Sons Of Kemet: Black To The Future
Released 14th May 2021
Pre-order from Sister Ray
Ferocious and exhilarating, the new album from Sons Of Kemet is beyond jazz. The message is compelling, the music hypnotic and unforgettable. It’s an album for the times and of the times. Louder Than War’s Gordon Rutherford reviews.
Look around at the state of our world, this mess of our making. Wrong is everywhere. If Dickens were here he would save on ink. “It was the worst of times.” Fourteen months ago, a prescient and hard-hitting commentary on the situation was delivered by Shabaka And The Ancestors. Their album, We Are Sent Here By History, reviewed by yours truly on these very pages, was a body of work that spoke powerfully about the destruction of humanity as we know it. A bleak outlook, but little did any of us know that the worst of times was yet to come.
We Are Sent Here By History was released a mere three days before the UK’s Prime Minister responded to an unprecedented (in modern times) global pandemic by locking down the country. Then, on the 25th of May, a forty-six-year-old black man named George Floyd was murdered (we can legally say that now, even though we always knew it) by a Minneapolis cop. Unlike coronavirus, racial abuse was not a shocking new global terror to contend with. Inconceivably, this is something horrific that too many have had to suffer for centuries. But the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent momentum of the BLM movement, somehow seemed to be a turning point. Finally, the moment that good people cried “enough”. We hope and pray.
Now, we are here in 2021. Fourteen months later and that most prodigious musician, composer and bandleader, Shabaka Hutchings, has returned, this time donning the colours of Sons Of Kemet. Different band, different theme; but the message is no less significant nor powerful. Given Hutchings’ propensity to compose his music around the issues that matter, and that this album was recorded in the period following the death of George Floyd, this year’s topic is unsurprising. Black To The Future, the most dynamic, explosive and accomplished album of Hutchings’ short but sizzling career to date, is a protest album in the mould of Marvin’s What’s Going On, Sly’s Stand and Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces Of A Man. Similarly, the catalyst is precisely the same as SAULT’s epic 2020 double-whammy, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise). Like those albums, Black To The Future defiantly proclaims, “we’re not going to take it anymore”.
There is a beautiful symmetry about Black To The Future in the sense that it is bookended by two spoken word pieces, both narrated by poet and songwriter, Joshua Idehen. These tracks, Field Negus and Black, gaze outwardly and rage. “One knee on my back/one knee on my lung/telling me to run sprint times in a marathon”, proclaims Idehen on album opener, Field Negus. It is an impassioned and emotive curtain-raiser to this incredible objet d’art. At the other end of the journey, Black closes the album with the words, “leave us alone”. Again, we have the parallel with SAULT, specifically when they pleaded, “Don’t shoot/I’m innocent” on Untitled (Black Is). Imagine having to ask another human being that.
Black To The Future feels somehow bigger than any of Hutchings’ previous projects, whether with Sons Of Kemet, The Ancestors or The Comet Is Coming. It projects a sound from the speakers that engulfs the whole world and swallows it whole. Driven by that overarching narrative of anger and frustration, the words and music fuse potently, creating a portentous landscape. And yet, there is an incredible contradiction. Despite the dark and ominous vibe, these are tunes that compel you to move. It’s simply impossible to resist the urge to dance. Not in a frenzied, EDM-induced way – no, these tunes are supple and subtle, they induce you to shimmy and sway, to rotate your hips. This is dance music for the body and the mind. And the soul.
Furthermore, Black To The Future is a proper album, one that feels methodically and meticulously crafted, brick-by-brick, each track combining to construct the entire edifice. Of course, it does. Like so much of Hutchings’ previous work, including Sons Of Kemet’s last album, the Mercury-nominated Your Queen Is A Reptile, Black To The Future is a concept album. The music has a common and specific purpose and a defined course. To illustrate, let’s return to those tracks that bookend the album. From both of these tracks, like a river with two sources, the music flows inwards from both directions, converging and pivoting at the axis-point of the album, To Never Forget The Source. This thing, The Source, is a big thing for Hutchings, being a set of principles that effectively govern our nature of being. I’m not going to profess that I am deeply in touch with the philosophy, but if To Never Forget The Source is the ideological axis-point of Black To The Future, then, musically speaking, it’s a damn fitting one. This is a quite remarkable composition that showcases Hutchings’ phenomenal ear for a melody and possesses the most dazzlingly delectable hook ever to snake its way inside our heads. This all unfolds across glories tapestries woven by the rhythms of percussionists Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner.
As we travel back outwards from this central axis, the standard is maintained; the quality never wavers. And as you meander through this incredible musical odyssey it becomes evident that you are in the presence of greatness; a startling collection that represents the pinnacle of this new wave of British jazz. Hell, scrap that, this album trumps virtually everything of this millennium, irrespective of genre.
Clearly the context makes it critically important. But it’s about so much more than that. It’s the sounds of the music and the craftsmanship of the four band members. It’s about the innovation, that ingenious way in which Sons Of Kemet defy genrefication by seamlessly fusing jazz, calypso, Afro-beat, Latin, soul, hip-hop and grime. In parts, it is electrifying and dangerous, in precisely the same way that The Clash’s debut was. This is rock and roll, baby. Fuelled by rage, it is incendiary. The perfect example is Pick Up Your Burning Cross. Theon Cross is a veritable force of nature and his tuba is astonishing throughout, but on this track in particular he adds breathtaking depth and heft. The tune is like an express train, driven forward relentlessly by Hick and Skinner’s percussive beats. It’s all pace and rhythm and, naturally, Hutchings scorches over it all. The cherry on the cake is the vocal provided by Angel Bat Dawid and Moor Mother, who seem to spar and hug simultaneously.
The band ease up a tad on the following track, Think Of Hope. It’s more laid back, but once again a delightful foundation is laid by Cross’s tuba, allowing the horns of Hutchings to dance playfully with each other. Listen to the deft touches of Hick and Skinner’s percussion, knitting the whole thing together quite sumptuously. That sets us up for the first single from the album. Hustle is, quite simply, an astonishingly exciting piece of music, founded upon Hutchings’ assertion that “I feel like I’ve been hustling forever”. It’s a song that is about trying to find a place for oneself, to achieve one’s potential. Consequently, it comes with an incredibly urgent feel with a slinky Latin groove that implores you to dance. The principal role here is handed over to the brilliant Kojay Radical, who co-wrote the track and, obviously, comes armed with his inimitable rapping abilities. “I could dance with the devil but that’s unlikely”, raps King Kojay. Oh, I don’t know. As if that’s not enough, there’s another exquisite layer in the form of the honey-like backing vocal provided by Lianne La Havas.
From there, it’s into For The Culture, another one of those genre-busting numbers. D Double E raps atop a mesmerising Afro-beat. There’s a choir of horns now, with Ife Ogunjobi’s trumpet, Nathaniel Cross’s trombone and Cassie Kinoshi’s alto sax accompanying Hutchings. It just grooves and if you really, really need a classification let’s just call it dance music on the basis that you won’t be able to resist getting off your ass. At this point we reach that axis-point and, as we pivot on To Never Forget The Source, we glide into the hypnotic Afro-beat of In Remembrance Of Those Fallen. The rise and fall of Cross’s tuba holds you transfixed until Hutchings enters, his horns swooping and diving like a pipistrelle on an infinitesimal pipe. As the tune unfolds, Hutchings’ horn sweeps majestically, Coltrane-esque, lifting us to celestial heavens.
Let The Circle Be Broken begins with the skittering drums and characteristic tuba. Hutchings enters the fray like a middleweight boxer, dancing around the ring, jabbing with those penetrative horn punches. Every note hits home and leaves its mark. As always, there is storytelling in his melody. Before the end, it breaks down, as though possessed by some shamanic spirit. The ska-like shuffle of Envision Yourself Levitating slows things down, in one sense giving us a breather. The tenor sax of Kebbi Williams combines with Hutchings. Two horns in one pattern, one wailing mournfully, one reaffirming harmoniously. It’s like the soundtrack to a tragedy by Tennessee Williams. By the time Cross’s tuba enters, everything is perfectly in sync, just like the alignment of the planets. There is joy in repetition in the melody, whilst the horns become more frenzied as the track progresses, ultimately blazing furiously atop. It’s an incredible composition with sublime fusion and syncopation. At almost eight and a half minutes, it is the longest track on the album, but it is an absolute tour de force and one wouldn’t complain if it were twice as long. The penultimate track is Throughout The Madness, Stay Strong, built upon another teasing melody and engrossing percussive beats. Shabaka the enchanter. It’s like watching the flames lick the hearth of an open fire. Which brings us back to Black. The closing track. The end of the journey outward from our axis-point. A perfect finale for a perfect album.
In just over fifty minutes, Sons Of Kemet have eloquently and powerfully railed against the injustices and inequalities that exist in our world today and that is incredibly important. But, in doing so, they have sculpted an artefact of musical magnificence that I seriously doubt will be rivalled this year. It is a quite astonishing achievement. With two Mercury Prize nominations already, (one each for Sons Of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming) Hutchings is no stranger to critical acclaim and whilst Mercury judges are notoriously unpredictable it will be the injustice of all injustices if Black To The Future does not walk off with this year’s award.
There’s one final postscript, a neat little thing that you won’t immediately notice. Put all of the song titles together and you get Field Negus/ Pick Up Your Burning Cross/ Think Of Home/ Hustle/ For The Culture/ To Never Forget The Source/ In Remembrance Of Those Fallen/ Let The Circle Be Unbroken/ Envision Yourself Levitating/ Throughout The Madness, Stay Strong/ Black. That’s the message. One single poetic statement that is crystal clear and, musically, wonderfully stated.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.