Billy Bragg has been writing and singing songs for justice — and against injustice — for more than 30 years; thankfully he is never going to stop. Bragg's continued passion is clear in "Saffiyah Smiles," his new song of solidarity inspired by recent racial tensions in America and an incident that happened closer to Bragg's home in Birmingham, England, at an anti-immigrant demonstration this past spring.
In an email, Bragg says that "following the shocking scenes of white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville this past summer, my mind went back to an image of a young woman facing down a ranting fascist with nothing but a serene smile. Saffiyah Khan had been taking part in a counter demonstration against the neo-fascist English Defence League in Birmingham, England, in April this year when she saw a woman being surrounded by taunting EDL supporters.
Saira Zafar had been verbally opposing the racists and a number of them had left the demo to turn on her. When the police struggled to protect her, Saffiyah stepped up and got in the face of the loudest aggressor, holding him at bay with nothing more than a smile until police intervened. A press photographer captured the moment and the picture went viral. Local Labour MP Jess Phillips memorably tweeted the image with the caption 'Who looks like they have the power here?'"
You can see that photo in this accompanying video for "Saffiyah Smiles," as Bragg sings, "Angry white men dressed like Elmer Fudd, shouting something about soil and blood." Later he sings, "and with a smile takes power from the man" while showing other moments in recent history when women stood up publicly to confront what they perceived as injustice, including a photo of Ieshia Evans standing up to riot police in Baton Rouge.
Bragg says, "Saffiyah Khan's selfless act of solidarity is an inspiration to us all and a reminder that sometimes you can confront hatred by calmly making plain how ridiculous its propagators are."
The song is one of many singles Bragg released this summer with similar themes, including "The Sleep Of Reason," "King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood" and "Why We Build The Wall." These songs will all be part of a mini-album called Bridges Not Walls, which comes out on the Cooking Vinyl label on Nov. 3. Bragg is currently on a U.S. tour.