Sax, riots and racism: the radical jazz of Soweto Kinch
The saxophonist-rapper faces constant racism – and has also been accused of it. He explains the black cultural celebration of his new album, and why he defended a Labour activist accused of antisemitism.
It’s rare to see Soweto Kinch without his saxophone. Six foot tall and most often dressed in black, he can usually be found, sax in hand, at his jam night in his hometown of Birmingham or at a session at Ste am Down in London, although I saw him last in May at 2am in a hotel bar in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, joining vocalist Gregory Porter for an unexpected set. “You never know when you might need to play,” Kinch says, tucking his saxophone case under the table between us.
Over the past 15 years, he has played a lot. Now 41, Kinch has released six albums, on themes ranging from austerity to maths, and curated an annual festival. A lyrically dextrous MC as well as saxophonist, he has long been championed as the future of British jazz. Yet, when a jazz revival bubbled into the mainstream three years ago, American players such as Kamasi Washington and younger Brits such as Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia were at the forefront. “I’ve just had my head down, honing my craft,” Kinch says. “Black British music has always been beautiful and powerful, and now the younger generation are getting some recognition.”
The contributions of black culture to western society are the focus of Kinch’s seventh album, The Black Peril, which gets its live premiere at the London jazz festival on Friday. Its 24 tracks explore the musical legacy of 1919 – the year of the first world war armistice and anti-black race riots across the US. Kinch, who studied history at Oxford, says: “I was struggling to understand what that historical moment means, why it’s not remembered as much as it should be, and why these conflagrations happen.”
Musically, he says, “1919 was a primordial soup, a moment of unity between different forms of black music, which we have lost now. America hadn’t yet claimed jazz as its own and reggae hadn’t been seen as a cultural export from Jamaica.”
It is this sense of unity that drives Kinch’s current work, a combination of early 20th-century ragtime with postwar classical atonality, mixed up with West Indian folk, hip-hop and trap. “I wanted to explore dualities,” Kinch says, “the guttural and the cerebral. There’s an unbridled joy that comes through the music, a refusal to be dehumanised in the face of racism.” Kinch gestures to the Afro-spiritual origins of black music: “For African people, music is part of an entire way of engaging with the sacred. If you feel something emotional in the music, it’s not because that’s an F sharp being played, it’s something far deeper.”
Kinch has been the subject of racism, including an incident he documented on social media this year when he was refused service in a pizzeria. Another was more recent. “On the train down to London today I was asleep and this white guy wakes me up to sit down next to me, despite there being loads of empty seats in the carriage,” he says. “He just kept elbowing me really aggressively, like he wanted a confrontation. I politely told him to stop, but of course no one else stood up for me – in fact, one person even came to his defence and said it was me that had to leave.” Kinch is defiant in the face of these microaggressions. “The one thing these people want is to silence us and that isn’t something I will give in to.”
Yet, this unwillingness to stay quiet has landed Kinch in trouble. When the activist Jackie Walker was expelled from the Labour party in March for antisemitic comments, Kinch described it as “persecution without trial”. He says: “Jackie was making some very nuanced comments, like the fact that some Jewish people were involved in financing the slave trade, which is something she admits her ancestors might have been involved in, as she is half Jewish. And rather than being talked with, she was just shut down.”
Kinch admits he “may have unwittingly used offensive tropes” and is “open to learning”. He says of the ensuing backlash: “The last thing I intended was to cause any harm to Jewish people, and I am fully aware of how words can get misconstrued. But we need more discussion so that words aren’t weaponised for political ends. A lot of people will see me – Oxford-educated, darling of the BBC – and say: he can’t complain. But it’s especially important for someone with my platform to speak up, to show that racial injustices continue, and to set an example of learning from my own actions.”
The Black Peril has a specific meaning – “the fear of black men miscegenating with white women”, which Kinch sees as having dominated white thinking, preventing black people becoming part of society. “It’s why I wanted the music of [early 20th-century black composers] James Reese Europe and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to influence the record, to fight the notion that diverse Britain began somewhere after a boat called the Windrush when black people were invented – along with Reggae Reggae Sauce. We have a history of being here for much, much longer than that.”
Why has this history been neglected for so long? “Black cultures suffer from trauma when dealing with the past. We like to jettison anything that’s more than five years old.” It is for this reason that Kinch emphasises the lineage of the music he plays.
Black cultures suffer from trauma when dealing with the past. We like to jettison anything that’s more than five years oldSoweto Kinch
“When I hear early jazz, it’s got a pulsating energy I identify with Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott,” he says. “Lyrically, I’m embodying the swag that comes across with Paul Dunbar’s 19th-century poems, for instance. That’s why I say things like ‘I’ll outrun a wagon wheel’ or ‘I’ll fight a grizzly bear with my bare hands’. Conquering material realities to create something supernatural has got a very long history within black culture. Calypsonians do it, toasters in reggae culture do it, MCs do it.”
The result is a kaleidoscopic record that veers from the jaunty clarinet and foot-stomping trap-swing of Riot Music to the big band harmonies of Alms. Throughout, Kinch raps in a surly, understated baritone, while his alto sax playing is tenderly perceptive, looping between the surging vamps of tracks such as Sirens. The album plays like a swirling montage, an effort to resist the linear narration of history.
By colliding genres in this way, Kinch is trying to “recreate the shock that the audience would have felt at hearing rag for the first time or jazz.” He feels that jazz holds that radical place once more. “Jazz has a stronger political heart now than it ever has,” he says. “People like Shabaka Hutchings, Christian Scott and Theo Croker understand the power of diaspora in ways that I don’t think were possible 20 years ago, when major labels controlled the ways artists would collaborate. Now we just hit each other up on Instagram.” The live performance will feature choreography to underline the connections between black dance styles, “from ragtime dancing to buck to breakdance”.
Ultimately, The Black Peril is the effort of an artist to place himself firmly within the rich diaspora of black music. “If there is one takeaway to be had, it is that I am absolutely now proud to be black and British,” Kinch says. “But that’s contingent on a new definition of patriotism, one that includes all the people who have traditionally been excluded from it. If we’re going to go forward, we need to abandon the attachment to whiteness.”
With that, he picks up his saxophone. “The days of needing gatekeepers to say what’s cool, and to articulate what music means before the musicians get a chance to do it themselves, are numbered,” he says. “We just need to play.”
Soweto Kinch: The Black Peril is at London Jazz festival on 22 November