Labi Siffre is a black musician from London.

When he was young he watched news footage of the Sharpeville massacre.

White South African police shooting black protestors.

And he knew he would have to write something about it.

One night in 1985, at two in the morning, he got up and went downstairs to the piano.

And he wrote the song ‘Something Inside, So Strong’.

The words started to flow out of him.

“The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become.
The farther you take my rights away, the faster I will run.”

And tears began rolling down his cheeks.

And the chorus flowed out of him:

“I know that I can make it, though you’re doing me wrong.
You thought that my pride was gone,
No, no, there’s something inside so strong.”

And the tears flowed because Labi Siffre realised he was writing about himself.

About growing up gay and oppressed and scared in London.

All the years of living in fear of being picked on, humiliated, ostracised.

At first he worried that his song wouldn’t be relevant to South Africa.

But then he remembered something he’d read by a French writer.

“When you write well about the particular, you write well about the general.”

And he realised that oppression is oppression, wherever it happens.

And a song about his personal oppression was relevant to everyone.

In fact that song became so relevant, that it was played for Nelson Mandela on his birthday.

So relevant, it was played on the Washington march for lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights in 1993.

So relevant, in 1995 gospel singers sang it as a tribute to Rosa Parks on the fortieth anniversary of her protest.

So relevant, Amnesty International used it for their anti female genital mutilation campaign.

So relevant that The Choir With No Name, made up of UK homeless people, always close their concerts with it.

But perhaps the most surprising relevance of all was in football.

Neil Lennon was a Northern Irish footballer, he was also Catholic.

He played for, captained, and eventually managed, Celtic.

Celtic is a traditionally Catholic team.

While Neil Lennon was there, Celtic won the Scottish Cup five times, the League Cup twice, and were Scottish champions seven times.

Celtic’s historic rivals were Rangers, a traditionally Protestant team.

Neil Lennon received multiple death threats, he was sent bullets and nail-bombs in the post.

But none of that stopped him.

And at Celtic’s ground, 60,000 hardened football fans stood and sang Labi Siffre’s song as a tribute to Neil Lennon.

How can one song be relevant to such different groups?

As the French critic said “When you write well about the particular, you write well about the general”.

The same truth that is at the core of one person will be at the core of everyone.

Because that truth is what’s important.

Not the differences in race, sex, class, age, religion, or nationality.

Those are just superficial differences.

To understand people we need to understand not what makes them different, but what makes them the same.


What Bill Bernbach called “Simple, timeless human truths”.









  1. @Robin: audiences and focus groups are simply expressions of business needs.

    You might want to sell your dish soap to 30-40 year old home makers, but the way in which you connect to them will boil down to ‘simple human truths’.

    Which a good brief should consider, obviously.

  2. There’s a play on in Richmond, London at the moment called The Rolling Stone. It’s about two gay guys in Uganda. So no one in Richmond is going to see it. It’s got four and five star reviews. And still the locals are staying away. I saw it on Tuesday, even though I am white, straight and have never been to Uganda.

    The locals are missing the best play in London at the moment.

    Simple, timeless human truths never lose their power.

  3. Not referring to ‘simple human truths’ but “When you write well about the particular, you write well about the general”.

    With dish soap as example, all we got to do is make sure the ads have ‘simple human truths’in it.

    It doesn’t even have to appeal specifically to 30-40 year old home-makers.

    All the ad has to do is to be well-written even if it is aimed at 50-60 year old home-makers.

    After all, if you write well about the particular – in this case 50-60 year old home-makers – then it will appeal to the general (which would include 30-40 year old

    So why not just write well about the general and let it “spread” to the particular?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *