Sons Of Kemet Are Moving On Up

Words: Hugh Morris
Photography: Udoma Janssen

Sons Of Kemet’s sound is live and joyous, ruminative and historic, all at once. Their philosophical, dance-friendly offerings have brought them success and status—three celebrated albums, a MOBO and a Mercury nomination later, the group returns for their future-focused fourth: Black To The Future.

Kemet is a four-piece that refuses to balance. There’s a big base: two drummers, Eddie Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner, fuse with tuba player Theon Cross’ low-end lines, creating a great swathe of sound down below. There’s no middle, so to speak. Up top is the irrepressible Shabaka Hutchings, an instrumentalist, composer and thinker working truly in his own world. And exploding the narrative of the ‘jazz band’ is what makes their music so danceable and ultimately approachable. Rhythmic, groove-centred music stripped to its core elements, it’s no surprise that many in the jazz world have followed suit in recent years.

Their almost lop-sided line-up exists as an invitation to others to fill in the gaps and join in on the fun. Kojey Radical and Lianne La Havas arrive for Black To The Future’s womping lead single, “Hustle”, a sonic juggernaut that grooves around a single churning rhythmic; D Double E shows up later on to flow over “For The Culture”; there’s a place for mercurial saxophonist Steve Williamson; and Joshua Idehen’s enraged poetry provides a fiery call to action whilst giving Black To The Future its artistic frame.

Hutchings is the driver of this and many other projects—he’s part of The Comet Is Coming with Soccer96’s Dan Leavers and Max Hallett, and leads Shabaka & The Ancestors, a South African collective steeped in history. In The Comet Is Coming, Hutchings uses the pseudonym King Shabaka, and on Kemet’s fourth album, it’s clearer than ever that Sons Of Kemet is his outfit.

Black To The Future is another conceptually cast release from Kemet. 2018’s Your Queen Is A Reptile provided fightback at the height of the #MeToo movement: nine tracks celebrating Black women through history, from Harriet Tubman to Doreen Lawrence. It’s less easy to extract meanings from track names this time around, and with good reason. Black To The Future is cast as a poem—thematically and otherwise—and the mission-statement-cum-poem “Field Negus” provides both the track titles and a central locus for an ambitious release that deals with cultural themes past, present and future.

That poetry runs through the album, Hutchings describing it as a “sonic poem for the invocation of power, remembrance and healing,” but there’s a poetic mindset that it ushers in too, that tries to see beauty in everything—even the mundane trappings of everyday life. That ordinary lifestyle is something Hutchings (who speaks fondly of being ‘on the road’) has had to adjust to during lockdown, a supreme jolt to a usually hectic schedule. As Sons Of Kemet approach a much-anticipated live return, TRENCH sat down with Hutchings to discuss that everyday, -isms—Afrofuturism, consumerism—and the Black power at the centre of the album.

You’ve mentioned previously how the sounds of soca, calypso, hip-hop and bebop all fit into your musical picture, but where does grime fit in?

I listen to it all the time, so that’s the main thing. In terms of influence, most things that have influence are subliminal, in that you don’t think about how you’re gonna be influenced by them or how they should influence you. It’s just things that you’re into. You find that if you relax and allow yourself to channel music, then they’ll come out, whereas if you think there’s a music you’d like to be influenced by, it ends up being quite trite and contrived. But with this, I listen to grime and drill all the time.

What are you really digging at the moment?

I listen to Pa Salieu, also Abra Cadabra—I’ve just gotten into him—and Unknown T. A lot of that sort of music. I listen to it all the time, when I’m walking down the street or going to the gym. I try to find the communality between music when I hear it. If I’m talking to you about it, I might call it grime or drill, but when I’m listening to it, I wouldn’t necessarily put those labels on it as being different from any other form of music that has a root in Afro/Afro-Caribbean music. It would just be music that has manifestations from a common root. So-called jazz music is a part of that trajectory also.

Black To The Future is the most explicitly future-orientated Kemet album yet, but the trajectory it builds is quite different from what you might expect of the sounds of Afrofuturism. That lineage—Herbie Hancock’s Thrust, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Erykah Badu—is quite effects-laden and what might be dubbed ‘futuristic’. Is that something you’ve tried to avoid on this album, to build a different sonic narrative of Afrofuturism?

Well, I mean, all those people are American and the thing is with Americans is that they envisage the future as being more and more materialist. So it’s like, what you regard as being ‘of the future’—in their context—is something that has more gadgets and shiny things, you know? Whereas, if you’re looking at it spherically, it doesn’t necessarily represent a movement forward, it just represents a different stage of our technological development—which isn’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just something that no one has necessarily heard before. Someone can not hear something before that has come from the past, and that’s the same general premise. It doesn’t need to have shiny bits of technology to be of the future, to be going forward into a future. And what is it to go forward into the future anyway? We go forward into the future whether we want to or not, whether we have technological signifiers or not.

Looking at it from the perspective of advancement versus primitivism, there’s always been that desire or tendency to label things that aren’t moving forward within that materialist framework as being primitive, and things that have a shiny surface as being futuristic, and I don’t think those are the only ways that we can engage with ‘what is moving forward, and what is staying still, and what is going backwards’, especially if we see it in a circular motion which all goes in cycles anyway. People get the technology, they learn the technology, they make records with it, and then they have to find ways of humanising it, and getting back to making music to interact with each other. That’s what music is about: interacting with 1) your environment and 2) the other people around you. Anything else is just finding better or worse ways of doing those things.

Would you say you’re an anti-materialist sort of person?

No, I don’t think it’s possible to be anti-materialist!

Or anti-consumerist, potentially?

Hmm... No. Not at all. I like stuff but I don’t think that we should be blinkered or that we should see the drive to have stuff or be materialist as being signifiers of what it means to go forward. For me, that’s what it means to be multi-dimensional. If you want to take it out of the realms of science-fiction, it means being at ease with living within a materialist society, but not having that consume your frame of reference for everything. Especially when it comes to something like music, where you really need to have one foot in the past and one foot in the alleged future, while operating in the present.

I suppose with that sort of mindset, it must be quite difficult to reconcile that with a music industry that’s so driven by output, and with older left-wing ideas that are so linear.

It is difficult, but this is a difficult thing that we’re embarking on, and you have to be multi-dimensional. In some ways, it’s not necessarily ideologically driven—my ideology is to be able to make the most wholesome and fulfilling music and spread that out to as many people as possible. If ideologies restrict me from doing that, then they need to be adjusted. And this is the problem with saying ‘I’m not materialist’ or ‘I’m not consumerist’ because I’m within an industry that is. If I were to be honest, or claim to be honest and say that ‘I’m anti-materialist’, I wouldn’t be able to give my output to literally the biggest capitalist structures known to man: a major label. But I’m at peace with the fact that I’ve decided to be a part of this industry, so it’s about trying to find a way of having some kind of balance. If you look at African cosmologies, it’s all about that balance, or how the Chinese put it ‘yin and yang’—it’s not about having all the ying. It’s not about having ‘all left’; it’s about how life flows from left to right, ideologically and otherwise.

Lots of the younger generation will read the track “Hustle” as a commentary on today’s hustling work culture. Have you found the need to keep hustling through the pandemic?

This is literally the thing. One has to hustle. It’s expressly connected to the title of the second album, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do. There’s a big case for actually having three dots and then the next word be hustle, because that’s what my grandmother would have come to Britain to do; that’s what most immigrants actually migrate to do. And by hustle, it means to work incredibly hard through whatever means you can to survive and make a better life for your children and to benefit society or community that you’re a part of. At that point, when you stop hustling, it’s a privilege to feel that one doesn’t need to hustle within life. This thing that we’re embarking on, going forward in life, is about hustling.

Especially in the context of the pandemic, where the structures that we assumed would be there to support us as musicians and artists are dissipating, we have to ask to find new ways of supporting and sustaining ourselves. If ever there was a time to hustle, this is it, and it’s that idea that pushed me through the first year of the pandemic. I’m not gonna let this period stop the forward momentum of my artistic life, because the possibility of inertia and crippling pessimism doesn’t really do anyone any good. The only thing to do is to have that mentality of ‘you have to hustle’ and strive. The more you work, the more you get.

In your chat with Kojey Radical on Instagram, you talk about the need to “sprinkle poeticness into everyday life.” Words play a big part in your life—do you have time to write creatively? I know you’ve got a book coming out soon.

With the book, it’s every idea of what it is to be a musician that I’ve had, and any revelatory ideas that come into my head. What I do is I write them down as fully as possible and log them, and that’s the kind of process I know. I didn’t want it to be a book where I’m stressing about the writing a bit; I want to just have a lot of information, compile all the notes I’ve written over the years, and get them all into a codified format. Then, at some point, I’ll sit down and do it all in one go, and that’s how I operate musically too. I’m constantly gathering and arranging small bits of ideas, melodies, bass lines, but when the time to actually have that deadline comes, I can gather all that information and I can make it into a finished product.

I don’t have a completely clear idea of what it is to be poetic. I was reading something by... Who was it? It might have been Edouard Glissant? Anyway... “To be poetic is a way of listening.” I’d been approaching it from the other way, what it means to write poetic or to see poetic, or to act poetically. The poeticness isn’t necessarily what is done; the poeticness is a way of receiving information and interpreting that information. I might interpret my actions or thoughts as poetic, and that’s actually the poeticness, as opposed to me doing something that is poetic. Anything can be poetic. You blowing your nose can be poetic. If you’re listening to it with an air of what it means, people might say that blowing your nose is dispelling the elements of you that are unnecessary or that are harmful – then it becomes poetry.

What’s surprised you most about the pandemic year?

I was surprised at the ease in which one is able to fall into bad habits. And it’s something that you probably expect from someone like me who looks very active if you’re looking on social media, but it’s a constant struggle to retain a drive to do. I realised that it’s really easy to slip into inertia and unfocus.

For me, it’s an everyday struggle to find focus. I would’ve thought that with all the things that I’ve done and all the stuff that I have to do, it would be easy. I thought, “I’ve got so many things to do,” but then if I lose that focus, or if I lose the balance—that balance can be made by meditation, walking, exercising, just doing anything that’s wholesome or wellness kind of stuff—if you lose that, then it’s very easy to slip down into a pit of despair where you don’t know anything that’s going to happen. It’s just kind of shocking that I was that susceptible to that. In my image of myself in my head, I just thought: “I’ve got so many things to do, I’m not gonna be susceptible to that mass slippage,” into the dark areas of destructive tendencies, but it’s right there. Actually, at the point of right now, coming into the summer, it’s just really every day recognising that no one is too good to slip into fucking up their lives.

On a more positive note, Sons Of Kemet always deliver amazing live performances—what are you most looking forward to this summer?

I’m looking forward to dancing in public, actually. I think I was never a big public dancer to begin with, but there is something that I’ve just found being at home about listening to music, that lack of actually feeling bodies around me. Obviously, the pandemic is still real so I don’t want to feel too many bodies around me being hot and sweaty, but I think that just having a lot of people moving within the same space to music that we all like is gonna be a really cathartic experience.

Posted on June 03, 2021