The Meaning Behind “Mandinka” by Sinéad O’Connor and the TV Miniseries that Inspired It

Sinéad O’Connor’s spirit is distilled inside the shrieking new wave of “Mandinka.” Everything to cherish about the Irish singer and songwriter happens inside this song: snarling defiance, pain, beauty, and empathy.

Videos by American Songwriter

In 2023, O’Connor was found dead at home in London, aged 56. Her politics often overshadowed her brilliant and dynamic work. But to understand her life is to know the two could not and would not be separated.

She’s nominated this year for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, proving not only her brilliance and impact on the music world but also how culture has finally caught up to the things she protested most loudly.


Based on the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, “Mandinka” is about slavery and O’Connor’s connection to the civil rights movement. The 1977 miniseries adaptation inspired O’Connor to write the song.

The opening verse references the Dance of the Seven Veils, popularized by Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome. Wilde’s interpretation of the biblical story—inspired by earlier French writers—transforms Salome into a figure of lust. She dances for her uncle at King Herod Antipas’ birthday celebration. In return, he offers her a reward. Salome receives John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  

I’m dancing the Seven Veils
Want you to pick up my scarf
See how the black moon fades
Soon, I can give you my heart

O’Connor explained the emotional response to Roots in her 2021 memoir Rememberings. According to O’Connor, she lived in a theocracy in Ireland and faced severe oppression at her home, finding solidarity with the Mandinka people in West Africa.

I don’t know no shame, I feel no pain
I can’t see the flame
But I do know Mandinka

Fighting the Oppressor

O’Connor dedicated her life to fighting oppression, and the public didn’t always receive her well. She’d received criticism for tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992, a statement against sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

At a New York concert the year before, she chose not to have the national anthem performed. Frank Sinatra threatened O’Connor with violence, and rapper MC Hammer offered to fly her back to Ireland.

For her supposed crimes, stars like Joe Pesci egged on the public backlash when he appeared on SNL and imagined himself slapping O’Connor. The crowd didn’t react in horror—they cheered.

The Lion and the Cobra

Released in 1987, O’Connor’s critically acclaimed début, The Lion and the Cobra, introduced a powerful new voice. “Mandinka” appeared as the second single, becoming a hit in the UK. She told Mojo in 2005 about her reluctance to perform songs from The Lion and the Cobra, due partly to outgrowing things written by a “little girl.”

The songs, to O’Connor, are therapy, and she didn’t want to revisit the same place emotionally. But if The Lion and the Cobra introduced O’Connor, the young artist, her following album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, put in motion the force of her.  

O’Connor’s emotional cover of Prince’s song “Nothing Compares 2 U” became a defining moment in pop history. The close-up video of her face, cycling through anger and sadness, is iconic for more than the powerful image. You see freedom coming through her pain.  

Not Waiting on the World to Change

O’Connor’s commercial career diminished, and her struggles, including a public custody battle over her daughter, often grabbed more headlines than her music. But she didn’t lament the dwindling success, saying how much her hit “Nothing Compares 2 U” had spoiled her career. She saw its success as more damaging than the criticism she’d received.

But the world finally caught up to O’Connor. Players took a knee during the national anthem in the NFL, and the Catholic Church’s horrific handling of child abuse stubbornly came to light.

Even the Grammy Awards evolved decades after she’d performed “Mandinka” at the ceremony with Public Enemy’s logo painted on her head. At the time, the Best Rap Performance category was awarded off-screen. Subjugation comes in many forms, even inside supposedly open systems like the United States or the music industry.

O’Connor received backlash, not because she was wrong. She was inconvenient. But there she stood on stage alone, beautifully defiant and bold. Amidst the tumult of her life, O’Connor unapologetically used anguish to tear down regimes of suppression and replace them with communal empathy.

If you want to surmise O’Connor’s life in one defining song, it may not be “Mandinka” or “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Find her cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and listen to the sound of her voice while she repeats: All in all is all we are.  

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Kacey Musgraves Shares Inspiration Behind Upcoming Album ‘Deeper Well'

Behind the Meaning of “Deeper Well” by Kacey Musgraves