Shabaka Hutchings interview: ‘I’m trying to be the artist I was looking for as a young musician’

·8-min read
 (Udoma Janssen)
(Udoma Janssen)

Shabaka Hutchings has been on my mind a lot during the pandemic. During the particularly humdrum moments of lockdown, I’ve daydreamed about a performance he was involved in, which, I’ve come to conclude, was more or less everything I want live music to be.

It was two years ago, at Glastonbury, sometime around those loose midnight hours, in a tiny treehouse up near the Park Stage. It was a jam session, a collision between two forces: Ezra Collective and Hutchings’ band, Sons of Kemet. Musicians from both groups hovered around the stage, a cauldron of sound, each diving in and out. As the set progressed, Hutchings’ gravitational pull made him the de facto ringleader, an inexhaustible firebreather on the saxophone, daring the others to try and keep up. They did. The stakes kept on rising, the music kept on going, and in the crowd, it felt like we were on the brink of combustion, almost as if there were 10,000 people packed inside, rather than 100. It was, basically, rapturous.

Speaking to Hutchings now, I can’t help but bring it up, and I’m slightly relieved to see him smile as he remembers the night; this wasn’t just some Worthy Farm hallucination, after all. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says, “just being in a situation where the energy is reciprocated, because we can’t give that energy if the audience isn’t there.”

The live-streamed gigs that have tried to fill the void during Covid can “give a documentation of what a band is” and offer some satisfaction, Hutchings says, “but without the actual audience there in the room, it’s a kind of a hollow shell of the performance”. There is, he says, “something that’s fed back from an audience, and that’s what allows the performance to rise to the level of euphoria”.

Striving for such a thing through the power of collaboration, either between artist and audience or amongst the musicians themselves, is something that has enlivened Hutchings throughout his career. Born in the UK and raised in Barbados from the age of six, he moved back and settled in Birmingham a decade later. He soon became a regular at the weekly jam sessions helmed by saxophonist Soweto Kinch in the city, and has since grown to become a driving force within London’s cross-pollinating, genre-clash environment, loosely labelled as a “jazz” scene, as well as playing with the London Improvisers Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia and others.

The extraordinarily powerful new Sons of Kemet album, Black to the Future, yet again sees Hutchings harness the energy of other musical forces. In addition to his bandmates — the indefatigable Theon Cross on tuba, as well as the propulsive percussionists Edward Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner — the album brings in Chicago jazz phenom Angel Bat Dawid and the voice of Hoxton’s Kojey Radical, among others. All the features seem carefully chosen, a vital compositional element rather than added extras. What is it about these artists that makes Hutchings want to work with them?

“There’s a feeling and resonance — I couldn’t really explain it more than that,” he says. “When I hear someone, I just think, ‘this feels really great, it feels like they would fit with the band’. I try not to actually expand that feeling, and I try not to verbalise it, because the more you verbalise it, the easier it is to talk yourself out of a collaboration.”

One such collaboration on the album that may never have happened had Hutchings not followed that sixth sense is with D Double E. His contribution to the track For The Culture is a standout moment, with the grime elder delivering a slinky, effortlessly groovy flow.

To have a grime artist on a jazzy tune might seem at odds initially, but listening to the song, it makes you wonder why this kind of thing hasn’t happened more often. Both D Double E and Hutchings have their own musical trademarks — the MC’s “Oh my woooord” motif and the saxophonist’s sharp, intensely rhythmic bursts are instantly recognisable — and in a broader sense, the two scenes seem spiritually aligned: two diasporic sounds, respectful of the past but gripped by the future, played through a London filter.

“When I hear grime, it’s like I hear a community that’s taking Caribbean music and actually just reflecting it in a completely different way,” Hutchings says. “I remember when I first heard this music, grime, I was just thinking, ‘this is kind of real fast bashment soca, with slightly different emphasis on the beat, and people that have a different approach to technology’.

“You’ve got those kind of fugitive, mysterious, hidden Caribbean undertones in grime, and you’ve got them in our London jazz scene music,” he adds. “It’s about finding that point of intersection, where the listener can actually hear where these two different styles and approaches have a common link, and a common base.”

Sons of Kemet: Edward Wakili-Hick, Tom Skinner, Theon Cross and Shabaka HutchingsUdoma Janssen
Sons of Kemet: Edward Wakili-Hick, Tom Skinner, Theon Cross and Shabaka HutchingsUdoma Janssen

So while Black to the Future is a deep well sourced by various musical streams, it’s also inward-looking. As Hutchings explains in a short essay he wrote to accompany the album’s release, the first and last tracks, featuring the searing poetry of Joshua Idehen, “bookend the album and express the rage, frustration and perception arising in the wake of Geroge Floyd’s death and the subsequent BLM protests”. From those two points, he explains, “the work then flows inwards from both directions”. This concept is, Hutchings says now, partly “a kind of refuting of the whole idea that everything we think in relation to these traumas has to be proclaimed on social media”.

“With most traumatic healing processes, you have to have that space of reflection, where you go inwards,” he adds. “Whereas if that space of reflection is actually just a projection outwards onto social media, it’s kind of defeating the whole point, or is counter [to] the idea of true reflection.

“It’s such a deep and symbolic occurrence that happened, and action that’s needed, we’re just trying to get that sentiment that what’s needed is not for everyone to give gestures outwards — you need to actually just be reflecting inwards. It doesn’t matter if no-one sees the results of those gestures, as long as transformation is actually happening on an inner level.”

While Hutchings says “you can’t necessarily blame anyone for being a part of that world”, and doesn’t rule out becoming more active on social media in the future, he thinks it’s “not necessarily healthy to hear the inner voices of everyone around you”. An aversion to the constant noise of social media is something that Hutchings has been feeling for a while — “Get off social media (post but don’t scroll)” was one of the tweets he posted as part of a Twitter thread in December 2019 offering tips on how to prevent creative burnout, which is something he’s stuck to: his account currently sits on 10.5k followers, zero following.

The act of handing out these pieces of wisdom seems like a recurring theme in Hutchings’ life and career. There are, of course, the messages infused within this latest LP, and on the last Sons of Kemet record, Your Queen Is A Reptile, each song title paid homage to influential black women, from Ada Eastman to Doreen Lawrence.

He’s also an alumni of the transformative jazz education programme Tomorrow’s Warriors — “more or less any black jazz musician that has passed through Britain from that generation, post-Gary Crosby [who co-founded the programme alongside Janine Irons in 1991], were involved within that organisation,” he says.

The guiding mantra of Tomorrow’s Warriors is “each one, teach one”. Does Hutchings see himself as something of an educator? “My mother is an English teacher, so maybe I got something from her about the importance of actually passing on information,” he says. “I do think that it’s important for the performers or artists with visibility to actually be making sure people don’t necessarily continue the same cycles over and over again if you have information that can make life easier for the young generation coming up.”

Udoma Janssen
Udoma Janssen

Now, in his position of prominence, “it’s almost like I’m trying to be the artist that I was looking for when I was a young musician”, he adds. It’s a feeling that will be distilled in a book that Hutchings is currently writing, simply titled Letters to A Young Musician. “In some ways, it’s also me just documenting my thoughts as a musician, because you get these reflections and things that have had resonance within your musical life, and it’s easy to just forget them as the years go by and touring happens.”

The book won’t be about “technical knowhow”, he adds, but instead it’ll cover “how to think in a way where you’re not restricted by the forces that inform what you can or cannot do — and how I’ve gotten to a state where I just do what I want to do”.

“The more I can document those thoughts,” he continues, “it means that younger musicians can actually read that and mentally start from a place that's more advanced than the way I started. So then, it can go forward.”

Black to the Future is out now on Impulse! Records

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