Shabaka Hutchings On Sons Of Kemet, And New Possibilities Within Art

Shabaka Hutchings On Sons Of Kemet, And New Possibilities Within Art

Jazz colossus in conversation...

Is there anyone in music busier than Shabaka Hutchings?

Member of not one, but three of the world’s best jazz bands, the London-born saxophonist is currently basking in the glow of Sons Of Kemet’s new record, the wonderful 'Black to the Future', a year after one of his other groups - Shabaka and the Ancestors - released 'We Are Sent Here By History'.

As the renaissance that jazz has enjoyed over the last few years has taken an increasingly stronger hold, so too has the regard for Hutchings’ craft grown among fellow musicians and fans alike. Having played alongside a range of acts, from Floating Points to the Sun Ra Arkestra, the versatility of his craft seemingly knows no bounds.

As we sit down to talk, I find him flanked by shelves of books on all sides, and on good form as he takes me through his extensive to-do list. Over the course of an hour’s discussion, we covered everything from the retention to the new Sons Of Kemet album, to the place of jazz in the wider music sphere.

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How has the general reaction to the release of ‘Black To the Future’ been?

What I’ve seen has been really good, although I’ve been trying, at the moment, to not pay too much attention to it. My manager gives me a handy update of the good reviews but I’ve just been trying not to engage with the internet’s reception of it as much as possible, just because I find that the more I get into my phone, the more that it sucks up the little time that I’ve got.

And I find that if I’m looking at all the reviews and what people are saying, it just puts me in this space where artistically, I could just be doing other stuff. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the conceptual framework of the album, and it seems that people have really cottoned on to that.

That must be the most rewarding part, when people are engaging with the higher layer of the art that you produce, right? Yeah, exactly. Outside of the release of the album, how different - with the album being recorded in lockdown - was the experience of making this record, as opposed to your previous projects with Sons Of Kemet and the other bands that you’re a member of?

All of these albums, I’ve been on the road while doing them. We recorded the band contribution in 2019, but in terms of really going through all the material and figuring out what the album is gonna be from the all the stuff that we had, this was the only time where I had the kind of headspace to really process all of the material and think very specifically about the ark of what I wanted both the songs and the album to be. So, for me, it’s the most constructed of all of the albums in that it’s very particularly put together, from the start to the end.

I really got that from the press release of the album which explained that the tracklist is actually one constant piece of prose. It’s a really nice touch that exudes a feeling of every factor in the album’s creation being thought about, and every part of it has an intention to it.

Yeah, and I kinda like that idea of poetry, because in some ways, poetry always feels like it gives the listener space to reflect and add their own ideas and their own contributions to the words. It’s not as descriptive or prescriptive as writing a long novel or an explanatory piece. So the whole idea is that you read the words, and then its about where your mind as a listener takes you in relation to that space.

I just like the idea that people are going on their own individual journey with the music. And that means that the album can grow with people and even us, because I’m sure the meaning of what the words mean will be different to us a year later or even five years later.

It’s interesting that you say about the words of the title and the poetry that exists within the album. It was noticeable that there are a lot more lyrics on this album compared to the last Sons of Kemet record. What was it about the music or the intention of this record that you felt required there to be more of a lyrical presence on ‘Black to The Future’?

If I’m honest, when we first started putting together the music, it was more about what would just make it as complete an album as possible. It wasn’t that we went in with an idea to do more lyrics on this album than before. I guess the consistent thing throughout all the albums is really about how can we make the best album for that particular time in our artistic journey. And the combination of us and [the] lyricists, it just felt natural because that’s where we were at.

I’ve had collaborations with Kojey [Radical] before, with Moor Mother and Angel [Bat Dawid]. We’ve been bumping into each other on the road, back and forth for the last year. It’s all people that we’ve got relationships with, and have relationships with us as a group. And we just thought we want to make the best album ever! So we’re gonna get everyone that can reinforce the message, and that forms a link in terms of how the music relates to the bigger cannon of black music, and who are pushing the boundaries of what it can be seen as.

There’s a quote in your ‘Black To The Future’ essay that said: “Music can be likened to a time travelling vessel whereby cultural value systems of the past are encoded within sound and projected/protected throughout ages.” When I read that, I started to think about music that is timeless in both its appeal and its truth. Would that be a fair reading of what that is saying? And if so, are there any examples of music that, for you, fit into that category?

I think it’s always a tough thing to say that music can be timeless in terms of its truth. History is just a perspective on things that have happened.

So, with a broadening of narratives, comes a broadening of contexts, and with a broadening of contexts comes a broadening of history, and with that shift comes a shift in truth. So, for me, it’s almost like trying to look at that shift in itself. Trying to see the points where the music represents a fogginess that is below the surface. I mean that in terms of, if the music is, on a surface level, saying that this is the truth of history, this is what happened at a particular historical juncture, then it probably is doing what a lot of historical propaganda does which is to state history as a definite fact.

Whereas music, for me, that grows with you, where you listen to it and feel as though you have to go back to it - a clichéd example, but one that remains true for me is [John Coltrane’s] 'A Love Supreme' - I listened to that when I was very young, around 17, and thought “yeah, it’s a great record”, but as I’ve gotten older and I’ve grown with the record, and I’ve seen and learned more about Coltrane’s life, it grows and grows and continually reinvents what it means for that record to exist at that time.

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Also in that essay, there’s a particular call for a return to an indigenous way of life…

It’s less so to do with indigenous ways of life, as we are of the West, you know. And more to do with indigenous ways of seeing the purpose and the journeys throughout life. So it’s more about how we see the world. But if we can perceive some of the practices that we engage in with the worldview of people that are from completely different contexts from us, that maybe have a closer connection to what it means to be human outside of the traps of what we call civilisation, then we might learn something about what it is we’re doing on a macro level.

It’s interesting, because, when I read that, it called to mind discussions around the climate emergency that we are currently having more and more. And it’s an element of that discussion which I hadn’t encountered before. I was wondering what was it that sparked that interest in you? Or, has it always been there?

It’s just about trying to think and research. It isn’t that it’s a part of my philosophy, it’s just been a gradual realisation from stuff that I’ve read about and seen or heard on podcasts and things. That there is a lot to learn. And that comes from the travels that I’ve been doing for a long period of time, like going to South Africa. You realise that there are a lot of different ways of approaching life, or of interpreting phenomena that are specific and subtle. Bringing this into the context of the album isn’t to tell people what to check out, it’s just trying to alert people to the fact that, to quote Sun Ra, “there are other worlds out there”.

So, for me, that’s the same thing. There are other dimensions of life out there, and if you go in search of them, then you start the process of starting to learn about people who have, historically, been referred to as “savages” or “uncivilised” or “heathens” in the past, figuring out what were they actually doing, and [whether we] can learn stuff from them.

To turn now towards something that looks more at the future, you’ve announced recently that you’re doing your biggest gig to date in February at the Roundhouse in February next year. Firstly, congratulations on that. And secondly, do you anticipate there being much difference in how the music or how the live show that you perform as a band will be carried out in these larger venues?

Yeah, I think that has already started to happen. In the last few years, the venues for us have been getting bigger, and we’re at more festivals. You play in a different way when you’ve got a sound system backing you up. It’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time, and I first started thinking about when I was in college. I did a bunch of gigs with Red Snapper ages ago - perhaps around 2008 - and we toured around Russia, and we did a couple of things in Europe.

And it was the first time that I realised there is a different way of playing, and a whole different way of conceptualising the point of what you’re doing when you’re playing to large audiences in large venues. And it’s not a case of it being better or worse. It’s just a different point of focus. And a different way of generating energy.

I used to have the term big stage energy and small stage energy. Because there’s certain things that you can do in an intimate scenario that are really effective but make no sense when you’re playing to a large group of people. There are certain ways of playing the saxophone that are invalidated with that distance. t’s that freedom when you realise that you are becoming a big stage player more or less permanently, that allows you to disregard the things you don’t need and emphasise the things that are more effective in that kind of scenario.

It’s going to be interesting, because I think we’ve become big stage players as a group, but this album has a lot more nuance in terms of different emotional zones. So it’s not just a case of saying “we’re big stage players therefore we just hit really hard and go all out.” Going forward, I think there’s going to be a reassessment in terms of big stages, around what it means to bring the audience into your zone.

It’s almost as like it becomes a different art form at the point where you’re playing to thousands compared to a few hundred people.

It is, definitely. This is why, sometimes, people will judge a “type” of music that’s made for big stages with the same ideals that they would for music that is for a small stage, and it really makes no sense. For me, as a saxophone player, some of the stuff I’m doing on these big stages would make no sense on smaller stages, no sense whatsoever. It would just seem really unmusical.

Speaking of things that are different art forms, how are you finding the process of writing [your first book] Letters To A Young Musician? And have you had any unforeseen challenges with that whole process.

Basically, I approach it with the same process I have for writing music. I build information over a large space of time. And when the deadline approaches, I just put it all together. So I kind of said “I’m writing a book” and I am, but what that means in practicality, is that I am amassing the information that I’m gonna then expand.

So, in general, I’m finding all my old notes, collating them, bringing them together, and bringing out the main points, and then just, as I go through my life this year, for instance, I’m writing things that come up. And then when I have a specific deadline to finish which, in general, is the end of this year, then it’s just about going in and getting down to it. But it’s on a list of things that I have to do, which in itself is becoming substantial.

And on that list anywhere, are there explorations into any different art forms, such as film or TV?

Not overtly. Having seen what is picked up on films - it’s interesting, I kind of have an idea of what works in that sense. Then as we do stuff in the future, or as I put together music, I kind of get this idea of what it might look like on film. But it’s a tough one because you can’t have considerations like that be too present in your mind, or else you’ll start working for the purpose of getting on TV, because that really is the beginning of the end. If you start making music thinking “this’ll be really good on a TV advert”, then just take the money and run!

Is there ever a time when, for example, you’re recording music for one project that you think “actually, this would work better on a different album, or as part of a different band”?

No, it can all just go into what I’m working on. There are tunes like ‘Space Carnival’ on The Comet Is Coming that is literally a Sons Of Kemet tune (‘My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence’), and that was written before we went into the studio to record the Comet album. But in the moment, I just played it and it became a tune. Which is all fine, because regardless of if I use the same melody for anything, the context will be so different between each record or project that, if it’s recognisable, it’ll be forgivable.

That’s sounds a nice freedom to have.

Yeah, and there aren’t tunes that I have which I’m so precious about where I want to save it for a particular band. I’ve started a record label and we’re going to have our first release later this year. And the whole idea for that label is that I write all the music, fix all the musicians, and produce everything.

So, even with that, there’ll be tunes that I think are fantastic that I’ll give to someone else because I really do think that if you just put the music out there, more music will come in to you. It doesn’t make sense to hold onto music thinking it’s the best thing that you’ve done because you don’t know until you get rid of it and do something else.

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As a by-product of that versatility, there can be a level of mystery around the projects, and the people that make projects, like yours.

I don’t know, is there much mystery?

Maybe mystery isn’t necessarily the right term. But, because there isn’t the presence of a regular voice, in terms of a spoken voice to it, it’s as though the image of you that people may have in their mind may be completely different to the person that you are.

I was chatting to someone recently about avatars, because it feels like all we do as performers is create these avatars that we shoot out to people, something that has become even more important with the lockdowns and everyone encountering artists via the internet. So we create this idea of ourselves, and everything we do bolsters a certain image. And if we’re really good at that, and aware of what we’re doing, then the image can become quite specific. But the danger is that that image is you objectifying yourself as an artist. Creating an object that is separate from the subject that you are.

And, as that subject changes - because people change as they go throughout life - the problem is that all that remains in tact is that idea of what you are as an artist and that comes from the symbols that you associate with yourself. Certain phrases that you’ve said in interviews that get put forward that people maybe remember, and it’s impossible to manage it, unless you become obsessed with people’s perceptions of you.

I think that is one of the signs that you’re going through a mental illness when you start to really become concerned with what people think. The way that I deal with it is I just say “I don’t care!”

That’s probably the best way to do it!

Yeah, because it’s out of your control how people regard you, even if you don’t have a public persona. [In] all the interviews that I do in general, I’m not the most guarded person - I just say what comes into my head - so there might be some things that I’ve said which may be quite definitive in terms of people’s views of me. But I just said it and I haven’t thought about what it means in a resonant way, in terms of if you detach it from the context and just analyse it.

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Talking about the public image that you have, or maybe don’t have, something that no-one ever really wants to do is put themselves in a box. But would you consider yourself, through the music that you make, in terms of it having a particular point of view, to be an activist? Or is that label a bit reductive.

Yeah, I think it is reductive, because, for me, the activist is the person on the ground, really dealing in a very hands on way with social issues. That might be incorrect, but just in terms of the nature of what I do, I don’t see myself as that. I’m not doing that at this stage of my life. But it doesn’t mean that I haven’t done it in the past, or that I won’t do it in the future, but just at this moment I would say that I’m a musician. And that’s what I spend my energy engaging with on a day-to-day level.

And hopefully, because I’m adding context to my music and trying to actually relate my music to some of the issues that activists are dealing with, hopefully I’m contributing to a culture of activism in that way.

I think everyone has their role to play. The musicians give a particular type of healing and energy to the people that then go out and deal with reality - not reality, but deal with situations more “on the ground” or in the firing line of these issues.

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I don’t think anyone would dispute the hand that you’ve played in jazz’s current popularity and resurgence. And, with jazz playing such a key role in terms of the popular music of the day - there’s more jazz in hip-hop, in R&B now than there was maybe 10-15 years ago - how does that marry with things like Mercury Prize, that would still refer to or treat a jazz album as a “token” placeholder?

Yeah, I mean it just reflects on the people saying those things or the ones doing the judging. Because there definitely have been years when I’ve looked at things like Mercury Prize, listened to the albums that have been put forward as the “token jazz album” and thought that they are very much “token jazz albums” because they are albums which I haven’t really thought have been that good. But it was like they needed to put in something that satisfied that category’s inclusion.

But, of late, there have been so many albums that you could term jazz that have been great that, if someone says that, it says more about them than the music. If someone says, for example, ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’ is a “token jazz album”, and has listened to it, then it just reflects on how they listen.

But also, I mean, whatever, right? All we can do is make our music and put it out there. How it is received - I’m fortunate to have been around when jazz was scorned so much, so now I am completely cynical about the industry and have no faith. I’m very grateful that we’re getting all this visibility and acclaim from the industry, but I just remember when it was an in joke. So I am just like “hey, I thought nothing of you back then, and I’m slow to be changed”.

So, it’s a win-win! And just to finish up, what does the future hold for Sons Of Kemet as a band, and yourself more specifically as an artist?

So, for me, as an artist, I’ve got my whole plan laid out. The Comet Is Coming will release an album next year. Then the next year, I’ve just started putting together initial plans, almost like sketches for my own solo album that I’m hopefully going to make and release, not next year, or the year after that, but the year after that. And that’ll be when I’m 40. And that’ll be the last album that I have with Impulse! under contract also. So, that’s the bigger picture.

Hopefully, I want that record to be recorded on three continents. I want part of it to be recorded in England, part to be recorded in West Africa (hopefully Nigeria), and then part of it in the US. And, actually maybe the Caribbean, so maybe four continents after all! So yeah, that year after the Comets album will be me doing a lot of travelling and meeting musicians, and getting together what’s going to be on the album.

I’m learning the MPC, so it’s just getting together that production information for me now, so that I can spend a bigger time actually putting together the music myself.

So you’re very much in that information-gathering stage that you’ve spoken about before?

Yeah, and you can’t be too specific in this stage of working, because then it forms itself. So it’s not that you get an idea and rush to get it complete in like 3 months. I kinda like the idea that by the time the album comes out, you’re over that era and can move on to the next thing straight away.

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'Black To The Future' is out now.

Words: Mike Watkins
Photo Credit: Udoma Janssen

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