Last summer the MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Academy announced that it was going to drop its best jazz artist award. When the awards ceremony took place in September ten musicians held a musical protest outside the venue. One of them was 28 year old Soweto Kinch.
Born in London to parents from Barbados and Jamaica, Soweto is creating a unique sound, one which blends his two musical loves – jazz and hip-hop.
Talking to Soweto about his new album, A Day in the Life of B19: Tales of the Tower Block, the first thing that strikes you about him is just how immersed and thoughtful he is about the process of creating art and how living in the B19 district of Birmingham shapes his work. “Both my parents are very artistically minded. My mother is an actress and my father is a playwright – when I was growing up there were always poets, dancers and musicians hanging around our house. That gave me an appreciation of the excitement and creativity artists can generate, but also the political implications of art in general. My father set up a black theatre company and organised the largest black theatre festival in Birmingham in 1991.
“I am influenced by my parents’ Pan African political ideals – I got my name as a result of the uprising in South Africa two years before I was born. I take inspiration from the South African political activist Steve Biko and believe in the power and creativity of the Diaspora.”
After a chance meeting with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, Soweto became passionate about jazz, first concentrating on piano and later on alto saxophone. “Jazz filled a void for me,” recalls Soweto. “Culturally, spiritually and emotionally, people need an antidote to the mainstream mass-produced music which has a McDonald’s approach to it. We need culture that satisfies real human emotions. Some people need jazz in their lives.”
In 2003 Soweto’s path-breaking first album, Conversations with the Unseen, was to launch his career as a solo artist, winning a Mercury Music Prize and, ironically, a MOBO Award for Best Jazz Act.
His latest album is an ambitious project which fuses hip hop and jazz. Set in the Birmingham suburb of Lozells (scene of a race riot earlier this year), the album follows the story of three young men – Marcus, a part time student and crook, Adrian, a bus driver trying to keep his family together, and “S”, a wannabe sax player.
Soweto takes up the story: “The whole idea of this album is to explore both emotions and important social themes. And the richest stories are right on my own doorstep. The jazz world is really organised along rigid polarities – you are either a politicised demagogue or you are a bohemian artist doing your own thing. No healthy person should exist in such a confined world. What I love about Coltrane and the other great jazz artists is that they had rounded personalities and were interested in many different things.
“I think tradition in jazz is just as important as taking the music forward – that there is a heritage and tradition. I owe a huge debt to people like Wynton Marsalis and John Coltrane. But I am resistant to being pigeonholed as a jazz artist. Sometimes jazz can be offputting to young people. I want my music to reach out to all music lovers, from jazzers to teenagers. People see that forbidding piece of glass in your average HMV which separates mainstream music from jazz and classical. These young kids are never going to venture past that glass that reads ‘Jazz’ unless they hear the album.
“I didn’t want to do a 50 Cent (gangsta rap) version of life in Lozells – lusting after celebrity acclaim and fame. That’s not where I am at and it’s not where most people in B19 are at either. Most of them are just hard working people trying to make ends meet. I relate to the quiet plodders in life, people who are consistent. I believe they will have longer lasting rewards. That’s the jazz ethic in me.”
The picture Soweto paints of B19 is a rich and complex one. He makes a brilliant case for why people in the inner cities deserve better. Soweto’s position is clear and unequivocal: “There has to be an ownership of the community and kind of self-worth. All we are ever told about is gun crime and drugs, and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The danger is we end up competing for an increasingly dwindling share of an urban decaying pie.
“To effect real change we are going to start from our communities. I’m not completely cynical, but I believe the age of great demagogues – your Malcolm Xs and your Martin Luther Kings – is to some extent past. What is going to happen now is community orientated movements for change. I see B19 as a self-sufficient community, a market place, a united community with a common sense of purpose, one which wants to transform its surroundings. The struggle for empowerment has to start with personal, then local empowerment and then we have to deal with macroeconomic and political problems. It is the quiet man’s struggle that I am into and it’s that theme I explore on the second part of B19 which is due out in the spring.”
Finally, there is the gem of a single that Soweto released in 2004 called Jazz Planet. As Soweto explains, “It is my most overtly political and polemical lyric. On one level I am saying, wouldn’t it be great if jazz musicians were held in esteem as much as your average pop icon? But the other underlying message is that in our society, if culture and people came first, the world would be ordered in a totally different way – and that is something to think about!”
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