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Shabaka Hutchings has something to say

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Hat: Laulhere
Waistcoat and Top: Nicholas Daley
Accessories: Shabaka's own

Words by:

Awards ceremonies tend to be predictable, boring affairs.

The endless nominations, the cramped tables, the free alcohol you can’t be too quick to drink – the list goes on. The much-fêted Mercury Music Prize is no different; industry chums gather annually to back-slap and congratulate each other on the usual selection of household names, tokenistic diversity, and the jazz choice.

The 2018 Mercury Prize felt different. This time, the ‘token jazz act’ felt like one that could actually win. Gone were the Basquiat Strings and Kit Downes of yesteryear, instead this was a product of a new jazz scene which had taken hold. The cluster of musicians at the centre of this movement, trained as much by free local workshops as by universities, is led most prominently by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. It was his band, Sons of Kemet, who earned the nomination. Their music isn’t something to sit and chin-stroke to, it is kinetic and infectious.

Perhaps this is because Hutchings has had an unusual route to jazz. First studying classical clarinet before switching to saxophone during mixed-genre jam sessions led by MC and instrumentalist Soweto Kinch in the early 2000s, Hutchings then immersed himself in the intricacies of the genre. He has lived through the academic traditionalism of jazz, earning his stripes in dimly-lit basement bars before graduating to festival stages and the makeshift venues of this movement, such as London’s Church of Sound, Steam Down and the Total Refreshment Centre. His music is as much informed by the sounds of the British postcolonial diaspora, as it is by the solos of John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. Maybe, then, this nomination would have been the vindication for a much misunderstood genre which was finally picking up a younger, more diverse audience. A genre which is increasingly coming to characterise the musical identity of the UK, just as grime has in recent years.

Of course, Hutchings didn’t win. What he did do, though, was perform one song during the ceremony, My Queen is Harriet Tubman, and jolt the lethargic, alcohol-soused audience members into a rapt submission, providing the only standing ovation of the night. An unusual formation of two drummers – Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick – along with tuba player Theon Cross and bandleader and saxophonist Hutchings, Sons of Kemet provided their signature blend of coruscating saxophone, blown at reed-breaking intensity, a cacophonous groove from Skinner and Hick, and Cross’ earth-shaking tuba. Their four-minute performance felt like a sonic slap to the face; an uncompromising show of musical integrity which the room wasn’t quite sure what to do with.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Hat: Laulhere
Waistcoat and Top: Nicholas Daley
Accessories: Shabaka's own

Hutchings has been nominated and lost once before, in 2016 with his synth-and-sax trio The Comet is Coming. When it came to this second nomination then,“a lot of people around us were hopeful we’d win,” the 34-year-old says in the Deptford community cafe we meet in – a stark contrast from the enforced glamour of the Mercurys. “But I have no faith in the music industry,” he continues, “I have no idealism that they’re going to vote for the outside option, ever.”

Softly spoken and towering well over six feet tall, Hutchings is a gentle giant. He is also an encyclopedia of knowledge, covering everything from academic Paul Gilroy’s theories of double consciousness to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and French classical composer Olivier Messiaen during the hour that we speak. And this knowledge is poured into all that he creates.

The album that his Sons of Kemet project was nominated for is called Your Queen is a Reptile. Over its nine tracks of maximal rhythm and bombastic melody, Hutchings and co posit a radical alternative to the British monarchy – one which is playfully (or maybe seriously) considered through the lens of David Icke’s conspiracy theories. The Illuminati aside, Hutchings names each track after an ‘alternative queen’ of his choosing – from Underground Railroad anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman to anti-colonial Ghanaian monarch Yaa Asantewaa, and his own great-grandmother. In this way, the record foregrounds the female figures Hutchings believes to be of just as much, if not more, importance than those we have no choice in being led by.

“This record is a way of reclaiming British identity for me. By saying you’re not British, you’re saying you don’t even have the right to change those issues”

With this complex narrative in mind, Hutchings concedes that “the music industry is an industry because it considers money and certainty. So in that respect, Sons of Kemet is a wildcard. The day they start voting for a four-piece jazz band with two drums, tuba and saxophone is probably the day that Brexit doesn’t happen.”

Speaking of Brexit, Hutchings’ work has become increasingly politicised in recent years. Sons of Kemet’s previous record, Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do, was penned partly in response to the environmental crisis, while his project with South African musicians, Shabaka and the Ancestors, references the Civil Rights era Afrofuturist mythologies of Sun Ra. It is testament to his varied experiences growing up in London in the early 1980s and then moving to Barbados from the ages of six to 16, before returning to the UK to study music, that Hutchings has such a wide range of interests – both musical and otherwise.

Since he has experienced the upheaval of migration twice, Hutchings has an intrinsic awareness of the difficulties surrounding the perceptions of immigrants today, and it’s something he feels his music should address. “It’s not enough to just record sounds and put them out with a semi-decent picture as an album cover,” he explains. “The role of the artist in society is to accept your visibility, which gives you a platform to say how you’re feeling on any subject. Singers can express themselves through their voice and lyrical content; with instrumentalists, you can be reduced to a performer of sound. So I need to have a dynamic relationship to what’s happening around me.”

Hutchings wrote Your Queen in late 2017, as the beginnings of the #MeToo movement were rumbling. “I was thinking of the experiences of women in the naked light of patriarchy and how you don’t normally see the oppressive structures that control us,” he elaborates. “I was also addressing the lack of women in jazz without wanting to be tokenistic. I was questioning how the patriarchy shapes me and then thinking about the people that I look up to, and I realised that it was harder to think of the female figures than the male. That set off a chain of events whereby I started finding out stories of powerful women throughout history.”

One woman who has personally influenced Hutchings, and who appears as an ‘alternative queen’ on the album, is his great-grandmother Ada Eastman. “In the Caribbean there’s a strange situation where it’s possible to not know that many generations of your family because of a lack of records due to slavery,” Hutchings says. “So for me, I needed to articulate and appreciate the people in the past who I have drawn inspiration from – we should learn as much from them as we can. My great-grandma was pretty much illiterate but she got a job as a domestic servant and provided for her whole family, working into her mid-80s and even owning three houses by the end of her life at 103.”

The resulting track opens the record, an undulating calypso rhythm that heralds Hutchings’ virtuosic playing with a languorous solo, cascading in ascending lines over the spoken word of Joshua Idehen. His vocals act as a manifesto for Hutchings’ work: “I’m still here and still unruly/ All sound and all fury”.

“As a saxophone player, I want to blow myself into a frenzy. It feels like every single molecule in my body is vibrating: I could explode”

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Hat, Top and Trousers: Nicholas Daley
Accessories: Shabaka's own
Shoes: Asics

Ultimately, Hutchings’ musical expression is an enactment of what it means to him to be a British citizen. “You’re not a citizen if you don’t have a voice within society,” he gestures, impassioned. “What is it that binds us apart from just saying ‘we are English’? It’s a feeling of agency and having a say in the people who are leading you. In considering alternate structures of power, it forces you to appraise if the structures governing you are appropriate. As a member of a minority community and a historically marginalised one, that’s one of the most important things we can do.” It is for this reason that Hutchings includes Doreen, police reform campaigner and mother of Stephen Lawrence, on the record. An example of “a real British citizen,” he explains, “because she’s using her voice to make a change.”

In the current political climate, British nationalism can bring with it a prejudicial, right-wing narrative, especially for minorities. Yet, Hutchings believes that “this record is a way of reclaiming British identity for me.” He adds, “by saying you’re not British, you’re saying you don’t even have the right to change those issues. My grandparents and parents really struggled to get a foot in this society and the racist abuse that was given to them was because people thought they weren’t British. So the triumph is to be able to say, ‘we won’t stand for this because we’re as much citizens of the country as you.’”

It is for these reasons that the Mercury nomination was significant. It was never about winning, it was “having someone say ‘your queen is a reptile’ on national television and that ‘my queen is Harriet Tubman’. It’s something I never thought would happen,” he laughs.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Hat: Nicholas Daley
Coat: Michael Browne
Top: Our Legacy
Trousers: Our Legacy
Necklace: Shabaka's own

Almost a decade older than the new generation of jazz musicians who have gained popularity in recent years – artists like drummer Moses Boyd, saxophonist Nubya Garcia, and Hutchings’ bandmate Theon Cross – Hutchings has become something of an elder statesman to this new breed. Having toured with older, establishment acts such as Courtney Pine, Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden when he left music college, Hutchings is familiar with the rigours of a working musician’s life. “15 to 20 years ago, there wasn’t the same level of optimism in how far the music could go,” he says. “When I was with [experimental group] Polar Bear, we played jazz on festival stages before it was a common thing. You have to learn how to transmit improvisational ideas to a big audience, it’s not something that just appears.”

And the audiences have certainly been getting bigger in recent years. One of the London-based new jazz groups Ezra Collective recently sold out the 2,400-capacity Koko in Camden, while other groups like Nérija have signed to major independent label Domino, and Maisha to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood imprint. Gone are the hushed tones of Ronnie Scott’s; at these shows you are more likely to find a moshpit than a chin-stroking aficionado. The level of media focus is heightened at the moment though, and Hutchings voices his concerns. “The hype will fade, as that’s its nature,” he says. “But I can’t imagine learning what I did 10 years ago when I was 24 with the kind of attention people are getting now. I wouldn’t be able to be as experimental or level-headed. When I was 24, I didn’t believe in anything, I was just seeing what worked from gig to gig and changing things as I went along.”

With his mentoring, the new generation may resist succumbing to the hype. Hutchings acted as musical director for the We Out Here London jazz compilation of 2018, a key documentation of the scene and an establishing principle for the players as they move forward. “I’m so hopeful for the future,” he says, his voice rising. “There are so many exciting young players doing their own thing now – people like Nubya Garcia and Cassie Kinoshi – as well as a new generation who are still being supported by grassroots organisations like London’s Tomorrow’s Warriors. The boundaries are also loosening, it’s getting to the point where it’s not about being jazz, it’s just having the training which allows a person to create freely.”

Hutchings himself has another busy year ahead. He tells me he’s been gigging so regularly in 2018 – only taking four weeks off from shows – that 2019 will be for writing and recording. Having been signed to legendary American jazz label Impulse! – home to John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders – Hutchings is set to release the next The Comet is Coming record in March, he’s flying to Johannesburg to record the follow-up to his collaborative project Shabaka and the Ancestors this month, as well as heading back to the studio in the spring with Sons of Kemet for their next album.

“I’m at a stage where I can play my instrument with full technical ability,” he says defiantly, “so I can concentrate on individual projects with all my focus. I can do whatever I want – I don’t need to prove myself compositionally or instrumentally. I can have a crazy idea and make it happen, and I don’t feel the need to create an intense masterpiece.”

Yet, intensity is something that will certainly remain a hallmark of Hutchings’ music. “As a saxophone player, I want to blow myself into a frenzy,” he explains. “Intensity is a commitment to a principle; a communion between the mind and body.” This communion is what we see when Hutchings performs: jittering about the stage, pressing his body forward into his mouthpiece as if trying to speak through it. “I am just surviving and blowing as hard as possible,” he continues, “it feels like every single molecule in my body is vibrating: I could explode.”

It is this explosive power that so marked Sons of Kemet out among the brightly-lit kitsch of the Mercury Prize stage. Whether Hutchings is making a statement on redefining the power structures that govern us, claiming agency as a citizen of a divided country, or representing his family’s lost histories, the belief in the message and its intensity is always present. You can hear it in the breath through his saxophone, panting, scraping, bursting to get out. “Being politicised isn’t something I have to be defined by,” he proclaims, “but if I want to say something, I’ll say it. People can make up their own minds – I’m not scared.”

Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Art Direction: Ade Udoma
Grooming: Laila Zakaria
Assistants: Tamara Odibi & Euloge Zola

The Comet is Coming’s album is set for release in March via Impulse! Records

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