Annie Lennox: ‘I had a real deep dive into the world of poverty’

Exclusive interview: The singer talks to Zoë Beaty about her work to end violence against women and girls, and why all feminism should be global and intersectional

Sunday 13 March 2022 13:06 GMT
Annie Lennox on stage during the German Sustainability Awards in 2017
Annie Lennox on stage during the German Sustainability Awards in 2017 (Getty Images)

Every time Annie Lennox touched down at Heathrow after one of her many humanitarian trips, she would be overcome by a very specific feeling. “These projects gave me a passport in. I had an opportunity to go directly to rape crisis centres, orphanages, to be taken to hospitals and schools and clinics – I had a real deep dive into the world of poverty,” she says, talking over Zoom from her home in LA. “It was deep, I can tell you. Every time I would come back to the airport in the UK I would have this sort of inner sense of… I want to wake everybody up.”

Is it slightly agonising for a multimillionaire to tell the masses to open their eyes to the real world? The past couple of years have seen several incidences of celebrity do-gooding miss the mark – from Gal Gadot’s tone-deaf stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict last year, to Thandiwe Newton’s tearful apology to dark-skinned women, or unsought celebrity videos decrying racism during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement. More often than not there’s something very Geri Halliwell at the UN in 2009 about the whole thing; something that doesn’t quite add up or, at least, is laced with a particular brand of cynicism.

Lennox cemented her status as a true British icon in the 1980s, as one half of synth-pop duo Eurythmics, eventually selling more than 80 million albums. She has a collection of four Grammys, a loyal fan base to this day – and now, a significant stake in the humanitarian world.

Away from her enviable career, it’s her work outside of music that she’s talking about today. And it’s clearly what drives her most. Lennox’s energy is palpable through the screen; that familiar soft accent – grown from her working class roots in Aberdeenshire – sings as she recalls where this philanthropic journey began. “It was a sort of stirring in me,” she says – it was never a question of wanting to be a wealthy rock star (which of course she is, she adds) but “wanting to utilise whatever voice I had towards empowerment, towards inspiration, towards justice”.

To her undeniable credit, Lennox has not only put her money where her mouth is but also, perhaps more importantly, taken action. Inspired first by the people she met raising awareness of aid work through music, she started a non-profit called SING in 2007, and NGO The Circle, a year later. The Circle’s big call to action is global feminism, which Lennox and her team are at pains to get across. Their message is consistent that one woman’s problem is every woman’s problem and geography is irrelevant. The Circle works by bringing grassroots activists together in collaboration, and providing financial or practical support, like legal teams for instance, to achieve set goals focused on economic empowerment and ending violence against women and girls.

It was a sort of stirring in me – wanting to utilise whatever voice I had towards empowerment, towards inspiration, towards justice

“Our name felt so perfect because it is all about that notion of connecting, and holding hands or standing shoulder to shoulder,” Raakhi Shah, CEO of the non-profit, says. “It’s about bringing everyone round a physical [or metaphorical] table.” It was founded at a time when the word “feminist” wasn’t as accepted as it is today, Shah and Lennox agree. Now they’re determined to vocalise the notion that all feminism should be global and intersectional.

And it’s making headway. Some of their current projects include the campaign for EU legislation for a living wage for garment workers facing some of the most precarious working conditions in the world – for this, they are supporting Kalpona Akter, co-founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS). They have centres in Sri Lanka, a leadership programme in Uganda and support the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network. In the UK, they’ve partnered with Sikh Women’s Aid to tackle the negative impact of exploitation of women and girls in the South Asian community.

Over International Women’s Day they launched a new campaign – Hear Her. Empower Her – to support women globally, which brings together survivor-led films and stories from Uganda, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the UK and other countries. The aim is to amplify voices of those women who have survived abuse and poverty and attempted to eradicate some of the shame that perpetuates the cycle. Since the threat of gender-based violence escalates during times of conflict, their structure will be a timely aid to the plight of women currently in or fleeing Ukraine.

Lennox at Madison Square Garden in 2009
Lennox at Madison Square Garden in 2009 (Getty Images)

The past year has been yet another difficult one regarding violence against women and girls in the UK, spent reeling from the deaths of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Ashling Murphy and many others. How did Lennox feel watching the year unfold? “Every single loss of life, or abuse or violent act against a young woman or girl or child or anyone for that matter … leaves us collectively reeling,” Lennox says. She’s keen to reiterate that violence against women and girls is a global problem. “And the thing is that we know each one is not necessarily reported in the same way, that it’s only when the media really runs a story that it gets that amount of coverage.

“What I’m trying to say is each one is as tragic as the other. And there is no distinction in my view. So I hear about the loss of one person’s life and I’m just horrified. And I also know that it’s a culture of rape, a culture of violence, murder, stalking, all of it, everywhere. And that is the bigger message beyond the individual story of the tragedy of one person’s life, you know. It affects families, it affects communities, it affects countries. So imagine if we were to report on every single loss of life over the last decade…”

While the sentiment is of course true, it’s difficult to think in this way. The world and its issues, especially issues presented to women, are so vast that it becomes close to a feeling of nihilism to sit with the enormity of it all for too long. It’s jarring and oddly self-conscious when an extremely famous, wealthy musician says that she “identifies with every woman on the planet”, which Lennox does later, but still there’s a warmth to her enthusiasm that is difficult to ignore.

It’s a culture of rape, a culture of violence, murder, stalking, all of it

Lennox says she’s now “prioritised” The Circle in her day-to-day life, rarely (if ever) performing, instead pivoting her focus to her political and social activism. The Circle, which began around a dining table, is now a multi-faceted operation that has presence in dozens of networks and countries around the world. “It’s almost a way of life for me,” Lennox says. “The best that we can do is to inspire people to take action. And that’s because we’re all a little overwhelmed, to be frank with you.”

Does she feel overwhelmed, too? “Yes,” she says immediately. “And that’s one thing I have to [personally] fight, because I am so porous in a way. Like I see the photographs of women [in Ukraine] about to give birth in basements and it undoes me. This kind of horror [makes me] waver almost to the point of, like, I don’t know what to do.

“And then I think, well, my solution is the work that I’m doing already. And I think for a person like myself, the privilege that I have being secure and safe means I must contribute. I feel that it’s essential for me to find my way to contribute.”

The Circle supports women and girls who are determined to forge a future free from violence and inequality. Donations will enable The Circle and its grassroots partners working on the front line to support more women facing crisis.

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