Sons of Kemet - Tom Skinner (drums) / Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone) / Theon Cross (tuba) / Eddie Hick (drums)
Sons of Kemet - Tom Skinner (drums) / Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone) / Theon Cross (tuba) / Eddie Hick (drums) © Radio France  /  LeopoldTobisch

Sons of Kemet: "The great thing about Sons of Kemet is that each member has had a specific journey"

Big name in the rising London jazz scene, Sons of Kemet aren't your usual jazz quartet... An interview with this unique ensemble during the 2018 Jazz in Marciac festival at the Astrada concert hall.

London jazz ensemble Sons of Kemet is made up of four individual artists, each with their own background and influences. These different paths, when combined, lead the listener to an entirely unique plane of sounds and sonorities. Though Shabaka Hutching's saxophone will surprise few, the tuba and two drums should certainly catch the attention of many. The group's sound is an unashamed blend of a free jazz with strong Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern influences. But the music of Sons of Kemet isn't just there to be listened to, there is also a message to be heard, a fight to be fought.

France Musique: Your latest album Your Queen is a Reptile doesn't hold any punches, openly criticising the British monarchy in the liner notes; what was the intent behind creating such a powerful and almost hostile message? 

Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone): There are many complex meanings to the album, but I think one of the points in actually connecting an element of black history to the album is to try to connect parts of British history that we take for granted as being disconnected from wider political frameworks in general. Even in terms of hostility, the role of the British monarchy cannot be disconnected from its historical role. Its position at the moment and even the position of the British economy cannot be separated from the facts of history that led to the economy being where it is today. What we are trying to do create some dialogue or visibility about some of the issues that haven't been discussed and talked but within circles of marginality

Shabaka Hutchings
Shabaka Hutchings © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

There is a strong and obvious feminine undertone, as seen in the track titles dedicated to strong black and female role models. Is one aspect more important to you than the other?

Eddie Hick (drums): One word: intersectionality. This is my personal view, but you can't separate race, gender, class. You can study them individually but you won't fully understand them unless you take them all into account and how they affect each other. But obviously black women have had a double persecution.

Eddie Hick
Eddie Hick © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

Is the album's anti-monarchist message something that can be translated internationally, or is it particular to the UK?

S.H.: Yes, I think there will always be people that receive the message, and others that don't. 

What does it mean to be a black jazz musician in the UK today? Are you fighting the same fight as black musicians in the United States?

S.H.: No. We have a different history to the US. There are some commonalities to do with the legacy of race and colonisation but there are different ways of seeing these histories, and maybe even different ways of approaching the telling of these stories. For me there are issues related to race because this is an area that I myself and we as a group are interested in, but I don't see it necessarily as black history but rather British history. 

Tom Skinner (drums): Exactly, it's our history. We're all affected

Tom Skinner
Tom Skinner © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

S.H.: There has been a specific maneuver from certain power structures throughout the ages to try and separate struggles and, as Eddie mentioned "intersectionality", this is one of the ways that we can connect the dots to see how oppression works across the field. You cannot separate the working class struggle from that . You cannot separate the class system from the legacies of having a slave society. It's all interlinked, there is nothing that has happened within British history that hasn't been shaped or had consequences within the regions of the world when the British were in charge of an Empire. Our job is to try and find these links to discuss them, to debate them, and maybe try to envision a future that doesn't replicate the same structures that we've been through in the past.

This is a huge idea, heavy with social implications, to attach to a jazz album; are you worried the message won't be heard and people will just stop at the music?

Theon Cross (tuba): The good thing about the album is that each track is named after a different woman of power, and each woman has her own story. So people who listen to it can take the titles of each song and go and do their own research into what each woman has done and why they are important to us. I don't think it will simply stop at the music.

Theon Cross
Theon Cross © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

How do you all approach the creation of your music? Do you all bring an idea to the table or do you build around a particular spark?

S.H.: I write the basic frameworks of the compositions, but the compositions are more than just notes on paper, it's more than just a sheet of paper. I'll write the basic music, but then that becomes a springboard for each individual member to start seeing how their specific creative journey can interpret it. The great thing about Sons of Kemet is that each member has had a specific journey and different influences to be able to arrive at a point where each of the four parts creates one whole, but you can't separate Sons of Kemet from, for example, the works of Hello Skinny or the influences that Theon has gone through or Eddie respectively.  We all interpret the piece of paper in our own way, we all see it differently. It's a mirror of society: we all see the same thing, the same newspaper headlines but appreciate that each of us has a specific history that makes us interpret that same stimulus in different ways that can make us find a common point of scrutiny and unification.

Shabaka Hutchings
Shabaka Hutchings © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

T.S.: I feel like that journey is ongoing with the music, every concert is different, different things happen, the songs evolve, change and become something else the more we play them. The journey that Shabaka talked about is that dialogue between us and how we relate to the music as individuals and then as a group is something that is ongoing and keeps evolving.

Have any of your songs evolved over the years through how they have been received by audiences?

S.H.: My Queen is Anna Julia Cooper, a slow house-y tune and the fourth track on our latest album, was originally a jam session from which we then took a section to produce as a track for the album. Interestingly, it wasn't something that I wrote but rather something that emerged from a group communication, and many people have come up to me and said that it's their favourite tune from the album. It's something I never really instinct is to think of the big tunes as the ones that are more aggressive or more in your face, but it seems that many people respond to the sensitivity and mystery of that tune in particular.

On a broader scale, it seems that the London jazz scene and UK jazz scene in general is rapidly gaining ground and increasingly producing some of today's promising names in jazz music. Why is that do you think?

T.S.: I'm not sure that's true, the jazz scene has always been there. There's a lot of history there, and many people have worked hard to enable to grow and reach the point where it is today. There is definitely a lot more attention today, that is obviously exciting, and people are finally getting the recognition they deserve is great.

S.H.: Obviously visibility is a big part of any scene, and any period of time that one might consider to be a momentous period. Maybe the difference between now and fifteen years ago is that there wasn't a lot of documentation of what was happening. We as musicians may have seen epic concerts that changed our approach to music, and though people may look at us today and think "Oh my god what epic performers", really we're just remembering what it was like to be at Uncle Sam's, The Crypt...