Sustainable Song: Diamonds from Sierra Leone

This week's Sustainable Song is Diamonds from Sierra Leone chosen by our Arts Director, Catherine Langabeer. Here's why:

Diamonds from Sierra Leone is a song about conflict.

Most literally, it’s about the trade in conflict diamonds, that is, diamond trade where the profits finance wars, such as in Sierra Leone during the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, in such environments the working conditions are grotesquely exploitative, rely on forced labour, child labour, and regularly result in the maiming or death of workers:

“Good Morning, this ain’t Vietnam still

People lose hands, legs, arms for real

Little was known of Sierra Leone

And how it connect to the diamonds we own”

The problem of knowledge forms the basis for the second type of conflict the song is about: the conflict between knowledge and desire. In an era of complex global supply chains, we don’t need to know where what we buy comes from: the shops are full and our needs are met. At the same time, campaign groups in the digital age have blown open access to information and forced much greater transparency about the origins of the goods that we covet, and the social and environmental impacts that they create. We live in an era when we can know so much but it can be easier not to know:

“See, a part of me sayin' keep shinin',

How? When I know of the blood diamonds

…How could somethin' so wrong make me feel so right?”

This internal conflict, or doubling, is expressed through the multiple versions of the song. Apparently, Kanye West wrote the remix after penning the original, (which is included as a final bonus track on the album). This original version is a somewhat more predictable parade of celebrity excess:

“Grammy night, damn right, we got dressed up

Bottle after bottle ‘til we got messed up.”

But the anxiety is still there in the track’s fevered mood: Kanye West’s questioning repetition of “forever” after the Shirley Bassey sample maintains the hysterical texture.

The music video for the song used the original lyrics and tries to get the issue across through the visuals. For me, they’re far more hackneyed than the remix lyrics: cue shots of Kanye with a child miner (from Sierra Leone, presumably) in the backseat driving a Porsche into the windows of jewellery store. But it closes with the statement “please purchase conflict free diamonds.”

And I guess that’s the final source of conflict, for me. Does this closing entreaty and the clever lyrical critique trump the fetishisation of glamour and lifestyle that Kanye West generally seems so bound up in? What can a few lyrics do in the face of a culture of consumption that make knowledge such a problem for us?

Here are the lyrics:

Diamonds are forever

They're all I need to please me

They can't stimulate or tease me

They won't leave in the night

Have no fear that they might

Desert me

"Diamonds are forever forever forever"

Throw ya diamonds in the sky

If you feel the vibe

"Diamonds are forever forever forever"

The ROC is still alive

Everytime I rhyme

"Forever and ever! "

For ever ever? for ever ever? ever ever?

Ever ever? ever ever? ever ever? ever ever?

Good Morning, this ain't Vietnam still

People lose hands, legs, arms for real

Little was known of Sierra Leone

And how it connect to the diamonds we own

When I speak of Diamonds in this song

I ain't talkin bout the ones that be glowin

Sustaining Creativity