Róisín Murphy (Photo by Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Farewell to the counterculture

Róisín Murphy’s cancellation is a tale of poachers turned ideological gamekeepers

I didn’t know who Róisín Murphy was when the drama of her cancellation first unfolded on social media last week. Then I read that she was one-half of the duo Moloko, who did that tune “Sing It Back”.

This cancellation seems particularly brutal because Murphy just made passing comments on her private Facebook page. She wasn’t going into battle against transgender ideology, as such. She merely said that puberty blocking medication has disastrous effects, that prescribing it hugely benefits Big Pharma, and that this situation threatens to have dire consequences for kids who are clearly already struggling.

Such theoretical possibilities are woefully naïve for the culture war

In and of themselves, these comments could be accepted even by someone fully subscribed to transgender ideology. In theory, it’s possible to agree with the ideology’s main tenets whilst being concerned about prescribing experimental medication to children. It’s also possible to hold those positions and still be concerned about the influence of Big Pharma (the same Big Pharma who convinced America that synthetic heroin could be used as a harmless painkiller and thus caused the opioid crisis). It’s equally possible to worry that confused kids might be misdiagnosed with gender dysmorphia, especially after the closure of the Tavistock Clinic.

Needless to say, pointing out such theoretical possibilities is woefully naïve for the culture war. Murphy’s comments meant she was subjected to a Twitterstorm, and it was reported that her record label Ninja Tune will now not promote her music. Any proceeds from sales will be donated to the transgender lobby.

Anyone of a certain age will recognise “Sing It Back”, and some of this vintage will remember Ninja Tune and everything that label represented in the 1990s. This makes the situation all the more perplexing.

Ninja Tune was founded in 1990 by Matt Black and Jonathan More, aka the duo Coldcut who sprang to notoriety in the late 80s with their innovative DJing, sampling and remixing. The label was founded precisely to challenge the facile greed, corporate mentality and lack of imagination on display by major record labels — with whom the founders struggled as they rose to prominence.

Ninja Tune has remained independent whilst becoming a major success. Since being ultra-fashionable in the 90s, it has hosted a range of bestselling, award winning artists. It prides itself on never selling out to corporate interests, whilst many small and experimental labels accept buyouts from big players. This mentality of stubborn independence, the refusal to bow to corporate interests, is hard to align with a label cancelling one of its own artists for daring to speak out against Big Pharma. Ninja Tune should know how the wiles of corporate power subvert independence of mind.

One wonders where that attitude has gone — the willingness to entertain the new and the different

The independence of Ninja Tune wasn’t just about the business model. It was considered to be a seminal innovator — whose willingness to push boundaries and go against the grain enabled it to play a significant role in forming a new music genre. It pushed artists that more conformist labels wouldn’t dare to take a risk on. Its now-considered-legendary club night Stealth was a melting pot of eccentric characters and free thinkers in the middle years of that decade. One wonders where that attitude has gone — the willingness to entertain the new and the different and the unsettling, the celebration of going against the mainstream.

In an interview from their 90s heyday, the founders of Ninja Tune share some of the thinking behind their work, giving a snapshot of the sorts of ideas which were then common in the dance music subculture.

This includes an unapologetic anti-authoritarianism. It makes for pertinent reading after the events of last week: “most people seem to be in a zombie-controlled mind state which is useful for the sort of Babylonian control systems that keep people under [the] thumb, keep their nice place at the table”. This is the same label that refused to countenance an artist speaking freely on social media, even though she’s apologised for “stepping out of line”.

They go on to discuss what it means to be able change things in society — “that’s called empowerment”, they say. “Societys [sic] are generally set-up so you feel you don’t have empowerment” because “those in power have got their fingers on the buttons and they are not about to let go”. Who are those sinister operators today, we might well ask — the dominant ideology and its pharmaceutical backers, or the very artist this same label signed?

They also state that “you can’t control or set the present”, although “governments and people have been trying to do it and no one can do it, but you can move in the same direction as the energy is moving”. It’s hard not to look at Róisín Murphy’s cancellation and think that what was once an energy of stubborn independence against corporate forces, with creativity of mind and anti-authoritarian thinking, is moving in a very different direction today. It’s farewell, then, to the Ninja Tune of our younger years.

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