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Shabaka Hutchings: 'I assume responsibility to be political'

Shabaka Hutchings, second from left, with his Sons of Kemet band mates (Photo: Pierrick Guidou)

SONS OF Kemet are no ordinary jazz band. If you saw their recent Glastonbury set – live from Worthy Farm or in the comfort of your home – you’ll know they are taking jazz to new heights.

Do away with dated misconceptions that put jazz in the background, this Mercury Prize shortlisted band demand your full attention with their infectious melodies and beats and incredible approach to fusing together sounds from various genres.

We caught up with band’s lead musician, saxophonist and clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings, to talk producing socially conscious art, how growing up in Barbados has influenced his music, what it means to be British and more.

What are you most looking forward to when it comes to performing at the iconic Somerset House this weekend (Saturday July 13)?

The main thing are the guests, actually. You know, we’ve got D Double E and Sampha the Great performing with us. I’ve been a big fan of their music for ages but I’ve never, never performed with them and they’ve both agreed to be on stage with us so that’s the big thing.

You’re fresh from Glastonbury, where you performed with two of your three bands, Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming. Festival goers and performers have both described it as a life-changing experience. How was it for you?

There are a lot of different realities in Glastonbury. I’ve been as a performer just playing a little, very small tent in the middle of nowhere, not having any artist camping or nothing like that and it’s great but it’s a very different festival if you’re playing on a big stage and you get treated well.

It’s strange, there can be lots and lots of festivals, different festivals rolled into one but in general – awesome.

Festivals often mean a lot of people are exposed to artists’ music for the first time. How does the atmosphere compare to one of your own gigs?

That was the exact scenario in the Sons of Kemet gig at Glastonbury in that the Foals were doing a secret gig just after us so they had all their fans, I think they tweeted about it a couple hours before, so they had the whole field totally packed from front to back for the whole of our set. Obviously with a lot of fans for us, but a lot of them would have been people that are waiting to hear Foals and it meant that we performed to a crowd that maybe hadn’t heard our music before.

The big difference is that people understand the cues and the moments that they’re supposed to go into certain places in terms of reactions and stuff when they know the music beforehand. When they don’t, I get this vibe of like shock and awe, where it’s almost like people are stuck to the ground like, I don’t know what this is, I don’t know how I’m supposed to act. It’s like a snake charmer, you really get that thing of, you know people are enjoying it and they’re moving but their brains are trying to process what the music actually is.



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Thank you Glastonbury!!!!!!

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Your sound is very different to a lot of what’s out there at the moment. What do you want people to feel when they hear your music and see you perform?

I don’t know actually. I probably would have had a different answer for you a year ago. I probably would have told you something.

I think at this stage if I tried to say what I want people to go away feeling it almost like defeats the purpose in that I don’t think I should be dictating, or the music should be dictating what people go away thinking. What I think the music should do is give people a space or provide people a space of emptiness where they’re able to consider new ideas or thoughts in any regard.

I’ve come to this point where I realise, no one knows what it’s going to do. I can say a really poetic answer about what I think the reader’s going to do that makes everyone go, ‘oh my God he’s so deep, this is amazing,’ but really and truly I don’t know. All I can do is hope that music provides someone with a space to have their own thoughts but I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy that we’re dictating what people think about in the music.

The latest Sons of Kemet album, Your Queen is a Reptile, features song titles My Queen is Doreen Lawrence and My Queen is Angela Davis, and your music is known for being socially conscious. Do you feel a responsibility to be political with your art?

I kind of assume responsibility to be political but I don’t think there is an automatic responsibility to be political within every artist because music has a lot of different functions. You know, if I’m going to be playing some music for my girlfriend while we’re sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of wine, I don’t necessarily want to be thinking about defeating white supremacy – but there is a place for it.

You’ve previously said your music has been a way of reclaiming British identity. For you, what does it mean to be British?

That’s something that I think nobody knows. A lot of people can say they know what being British is but I don’t know. Being British...it’s not being white and being British isn’t holding a passport because that’s just dumb, a passport is literally a bureaucratic document.

I guess the significant thing to me is what happened as a result of that connection to empire and what power do you have at any point. So for me, at this moment in time, to be British is to have the power to critique the society that we all live in or the power to potentially change it.

You were born in London but spent a number of years growing up in Barbados. How has growing up there influenced your music or your approach to creativity?

I think the memory of carnival is something that has stayed with me, not in terms of trying to recreate the exact music that has been played but in terms of trying to recreate the general feeling of everyone vibing really hard to a type of music.

There’s something really special about being in the Caribbean in carnival time and seeing the entire society like loving soca/calypso music and seeing what it does to people. One rhythm might come on and...the entire field of people or stadium of people can go just completely into hysterics – and for me, that’s the thing that’s stayed with me from Barbados. The fact that music can do that to people.

Sons of Kemet perform at Somerset House Summer Series on July 13. For more information and to book, visit somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on

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