Rosa and Neneh
And Our Broken Politics

This week Doctor Who unveiled its Rosa Parks episode.

I’d heard rumblings of this story for months, and ever since it was announced, I’ve been holding my breath. Doctor Who has never been known for its subtlety, and it sometimes handles issues-based stories with all the grace of a blind elephant. Tackling something as momentous as the American civil rights movement would be tricky even if the production team were three or four years in. It takes either incredible confidence or extraordinary foolhardiness to try this three episodes into a brand new era, with an untested showrunner, cast and crew.

But damn if they didn’t pull it off. The episode was written by children’s book author Malorie Blackman, with some credited rewrites by Chris Chibnall, and yeah, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of Chibnall rewriting a black woman’s Rosa Parks script. But I couldn’t really pick out his influence, which is a relief. The story is about a racist time agent from the future nudging history just a little bit off its tracks to derail the civil rights movement. If Rosa Parks does not refuse to give up her seat on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the subsequent protests and marches may not happen, the Civil Rights Act may not be signed, and history will be changed.

That’s a very Doctor Who way to approach this story, and the parts of it that were about our character-deficient villain and the Doctor’s efforts to stop him were the weakest. The strongest parts focused on Rosa herself, brought to life magnificently by Vinette Robinson, and on the reality of life in Montgomery in 1955. The story is only minutes old when Ryan is accosted in the street for trying to return a white woman’s dropped glove. Yaz is mistaken for Mexican, and the two of them are bundled in and out of windows and kept out of sight. This leads to some difficult and wonderful conversations between the two of them about how hard even modern life is for them, something Doctor Who has never really broached before.

Jodie Whittaker is at her best in this episode – she’s funny, she’s quick-witted, she’s got that sharp edge that the Doctor always has, and her heart is in the right place. She’s still effortlessly the Doctor. Everything else is still catching up with her performance, but this story doesn’t have any of the growing pains of the previous two. It’s strong and confident, and the ending – in which Graham becomes the white man without a seat who spurs the bus driver to tell Rosa to move – grapples with white complicity, even for non-racist white people.

The benchmark for a Doctor Who story about Rosa Parks is “don’t screw it up.” Amazingly, I think they did better than that. I have a couple problems with the execution, mainly centering on the villain, but they’re minor. This is the first very good episode of the Chibnall era, and it makes me hopeful for more. I’m also hopeful that the show will continue to tackle issues like racism with the same unflinching earnestness of this story. Rosa feels important, like Doctor Who leveraging its platform for a greater good, and I want more of that.

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I do wonder what Rosa Parks would make of our modern America, in which things are only marginally better for people of color than they were in her time. Trump’s America has been hardest on those already marginalized, and that is starting to be reflected in the art being made by non-white artists. I’ve waxed ecstatic about Janelle Monae’s amazing Dirty Computer, a complex plea for love and acceptance in the face of insane waves of bigotry, and it remains my favorite album of 2018. But she’s not alone in surveying the damage of our country and turning observations into compelling art.

Which brings us to Neneh Cherry, one of the most idiosyncratic and fascinating artists I know. Ever since her second album, 1992’s incredible Homebrew, Cherry has been an artist to watch. She blithely jumps genres, mixing rap and rock and progressive pop in her heyday, then leaving virtually all of those styles behind for her subsequent works. In 2014, after taking an interminable 18 years between solo records, Cherry returned with Blank Project, a harsh and minimal record that was nothing like anything she’d done. It was fantastic.

That album was produced by Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet. Four years later, she’s reunited with Hebden for her new one, Broken Politics, and it’s even better. True to its title, this is a harsh look at modern life, but it’s also a beautiful thing – it’s richer and more ambient in nature than Blank Project, feeling more meditative and mournful than anything else. Pianos and stark beats abound, softer and more ethereal beds for Cherry’s wandering vocal melodies. It is, again, like nothing she has done, and again, it’s excellent.

Even more than ProjectPolitics is a headphone album. None of its songs are immediate – they weave a spell, slowly and patiently, often never reaching the moment of release their restrained arrangements seem to promise. The faint jazz overtones of something like “Deep Vein Thrombosis” never morph into full-on jamming, preferring to keep the focus on Cherry’s voice with only an electric piano and a minimal beat to keep her company. Hebden worked the same magic on Project, but while that one kept the listener at arm’s length, this one is warm and inviting and easy to love.

All of which belies the pointed nature of its lyrics. Cherry has said she prefers to stay away from grand pronouncements and big statements, focusing instead on the personal toll the political situation has taken on her and others. Activism, she says, begins with the personal. That’s not to say she doesn’t address bigger topics – the amazing “Faster Than the Truth” finds her rapping again over a tremendous restrained beat about being surrounded by lies: “All the way I run, no nearer have I come, lies travel faster than the truth…” “Shot Gun Shack” is about guns. “Black Monday” is about abortion.

But beautiful songs like “Kong” are about finding hope in small things, and speaking that hope with loud voices. “Bite my head off, still my world will always be a little risk worth taking,” she sings. Throughout Broken Politics, Cherry makes the case that rising up sometimes looks like small acts of personal dignity, of refusing to be beaten down. The music follows suit, each song delivering small, hidden bits of beauty. It’s a perfect marriage of form and function, of music and lyric completing one another.

That said, it’s still an uncompromisingly weird record. I wouldn’t expect anything less. I’m thrilled that Neneh Cherry continues to make music, nearly 30 years after her one hit, and that said music remains this bizarre, this singular. She’s a one-of-a-kind artist, and she proves it each time out. Broken Politics filters the harsh and difficult reality of our world into strange and beautiful art. It feels necessary and important, but most of all it feels 100 percent like Neneh Cherry, as awesome as ever.

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