Great Britain

Sons of Kemet: ‘It’s hard to heal when you’re still receiving aggression’


f there’s one takeaway that Shabaka Hutchings had from last year’s summer of racial reckoning, it was that everyone needed to take a step back and reconsider what was important. “I remember in the time of the Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd, there were lots of conversations going on online and I realised that a lot of people are full of s**t,” says the Sons of Kemet bandleader. The noise on social media, the meaningless black squares and social justice slideshows of Instagram, was too much. “We need to not be doing so much talking,” he adds, “and just be reflecting.” 

These reflections link back to the root of the band’s new album, Black to the Future. Hutchings points out that exploring thorny, ingrained systemic issues and how we got here involves rewinding to the work of those who came before us. Structural racism, police brutality, colonialism, protest, injustice, the importance of community – these issues and ideas weren’t formed overnight in the summer of 2020. “We need to go into reading Black Power by Stokely Carmichael, reading Angela Davis, reading the foundational works of Black radical thought,” he adds.

Black to the Future is the fourth record by a band at the forefront of UK jazz, with Hutchings as its saxophonist sensei. The album, which he describes as a “sonic poem”, is Sons of Kemet at their most dynamic. It ruminates on themes of racial trauma, historical remembrance and ancestral healing. By drawing on texts that provided the cornerstones of revolutionary thinking, it seeks to help redefine what it means to strive for Black power and radical change.

For Hutchings, it’s not enough to discuss colonialism and imperialism without understanding the alternative. “If you’re going to say, for instance, that the colonial encounter was something that suppressed African culture, what is it that was suppressed? Actually go investigate what that culture is,” Hutchings says. “I think the more we investigate it, the more knowledge we have of what it means to go forward on personal and societal levels.”

An audience with Sons of Kemet is much like this: warm yet reserved, softly spoken, and then bursts of academic train of thought. The sons in question are Hutchings, Theon Cross on tuba, and drumming duo Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, and we meet at a chilly east London studio for a rare in-person conversation, sitting spaced out on leather couches. They have lofty ambitions but they don’t aim to miss: their last album, 2018’s Your Queen Is a Reptile – which punctured the mainstream and brought them to a much wider audience than any jazz band of recent years – was a scathing swipe at the monarchy, challenging nationalism and offering up an alternative vision of royalty for each track, including Davis, Doreen Lawrence, and Hutchings’s own great-grandmother. He leads the direction of most of our meeting, a vital voice in the new jazz era.

Since their formation in 2011, Sons of Kemet have sought to find harmony and beauty both within and beyond the confines of the jazz world. The group earned industry praise early on following the release of their debut album Burn in 2013, and won the MOBOs’ Best Jazz Act award the same year. Though they have been steadily slogging away releasing stellar albums, including 2015’s Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do, the release of the intentionally provocatively titled Your Queen Is a Reptile in 2018 earned them their first Mercury Prize nomination and launched the band into a new arena. 

Like so many instrumental acts that are nominated for the coveted music industry gong, the band went home empty-handed, but it helped bring swathes of music fans who wouldn’t ordinarily listen to “jazz” under the spell of the Sons’ hectic blend of dub, soca, calypso, jungle, Afrofuturism and improvisational wanderings. “Your life as a musical entity progresses with that validation,” says Hutchings of the recognition afforded by the Mercury Prize. “The gigs start to get more full because more people know your music, and that progression as a band happens because promoters can put you further up the bill, you can get bigger venues.”

Being pigeonholed as a jazz band was previously the ticket to a career spent in smoky bars, trying to convince anyone who wasn’t a middle-aged man to listen to you. Now, jazz has become a broader part of the musical lexicon once more, and is reaching beyond the previously isolated boundaries of the genre. “If the music was called ‘jazz’, it was relegated to the jazz scene and the jazz media outlets,” says Hutchings, “whereas at this stage, you can have a publication like the one you’re writing for broadcasting the band to people who aren’t necessarily jazz fans with a capital J and a full stop.”

Sons of Kemet at the 2018 Mercury Prize, L-R: Theon Cross, Shabaka Hutchings, Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick

Those lowercase jazz fans might also have heard Sons of Kemet recently via the soundtrack to two groundbreaking visual projects, Beyoncé’s Homecoming on Netflix and Michaela Coel’s award-winning I May Destroy You. It’s not surprising the band has played a part in two of the biggest media releases of the last few years: they’re an act that pushes for a recontextualising of history while also celebrating the vast creativity that exists in the Black diaspora, with their updated interpretation of the sounds and rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean. 

And they are able to deliver their nuanced take on the world with music that gets your trunk shaking: Black to the Future is an immersive listen that whips the listener back and forth through a myriad of emotional states, all while coaxing a display of loose-limbed whining throughout its runtime. One moment, the laidback soca on “Think of Home” inspires memories of dancing knee-high with your family in your grandma’s kitchen, and the next, the jazz-punk explorations of “Pick Up Your Burning Cross” induce a state of anxiety as the fast pace of the rhythm section creeps up on you. 

Notably, the record has more guest features than the band have ever entertained before, utilising the talents of Philadelphian poet Moor Mother, composer Angel Bat Dawid of Chicago’s exciting jazz scene, chameleonic UK hip-hop artist Kojey Radical, singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas, grime forefather D Double E, and the poet-performer whose distinctive vocals marked out Your Queen Is a Reptile, Joshua Idehen. It’s hardly a pop album per se, but the addition of vocals and more traditional song structures bridges Sons of Kemets’ experimentalism with larger festival stages.

Black to the Future’s creation began on the road while the band were touring Your Queen Is a Reptile. When the pandemic hit, Hutchings went back over the jam recordings the band had made, whittling them down to a condensed form. But he also went back to the long days spent on the bus during the tour for Your Queen Is a Reptile, where important discussions between the band took place and the ideas for their second album started to take shape. Hutchings wanted to “hone in on the zeitgeist” of that time in 2019 and capture “what were the dinner conversations, what were the conversations being had societally, what was the spirit in the air?” 

Those conversations led him back to the work of African studies scholar Marimba Ani, whose books examine the influence of European thought and culture from an African perspective, as well as the idea of “Kemetic wisdom”, a theory that explores the mysteries of wealth and its links to spiritual enlightenment through ancient Egyptian teachings. It might sound a little lofty, but texts like this open up what a global African vision could be, free from western imperialism. 

Black to the Future was created to give the world the tools to rebuild a broken society. They are tools that it seems will be forever necessary. Although the unexpected conviction of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd last month has helped to progress the Black Lives Matter movement, Hutchings says there is obviously still much to be done. “You’ve got to look at things systemically. It might be symbolic, the fact of him being arrested, but the actual system that caused him to feel like he had immunity is a very specific system.” 

It is a system of power that protects the wealthy and is as flawed in the UK as in the US. For Hick, it has impacted his life on many occasions. “I can’t necessarily say how things should be changed, but I can definitely say what it shouldn’t be and one of those things definitely is police brutality specifically directed at the Black community, which is still going on. Personally, I’ve experienced that. It’s very traumatic. I’ve had charges made up against me, physical abuse, verbal abuse. There’s a long way to go.” Hutchings agrees, plainly stating: “There’s only so much institutional change you can have when a police officer looks at you like you are actually a criminal.”

Their nuanced conversations bring us back to the themes of the album. Although the band’s exploration of Black power touches on many aspects of daily struggle and trauma, they ultimately offer no specific solution to the listener. Hutchings ecstatically exclaims that this is the point of the record. “The idea that this is a thing that gives us the energy to do that reading and the research. If you come back in five years, or 10 years, then we’ll have other answers; but me personally, I’m in the period of research, of thinking. There are no easy answers. Anyone who gives any answers is full of s**t.”

The energy to take on that research can be heard in the opening and closing of the album: two stirring pieces, “Field Negus” and “Black”, written by Joshua Idehen in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Idehen decries the “audacity, the caucacity” of white violence, before closing the album demanding the world “leave us alone”. Hutchings sees the closing lines as representative of the band’s edifying message. “People have been doing the work. It’s not ‘leave us alone to just know as much as we know’; it’s ‘leave us alone to learn as much as possible about what has been lost’.”

There may be no easy answers, but in the void following the last notes of Black to the Future there is space, and with space can come growth. “I think there’s still a lot of healing that needs to happen,” Hicks explains. “It’s hard to heal when you’re still receiving aggression or whatever, so after it says ‘leave us alone’, that’s when the true healing can take place.”

‘Black to the Future’ is out on 14 May via Impulse!

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