The Emancipation of Soweto Kinch
Soweto Kinch: Birmingham, UK © 2010 Pogus Caesar / OOM Gallery Archive.
Having discovered a new found freedom via his own recording label, multi-award winning Jazz saxophonist/composer/rapper Soweto Kinch’s third album offering, ‘The New Emancipation,’ provides an outlet for him to express himself the way he knows best. UK Vibe’s The Dood probed and listened intently to what an older, wiser, expressive and eloquent Mr Kinch had to say about his unique, observational, thought provoking musical take on historic and modern day slavery, his ever growing yearly ‘Flyover Show’ in Birmingham and his future live commitments.
The Dood: It’s been a good while since we last sat down to talk. It was at the time of your debut release I believe in a Sloane Square cafe. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, so we thought it was time to re-connect. What’s been happening in the interim?
Soweto Kinch: Well a great deal, as you implied has happened since the last time we spoke. I’m now independent. I’ve got my own record label set up. So that gives me a different kind of creative freedom which I never had before. And the album title, ’The New Emancipation’ I think kind of mirrors both personal and broader social and political things I’ve been thinking about. And they’ve manifested in the music that you hear.
The Dood: So your growth cycle is evident on this new album?
Soweto Kinch: Yeah! Just that whole maturation process, I think when you’re in your mid to late twenties you’re still trying to test yourself out and trying to compete at some level to become a more assertive person. Even though you might not hear it on some of the album songs, we’ve really mellowed as a group. I’m a little more ambitious in terms of some of my writing as well. I think that life maturation process will be audible to those who listen.
The Dood: You recently toured Norway. How long has that quartet been together and who were the personnel on that tour.
Soweto Kinch: With that touring circuit, about a couple of years now. The normal line up is Femi Temowo, a long standing sparring partner on guitar. Karl Rasheed-Abel, a fresh faced bass player who is just killing everything at the minute. And on drums Graham Godfrey, who is a force to be reckoned with. We’re kinda just getting more and more solid as a touring unit, and I think we’ll be ready to record that ensemble in future too.
The Dood: Talk about the guest artist on The New Emancipation, such as Shabaka Hutchins and Harry Brown etc?
Soweto Kinch: As guests on the album, yeah! Shabaka Hutchins (reeds) is incredible. I’ve known him for around ten years now. He’s just grown incredibly as a musician. Harry Brown (trombone) I’ve been playing with in Jazz Jamaica again for about ten years, if not longer. And we brought Justin Brown who is an incredible drummer over from New York. I’ve played with him when I was living there about five years ago.
The Dood: So you made the link?
Soweto Kinch: Yeah, made the link but always wanted to record a project with him. So this is the culmination of that kinda musical happening.
The Dood: Back to the tracks on The New Emancipation, you have some very poignant titles such as ‘An Ancient Work Song’, ‘A People with No Past’, ‘On the Treadmill.’ That could relevant even in today’s world?
Soweto Kinch: I think a lot of them are designed to be…With resonances and allusions to the history of race and the history of slavery. And saying, alright we’re in a supposedly post racial age now, but what does that really mean in practical terms, when some of the economic realities are much the same, if not even more entrenched. Access to jobs and respect if you like, still remain the preserve of one section of the populace. Some musicians still experience class issues that have been there since slavery. But I think we’re at an important point in our history to evaluate these things and realise what’s changed and what still needs to change.
The Dood: Very succinctly put. So you felt you personally needed to express and musically document on record your views on black history. Of course many artist have done similar projects in past, but this is the Soweto Kinch Perspective?
Soweto Kinch: Absolutely. You know I’m getting to the point in my life as I said where I feel a personal and general connection to these things. By virtue of my up-bringing, I think Pan-Africanism and how I got my name has always been very important to me. But I also found just growing up that are a lot of people who can trade on that history.
The Dood: Growing up where?
Soweto Kinch: Growing up in this country (UK) and growing up in this context that many people can trade on that legacy without having a real sense of integrity or a real practical connection to it, or actually doing anything to change it. I was talking to Winton Marsalis actually and he put it very succinctly, ‘A lot of people want change, but they don’t want their circumstances to change.’
The Dood: As long as it doesn’t affect them. It’s over there..?
Soweto Kinch: It’s over there…Exactly!
The Dood: Playing devil’s advocate here. You’re obviously a very talented and skilful saxophonist. How would respond to the purists’ beliefs that bringing in the rap element detracts from or over- shadows the musicianship?
Soweto Kinch: I suspect that there will be people who would say, ‘Why is he playing the saxophone for, why can’t he just stick to the raps.’ And people have different attachments to genre unfortunately, because of the way things are marketed, as opposed to the way peoples’ ears can accept things. I found that particularly doing live engagements, live shows, that an audience is tremendously understanding or accepting of these two apparently polar opposite genres. I think as long as I’m honest at the point of creation, then it’s the message that binds it together. It’s the message and the emotion that connects all of these songs as opposed to being a traditionalist or a modernist. I think these things are quite arbitrary.
Sonny Rollins, Ornette Colman, they’re modernist, they’re cutting edge, they’re futuristic. If you listen to some early KRS 1, it’s still relevant, it’s still cutting edge now. And it also harkens back to a tradition that pre-dates them by hundreds of years. So I think we too neatly fall into these categories of ‘New School’ and ‘Old School.’ These little boxes, these little pigeon-holes that are created for us as oppose to being ‘Now School.’
The Dood: ‘Now School.’ Okay. Obviously all your various musical influences growing up are going to manifest in your music and you fuse it in a way that represents you as Soweto Kinch. Would that be fair to say?
Soweto Kinch: Yeah, absolutely. Again, that’s part of the maturation process, you stop thinking in terms of representing ‘this school’ or ‘this tradition’ or trying to replicate or imitate this or that person. It then becomes about putting out yourself as a composite of all these different influences and finding your individual voice within all of them.
The Dood: Going back to your first album, ‘A Life in the Day,’ concept wise that was Part One of a two part album. Is this new album Part 2 or are you going to revisit that at a later date?
Soweto Kinch: I don’t think we’re gonna revisit that end of it. That’s part of the fall out of these label politics.
The Dood: Or poli-tricks?
Soweto Kinch: Poli-tricks! Right! I’m very keen not to let my creativity stall because of what the industry says. But in some ways I guess it is kinda art imitating life. The first part of that album is all about aspiration and climbing to lofty heights. The second part of that album, which is mostly created, is about conveying the message that most of the solutions and answers to our problems are internal, are within. And that sense of internal strength is kind of an undercurrent through this album, ‘The New Emancipation.’ The strength is in the root.
The Dood: Regarding your writing and ideas for songs, do you carry a dict-a-phone with you and do you put the music down first or the lyrics?
Soweto Kinch: It happens in all those aforementioned methods. I do rap and sing a lot into my little dict-a-phone…and that really helps me. You’re never sure at what point of the day you might get visited by the muse, so you’ve got to be able to put it down that way. A different process happens in the creative process in terms of sitting down in front of the computer or my keyboard and actually writing these things into compositions to be played by other musicians. A third part of the compositional process happens when I have these other musicians with me and we start dialoguing and stuff…and it comes out completely different often to how I conceived it.
The Dood: Bouncing ideas off each other?
Soweto Kinch: Exactly!
The Dood: Does that mean you have material for about ten albums lying around?
Soweto Kinch: There’s a lot of back catalogue there that’s not been heard. A lot of potential discography remains a sketch-book sometimes.
The Dood: Like comedians, do you ever test out new material on live audiences before recording it to gauge the response?
Soweto Kinch: It happens in lots of different ways, but the live context may be an incubator for one or two new songs and then I take them away and record them at the end. Sometimes it’s the product of writing. Sometimes the writing is the product of touring.
The Dood: Of course, the life experiences you gain from travelling/touring and absorbing diverse influences.
Soweto Kinch: Exactly!
The Dood: Let’s talk record labels. Obviously, the first time you came to the fore was on Gary Crosby’s record label, ‘Dune.’ Why the transition? Why the move away from Dune Records?
Soweto Kinch: Things just completely collapsed between us – sadly.
The Dood: Professionally or personally?
Soweto Kinch: Both. But I still have a lot of respect for Gary particularly. I just think it’s often really hard to marry the interests of art and commerce. Often what seems like a personal connection can get really skewed and corrupted in a business context. It’s an age old story. But all I can say is, without going into detail of stuff that still has to be resolved it should never get in the way of my creativity. Anything that does is, ‘THE WORK OF THE ENEMY MUST AND MUST BE UNDONE!’ (Soweto and The Dood laugh out loud) I must keep creative, because ultimately my music will outlive me and nothing should be allowed to corrupt or get in the way of that, which is why the feeling of being independent is so uplifting! I actually get to put music out as and when and how I want. There are plusses and minus’ of being with a label, but no one is gonna care about your music as much as you.
The Dood: Do you prefer performing live or recording in the studio?
Soweto Kinch: They each have their place. They’re both almost in sense different art forms. Something happens when the red light goes on in the recording studio as well. You don’t take as many liberties as perhaps as on the stage, but some other magical telepathy happens when the compositional process is slowed down. As long as there’s that connectivity between musicians there can be some really magic moments in the booth. Live it really takes on a different dimension when you put people in front of it and there’s a chance to really have a sense of dialogue musically with an audience who expect something, but not quite knowing what’s going to happen. That’s really exciting to me. I’m loath to choose one over the other, but I would probably say live.
The Dood: How would describe to someone the thoughts behind this album in a few sentences?
Soweto Kinch: It’s really hard to condense every single thought that went into the making of this album into a few words. Which is kinda why I made the music! But it takes the history of emancipation and slavery and sets it in a modern context. Hopefully to get people thinking about a) what slavery was in the first place, what the basis of it was and b) how it really applies to us now in this age of global capitalism and new forms of emergent slavery if you like. Do we have the tenacity to fight for a second war of independence – whatever that may mean psychologically or literally?
The Dood: Are you aware of the works of the poet and writer Langston Hughes?
Soweto Kinch: Of course! On that point, the Harlem Renaissance is particularly inspiring and interesting to me. So much of an awakening of people has come around a name. Before, they used the terminology of Negro and before that maybe coloured or Black and then African American. How can you be absolutely sure of your journey or destiny if you’re not even decided on what a name was? And I think that point of recognition has been so slow to come. We’re only awakening to some deep sense of identity issues now.
In another sense because of the advances in modern genetics and DNA, the issue of race is a mute one, because there is no such thing as race. Which leaves me to question, ‘What was the whole basis of slavery and race in the first place?’ – Money! ‘How do we stop people with skill or with natural resources from getting what they’re entitled to get?’ And there are so many instances; just in this country alone where that’s still a problem…It’s time for people of all races and creeds to start getting active about changing their circumstances. Not just accepting that, for example, the banks are too big to fail. Or just accepting that these are the natural order of things and we shouldn’t try and agitate for change, for genuine equality.
The Dood: So as individuals we must look within ourselves and effect change from there, rather than waiting for the Government or a higher power to do something?
Soweto Kinch: Exactly, because they won’t.
The Dood: Who are your influences on the saxophone and in music in general?
Soweto Kinch: There are so many…Of course, the great saxophonists, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson. Influential people for me in this country include Joe Harriot. With this album there are a lot of Hip-Hop influences as well. Obviously KRS1 and other masters of word play.
The Dood: The Last Poets?
Soweto Kinch: The Last Poets. Yeah, spoken word artists as well! I’ve been doing quite a lot of Hip-Hop theatre work too. I’ve worked with Jonzi D quite recently…The whole creative process which took place then, got me thinking about lyrics in a more theatrical way, a very musical and theatrical way. I’m very interested in pieces which traverse two or three different art forms. I had a lot of fun on ‘Paris Heights,’ for example with the lyrical dialogue and word play.
The Dood: It challenges and stimulates you?
Soweto Kinch: Yeah! I like music which you can listen to two, three, four, five times and still hear unique stuff every single time. That there’s a pay-off for the audience in that being challenged you feel that somehow you’ve been rewarded for listening a little bit closer.
The Dood: Many of the best recordings have seriously catchy hooks or melodies as well as deep meaningful lyrics which don’t register until the fourth or fifth listen. Agree?
Soweto Kinch: Yeah! That excites me as a listener…I was listening to some of Stevie Wonders music and other great composers and just thanking them for not pandering to the lowest common denominator and believing that people are intelligent and soulful enough to accept music which is challenging and yet feels good to listen to. It‘s not just cerebral for its own sake.
The Dood: What next. Have you been working on material concurrent with this for future albums?
Soweto Kinch: I’ve had so many ideas for future albums that I think will come in maybe a year or two year’s time. But I’m always thinking about the next project to be honest. I’m excited about touring this new album. But for me what makes this album so significant is that it sets the processes and the right relationships up from the outset for me to take more of a creative control over where I’m going. And I think it will be just a lot easier to get my message out to people once I have the means to do so. Emancipation as I said is metaphorical and very personal.
The Dood: With this being your first release as an independent, it not only deals with the emancipation of slaves, but also the emancipation of Soweto Kinch.
Soweto Kinch: Yep! You got it!
The Dood: Would you say it’s like drawing a line and now you’re moving forward?
Soweto Kinch: In some ways it is a new chapter, without any sense of bitterness or animosity as well. That’s the joyful thing about it. This music is fresh and it’s new and I’m excited about it. I don’t feel any kind of bitterness as I said.
The Dood: The Flyover Show in Birmingham. When and why was it initiated?
Soweto Kinch: Well it takes place underneath a motorway flyover…very close to where I live. I’d walk past the area every day. It’s been happening for three years now.
The Dood: And the reason for its inception?
Soweto Kinch: The inception came because as I walked past the area every day, it was quite desolate. Nothing much happened there but yet….you got the impression that the space was built for some sort of amphitheatre activity or BMX ramping or something! So I just thought creating some sort of Arts spectacle, with myself in mind at first, just doing some kinda stage set with B19. I then thought, ‘Why don’t we create something a bit more iconic and encompass other artists as well.’
And the vision behind it is I myself am a Jazz musician who lives in that area, there are MC’s, there are poets – people who could belong to the ‘World of ‘High Art’ if you like. There are Classical musicians and all sorts of inhabitancies in that area. As well as the history of Reggae music, which is so powerful in that area, and yet we’re not celebrating it. It’s kinda stuck behind closed doors. And there’s also this kind of concurrent fear in the area that the press has done a lot to band around, that we’re stabbing each other and shooting each other over race hate and gun crime.
The Dood: What part of Birmingham is this event held?
Soweto Kinch: Well it sits right in the junction between Laselles where there were race riots in 2005. It’s near where Latisha Ellis and Charlene Shakespeare were killed, some four or five years ago as well. You have Handsworth, which has this incredible musical history. Ladywood Ward is on the other side, which has the highest rates of unemployment anywhere in the country. And then obviously the City Centre with the jewellery quarter and affluent areas to the south of it.
The Dood: It’s a central compass point?
Soweto Kinch: And it is, it’s a compass point, but it’s one that doesn’t get a lot of major attention for anything other than bad press. So I was keen as somebody who lives there, to say that actually, we’re not just capable of one off events, but actually there is a ‘High Art’ output here already.
The Dood: There’s talent?
Soweto Kinch: There’s talent here! And artistic barometers if you like of taste and we can have our own Glastonbury…We can bring talent to our own doorstep. This year we had Miss Dynamite, Speech Debelle and Janet Kay. Some pretty iconic artists passing through. We had Bashy, Ty, Jonzi D, Tumi all the way from South Africa, Well Spoken all the way from New York. So we’ve attracted really prominent international talent to be part of the spectacle.
The Dood: So like Glastonbury, can you envision the Flyover Festival growing year by year?
Soweto Kinch: Absolutely! It is growing and growing! And I think not just because of the acts that are booked, but because of what it represents, it is a different and alternative image to what the City is about. It is an alternative image about what ‘Urban Culture’ is. For me it’s about putting out a different message. Saying we’re capable of the very highest.
The Dood: And giving back?
Soweto Kinch: Well there is that giving back thing, but all too often that sounds really lofty and a little bit patronising – a bit philanthropic. I live in the community. Not forgetting where you come from – that works…Art doesn’t only happen in a Ballet House or Opera House or in a venue in a city centre, art happens all the time. So how do I kinda get that message out?
The Dood: You must see young talent – young Soweto Kinch’s if you like coming through, both male and female. Is there the infrastructure in place to nurture and guide this talent?
Soweto Kinch: Thankfully I think it has improved a lot since I was thirteen, since a teenager. I think there was such a dearth of talent or dearth of role models that I felt really inaccessible, or just non-existent. As much as I was inspired by the Steve Williamson’s and Courtney Pine’s, I didn’t quite have the root to connect with them. So I think that it’s a lot easier now, I think there are more youth music initiatives. The message is out there and of course we have the internet and people are a lot more accessible.
So I’m hopeful that there aren’t clones of me, but genius’ of the future with their own sense of musical tastes. That’s what is so important, that there isn’t like a formula or a route to market that people used to talk about. It’s more like how do I create a buzz around me, around my unique concept and then formulate the support around that as opposed to trying to fit one identi-kit template to success.
The Dood: Any artists or musicians around today that you would love to work with?
Soweto Kinch: There are lots of musicians, not all within the Jazz/Hip-Hop world. However, I’d love to work with someone like Sonny Rollins. I’d love to work with Herbie Hancock. Stevie wonder even. I’m not putting any parameters on who I just think as long as it’s a musician with an artistic led vision it will work. I’m a fan of Madlib as well I’d love to work with him. So who knows?
The Dood: So when can we see you perform live in the UK next?
Soweto Kinch: We’re at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on the 18th November. So the album tour in earnest starts end of October and the beginning of November. I’m actually going away to India for four weeks, so that is gonna be a lot of fun as well.
The Dood: This is all music related? You’re not going to do ‘The Zen’ thing and come back enlightened?
Soweto Kinch: No! Not just meditating and then come back floating on a cloud! It’s all music related. But then I’m gonna come back and then be touring the album extensively. So it gives time for the album to settle in peoples’ consciousness’ a little bit and then for them to come in and see the thing live which is a whole new chapter again.
The Dood: Will you be doing any TV or Radio appearances in support of the album? For example, Jools Holland’s Show, Later.
Soweto Kinch: I’m hoping that Jools sees the light!! But I’ll be doing a lot more broadcast media around the time of the tour to keep people aware of what’s happening. I’m also doing a prime time music show on BBC 2 with Goldie, Guy Chambers and a few others. So that’s gonna be a lot of fun!
The Dood: Details please?
Soweto Kinch: Stylistically, it’s not really about us, we’re discovering talented musicians and developing them towards a performance. I duty bound to not reveal too much about it, because it’s all happening next year.
The Dood: Final words as to what your public can look forward to from you?
Soweto Kinch: This new album, ‘The New Emancipation’ is in some ways a template for the music I’m gonna go on and create in the future too. I’m mean things will change and bend and there’s flex to what I do, but I’m just so keen to keep representing both the Jazz and the Hip-Hop interests that I have and getting better at both. There’ll be more intricate, there’ll be less intricate but as I mature hopefully I’ll become more accomplished as an improviser. And come to the shows! That’s what it’s about. It will make sense when it’s live. Obviously get the album and then come to the shows.
The Dood: Keep on keeping it real and keep on being Soweto.
Soweto Kinch: Shall do man!
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards
The New Emancipation (2010) (Soweto Kinch Recordings)
A Day in the Life of B19 – Tales of the Tower Block (2006) (Dune Records)
Conversations with the Unseen – (2003) (Dune Records)
Essential Tour Dates: http://www.ents24.com/web/artist/18750/Soweto_Kinch.html
Essential Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/sowetokinch
Essential Twitter: http://twitter.com/SOWETOKINCH