HAVING WOWED judges and audiences last year with her appearances on The Voice UK, Galway singer-songwriter Sharon Murphy has launched her new album Where I Belong, featuring 11 new, original, songs, as well as her terrific version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’.
The songs on the album movingly address Sharon’s experiences of being a black woman in Ireland, from her childhood in the orphanage in Clifden to her encounters with racial prejudice as an adult. The opening track, ‘Irish Reels and Jigs’ describes a meeting with a youthful racist: “A young man comes up to me/He said ‘This is not where you're from/I suggest go back where you belong/I said ‘Young man, just so you know/Let’s be clear, before you go/Before you were born/I was Irish, living here.”
“It used to be a regular occurrence for me to have people say to me ‘go back where you belong’,” Sharon tells me. “Quite often these people were younger than me and I’d be thinking ‘Guys, I was here before you were even born’ and that is how the song started. I wanted to write about being Irish and challenge those who came at me and assumed, because of the colour of my skin, that I don’t belong.”
Themes of belonging and identity course through all the songs on the album; “Everyone is asked where they are from but when I answer I’m Irish it is never left at that,” Sharon observes. “I have to constantly explain how I am Irish. Maybe people are just meaning to be curious but as a wise friend of mine, who is also black Irish, said ‘the hurt is in the repetition’, you are always reminded that you are different with those questions.
"By the age of eight I was already aware of living in a society where I got a lot of negative attention over the colour of my skin. And if I was aware of racism at that age then it is fair to say my white classmates were also receiving negative information about my skin colour because it wasn’t in isolation. Remember in the seventies and eighties you had The Black and White Minstrel Show on TV, and then advertisements like Lyons tea with a black minstrel, and Gollywog ice cream so we were bombarded with those mocking images of blackness. Words like ‘blackie’ were very familiar and wounding to me and because of that negative attention I didn’t feel I was really a part of society.”
Sharon acknowledges that alongside the prejudice, there were also people who stood up on her behalf; “Throughout my life there were always white people who loved me and cared. There were always people who would stand up and say ‘that is not OK’ whenever they would see me being racially insulted. When African people started coming to Ireland things changed, now people are accepting of black people being in Ireland. We’re not going away!”
While Sharon was in the midst of recording her album she had the momentous experience of meeting her mother for the first time. She tells me how that encounter came about; “After The Voice a cousin emailed me that she knew my family and told me I had a brother and sister. I didn’t know if that was true but then I got a letter from Barnardos in November, that my family were looking for me. I started emailing my sister Karen though I decided to take things slow initially. Karen told me it was hard for my mother Bridget, she didn’t really want to talk about me. Then one day I was in the studio and about to record the song ‘Mama’ when Barnardos rang me and told me ‘we have good news and bad news; your mum wants to meet you but she is very ill’.”
“Two days later I went to St James’ hospital and I met my sister and niece for the first time and that was really nice,” Sharon continues. “I went to my mother’s ward and she was unconscious at the time so I prayed and asked that it would be lovely if she would wake up and see me and 15 minutes later she started to wake up. I told her who I was and she had the most beautiful smile on her face. We met a few times after that and she told me she loved me so it was a really nice connection. She died on February 15 but it was such a gift to have met her, especially with recording the album titled Where I Belong, it gave me a sense of rootedness. It gives a whole extra resonance to the album title, it’s like opening up that part of me and reaching into coming to terms with who I am.”
“We all have different paths,” Sharon concludes. “We all experience lots of different emotions, the album is a story of my life, both the pain and the joy.”
Sharon plays a lunch time gig at 1pm in the Muscailt Arts Festival in NUI Galway, on Tuesday March 8 and also plays The Hungry Bookworm in Loughrea on Saturday March 26 at 8pm. Her album can be bought from www.sharonmurphymusic.com