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28 November 2019

Mercury Prize favourites Sons of Kemet: “We are surrounded by the rise of fascism”

The London band talk British jazz, politics, and what should happen to the monarchy.

By Sam Forsdick

Sons of Kemet are one of the surprise favourites for this year’s Mercury Prize Awards, with Odds Checker putting them at 7/2 at the time of writing. It’s a surprise, not because of the quality of their music, but its genre.

Jazz has often been a side note to the Mercury Awards, with a token act wheeled out once a year but never winning. In 2016 it was The Comet Is Coming, in 2017 it was Dinosaur, and in 2018 it is Sons of Kemet.

Shabaka Hutchings, saxophonist and the band leader for both Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, believes this year is different. “It feels like this is a good time for jazz in general,” he says. “It feels like there has been a change in the perception of the art; a change both in the face of the people who are performing jazz music and the face of people who are listening to it.”

He believes that since 2016 the idea of “what jazz could be in the context of Britain” has changed. “It’s not music that tries to be elitist or tries to say that we are so involved in our art… It’s just music that we like and doesn’t try to exclude.”

Sons of Kemet’s most recent album, Your Queen is a Reptile, is a unique take on jazz and, according to Hutchings, an expression of modern London. Jungle, afrobeat, and grime are all channelled by the quartet, which consists of a tuba player, a saxophonist, and two drummers.

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Theirs is an album bristling with energy, which makes sense given the band’s desire to convey the “hype” and “musical explosions” of their live sets. “When we go on the stage to perform we try to give as much energy and as much joy and big emotions as possible,” Hutchings says. “This album is the closest to we’ve got to the live experience, while still being a well-constructed journey.”

Punk is another genre that the album is indebted to, evident from the clear anti-establishment message it puts forward. “Burn Ukip, fuck the Tories, fuck the fascists, end of story” is proclaimed on the opening track but Hutchings says they didn’t set out to create a political record, it was simply “the reality that we live in”.

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“As an artist one of our main roles is to give visibility to messages that involve our community,” he says, “and at the moment we are surrounded by the rise of fascism and a government that doesn’t care about people who come from the same background as I do.”

Although born in London, Hutchings moved to Barbados with his family at the age of six, before returning to England when he was 16. He says there no single event that made him feel disenfranchised from British politics, explaining that it is instead just “part of the reality of growing up black in Britain or from a minority background”.

“It’s solidified by the Windrush scandal which shows the way we are seen by the establishment. Or it could be seen in Grenfell and the response to that and the reason why such an atrocity was allowed to happen. Or it can be seen in stop and search.

“When I first came to London I was being stopped all the time by police, if I was in any car of more than one black person you’d get stopped. There comes a point where this is your reality and if your aim as an artist is to be truthful to the reality that you see and make it a part of your art.”

Even the album title itself calls out the concept of a hereditary monarchy. “It’s almost like a schoolyard taunt,” says Hutchings. “It’s saying your queen is a reptile and challenging you to think about who your queen really is and who you want as a leader.”

Hutchings is perhaps unsurprisingly now a fan of the hereditary system: “The fact that someone is born into a family for me doesn’t constitute enough to make them worthy rulers. If the Queen were to pass away tomorrow or next week it’s important we have an open discussion about whether we want the same system that we’ve had for so long to continue.

“It might be that at the end of that discussion we still have a monarchy but at least the discussion would mean that people are aware of the system that is ruling them.”

Each track title offers an alternative “queen”, all of whom are black and female. Hutchings says that choosing his own royal family was “intuitive”, and he looked to people he could learn from “in terms of their spirit or the way that they conducted themselves”.

The track list includes figures such as Yaa Asantewaa, who led the Ashanti in a war against British colonialism in 1900, South African anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu and Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Doreen. But the most personal “queen” for Hutchings was Ada Eastman, his great grandmother who lived to 103.

“Throughout her life she really worked to make a better life for our family,” Hutchings says. “We came from a very poor area in Barbados.” One of his earliest memories is of her standing on the roof of her house in Barbados, fixing a leak. “She worked to send many of the children from the family to university, to provide houses for all the people that lived in the family unit and had a great work ethic; that’s something that I found inspirational on a very personal level.”

 All of this culminates in an album that Hutchings clearly believes is worthy of winning the Mercury Prize. They are currently looking forward to life in the back of a van on their first coast-to-coast tour of America, and recording their new album in December. But these plans, Hutchings suggests, could be shaken up should they take home the Mercury tonight. He chuckles: “All of this could change if we were to win.” 

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