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Soweto Kinch’s pandemic reflections draw parallels with Civil Rights Movement music

Soweto Kinch, with White Juju, has given us a means to reflect on a global pandemic and the discomfort of discovering that our world is a very fragile place, writes Anne Frankenstein.

We’ve already had music, plays, novels and movies inspired by the pandemic but as the dust settles and perspective widens, artists are beginning to create work that reflects the context and the cultural impact too.

Soweto Kinch’s White Juju, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and premiered at this year’s London Jazz Festival, aimed to illustrate the 18 months of turmoil we have all – in some capacity – shared, from lockdown to the police brutality that instigated the Black Lives Matter protests around the world.

As well as being a musician and composer of some renown, Kinch is an Oxford Modern History graduate and has form creating music to reflect uncomfortable moments in history.

His 2019 album, The Black Peril, cast light on the 1919 race riots which thundered around the UK in the wake of World War 1. White Juju, in contrast, is so contemporary that Kinch was still adapting the piece almost right up until opening night, adding reflections on the continued fallout from the pandemic and the behaviour of the UK government.

It consists of six works composed for jazz quintet and chamber orchestra, and builds gradually from a dead, deliberate silence to reflect the beginning of quarantine in 2020.

During those first few months of quarantine I threw myself into my radio shows, finding an intimate solidarity with listeners over our shared sense of fear and uncertainty, and our buoyed appreciation for music.

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I envy the catharsis that skilled composers like Kinch must find through their work; a way to process their own confusion and anger while also offering comfort and perspective to those listening. Not only that, Kinch has created something that can help us chart the emotional impact on humanity. Music helps us to comprehend the past, far beyond quantified facts and figures. 

The story of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, can be entirely plotted in visceral detail though music.

Charles Mingus found his own catharsis in 1959 – specifically a way to channel his rage towards Orval Faubus, then the governor of Arkansas. During what became known as ‘the Little Rock Crisis’ in 1957, Faubus tried to prevent nine African-American children from attending the racially segregated Little Rock Central High School.

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Fables of Faubus found its way onto Mingus Ah Um, widely regarded as one of Mingus’s finest albums, but the lyrics were so vicious and direct that Columbia Records would only include the track as an instrumental. The vocal version came later, calling out Faubus as sick, ridiculous and a “Nazi fascist supremist”.

Nina Simone has left behind a sprawling legacy of music reflecting African-American trauma, redefining herself as a creator of ‘Civil Rights Movement music’, with songs like 1964’s Mississippi Goddam, about the racially motivated murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, and Backlash Blues, with the forthright accusation “You raise my taxes, freeze my wages and send my son to Vietnam”. 

Prior to that and perhaps most notably, in 1939, Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, the vivid lyrics and her mournful tone confronting us with the unmitigated horror of racist lynchings in the American south. A three-minute song more lucid, more powerful in its candour than any photograph. And yet, rather than tune out or turn away, the public bought several million copies. It became a communal conduit for pain and outrage.

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Many contemporary British jazz musicians have taken on a similar responsibility to broadcast brutality and inequity that they see in their everyday lives.

I wrote earlier this year about Sons of Kemet’s striking LP Black to the Future, focusing attention on the experience of being black in modern Britain.

Soweto Kinch, with White Juju, has given us a means to reflect on a global pandemic and the discomfort of discovering that our world is a very fragile place.

Anne Frankenstein is a broadcaster on Jazz FM

@DJAFrankenstein

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