott raised eyebrows, leading her to become one of the earliest artists in the Recording Academy’s history to speak up for injustices in the Grammys system that are still present today.

It began with O’Connor, who was nominated for four Grammys, including for Record of the Year. But O’Connor penned a letter to the Recording Academy, saying she would not accept their awards even if she was given one. Her scathing remarks about the state of the Grammys and the music industry sent shockwaves through the media landscape.

“They acknowledge mostly the commercial side of art,” a portion of O’Connor’s letter to the Academy reads. “They respect mostly material gain, since that is the main reason for their existence. And they have created a great respect among artists for material gain — by honouring us and exalting us when we achieve it, ignoring for the most part those of us who have not.”

O’Connor’s cry was for equal recognition amongst her peers amidst a chaotic socio-political era that included the Gulf War, of which O’Connor was fervently against. Notable acts joined in solidarity with O’Connor that year. “Cult of Personality” rock group Living Colour‘s lead guitarist Vernon Reid accepted the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance with a photo of O’Connor on his shirt. “NARAS doesn’t dictate my dress code,” Reid later said.

O’Connor becomes a priest

In 1991, she shocked fans after announcing that she had become a priest after she was pronounced Mother Bernadette Mary at a ceremony staged by the Latin Tridentine church.

She came under fire after it was revealed that she had also donated £150,000 to Bishop Michael Cox, who had ordained her. She said: “It would be a lie to say I was bought by the priesthood. This man would not have ordained me for any money if he had not known I had a true vocation.” 

Sinead also reflected back on tearing up an image of the Pope during her appearance on SNL. “I’m sorry I did that, it was a disrespectful thing to do,” she said. “I have never even met the Pope. I am sure he is a lovely man. It was more an expression of frustration.”

  • Writer Chris Saunders

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