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Sons of Kemet’s new album redefines what it means to struggle for Black power

Sons of Kemet’s new album is released against a backdrop of racial inequality, but what they’ve made is a celebration of Black British culture
Shabaka Hutchings (right) says Sons of Kemet’s new album redefines what it means to struggle for Black power. Photo: Udoma Janssen

last spoke to Sons of Kemet bandleader Shabaka Hutchings in the autumn, the day before he was booked for a live streamed gig with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican. He was feeling relaxed and broadly optimistic, making the most of the spare time lockdown had afforded him to concentrate on his playing.

Hutchings had chosen to perform Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, a notoriously tricky piece originally commissioned by Benny Goodman for a live radio recital in 1950. Copland was apparently sceptical that Goodman had the requisite skill to perform the music well, despite his status as the King of Swing, and he covertly asked a classical musician to also learn it in case Goodman chickened out. Goodman got wind of this rumour, took it as a cue to practise furiously and subsequently gave what is widely regarded as one of the greatest performances of his life.

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Hutchings told me he saw value in honing his clarinet skills the same way, and when we spoke he was reaching the end of a gruelling routine of daily and nightly practice. “For me it’s not about the concert itself, it’s about how it makes me grow as a musician,” he told me. “I’ve gotten what it needs to give me. Even if I were to make a massive squeak on the first note and have it be all downhill from there I’d still be happy.”

Between practice sessions, Hutchings had been adding the finishing touches to his new album with Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future, which is out this month on Impulse! Records. With his laser focus on evolving his musicianship and his sound, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Hutchings and the many jazz elders who released some of their finest material on Impulse! – among them Coleman HawkinsJohn Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Rollins, in fact, used to practise regularly on the Williamsburg Bridge, competing with traffic and construction noise to satisfy his aspiration of playing consistently at roaring volume. Rollins also understood early on in his career the opportunity he had to make a political statement with his music. He released his epic Freedom Suite in 1958, seeking to rectify the fact that American jazz fans wanted to “hear the black music, but not the black story”.

Hutchings endeavours to straighten the record in much the same way, telling sonic stories of the Black British experience. He has, however, eschewed comparisons to past masters, distancing himself from the word jazz and from the idea of himself as a carrier of that particular cultural baton. His music takes influence from a whole spectrum of genres, from classical to hip-hop to soca. It’s complex, but accessible enough to have penetrated populist spaces that perhaps traditional jazz couldn’t reach – from main stages at festivals to soundtracking mainstream TV shows.

On stage Hutchings likens himself to an MC – “I’m not trying to have the energy of someone in a suit standing stationary in front of a microphone giving a nice round sound. I’m trying to just spit out fire.” Recent world events have provided the incendiary source material for Black to the Future – the murder of George Floyd in the US and the subsequent widespread outrage and Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the Windrush scandal and our own struggles with racism in the UK.

Rather than offering a commentary on these themes, the album sets out to celebrate Black British culture and incorporate it as part of the healing process. The record’s remarkable sound is underpinned as in previous recordings by the band’s unique instrumentation – two drummers, Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick playing opposite each other in constant metrical dialogue, buttressed by Theon Cross’s drubbing tuba with Hutchings leading the way on either sax or clarinet with the addition of everything from recorders to traditional Japanese and Swaziland flutes. A number of guests play a central role too – grime MC D Double E muses on looking for the ‘dancehall queen’ over a seductive clarinet lick in For the Culture. UK soul star Lianne La Havas provides a fluttering vocal line alongside Kojey Radical’s fired-up lyrics in Hustle.

A liner note written by Hutchings describes Black to the Future as a ‘sound poem’, depicting ‘a movement to redefine and reaffirm what it means to strive for Black power’. Hutchings has a clear vision of how the world can move forward. All it takes is hard work.

Anne Frankenstein is a broadcaster on Jazz FM