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Afro Tuned: Interview with Soweto Kinch
'Afro-Tuned' - Featuring personalities from around the world who are fusing African music + art with Pop-Culture
by Muhammida El Muhajir
Watching the award winning saxophonist/MC Soweto Kinch perform live is a bit of a mind-freak. He is equal part jazz man. Equal part B-boy. And both emerge before you onstage like some sort of musical Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. An instrument wielding Superman/Clark Kent. They are the same man yet completely different. Just as the two musical styles are as different as they are similar.
His jazz is pure. Traditional. Classic. As is the hip hop. When he sets down his alto sax and picks up the mic, along with it comes an invisible cloak of street bravado and swagger requisite of any hip hop heavyweight.
Dichotomy is a part of the makeup of this artist/scholar, a native of Birmingham, England who graduated with a degree in history from Oxford University before pursuing a fulltime music career.
Soweto is currently on the road with his quartet, promoting his latest release, The New Emancipation. We connected in Philly during a show at the Painted Bride Art Center.
“Perhaps the most pernicious and resilient aspect of slavery was to persuade Africans to accept and even perpetuate the terms of their own enslavement. This album is response to the ways in which ancient injustices mutate and resurface in modern times- from the music industry to stop and search, from bank bail outs to bailiffs. Today’s fetters are mostly invisible , we sense unseen forces dictating our views of race, foreign policy, and systems of debt.”
---Soweto Kinch, The New Emancipation
Muhammida El Muhajir (ME): At any point in your training or career, did you feel like you had to choose between jazz and hip hop?
Soweto Kinch: Only by the critics and the ‘jazz police’. Other musicians and fans were very supportive.
I have a friend/vocalist, Eska Mtungwazi who attended an event years ago where there were a bunch of jazz musicians and hip hop artists playing together. After experiencing the energy in that show, she really encouraged me.
I create the music that I feel and let people make up their own minds. My art is coming from a place of integrity and the audience can feel that.
M.E.: It’s interesting that you have mastered two distinctly African American art forms. How does it feel when you come to the states, the birthplace of both jazz and hip hop.
SK: I’ve actually thought a lot about this. They are both African experiences expressed in America but also with Caribbean roots. The early innovators of jazz were descendants of African slaves who had been brought to America from Haiti and the Caribbean. Congo Square in New Orleans became a platform for public displays of their music, dance and traditions.
Hip hop also has Caribbean roots. Toasting existed in Jamaica 20 years before the emergence of Hip Hop. Kool Herc, who is Jamaican and considered the godfather of Hip Hop fused his own Jamaican musical culture in the early days.
All that to say, I feel this music is my culture and heritage too. (Editors Note: Kinch’s parents hail from Barbados and Jamaica)
But I spend time here (in the US) to study and contextualize the art forms and instill myself in the culture. Even today I attended the Odunde festival in Philly which very much reminded me of my experience growing up going to Notting Hill Carnival in London. So its still very much exciting to be here and see all of the little block parties along the streets like you see in the videos. I even passed a cipher on the street and jumped in!
M.E.: You conducted a workshop for young musicians recently. Do you do a lot of work with young people of the hip hop generation and are they inspired to see an artist fuse the musical styles?
S.K.: I did a workshop yesterday with young musicians studying jazz. They were all very talented, some were as young as 7 years old. I simply endorse what they already know. What they are already doing.
When I was a just starting out there were many older musicians who showed me a certain generosity. When I was 13, I met Vernon James who played with Gil Scott Heron. He sent me books, gave me tips, taught me chords and lessons that have informed my practice even today.
Elder musicians like Jean Toussaint and Wynton Marsalis, who I met very early in my career have been very encouraging and inspiring along the way.
Jazz has a generous spirit that exists where elders share and teach and pass the baton to the next generation. And that’s how the music lives on.
That spirit doesn’t exist in hip hop. I have met hip hop artists (who shall remain nameless) some who I have even shared the same stage with, who had so much entourage/security that they couldn’t even exchange a word with a fellow artist or fan. I find that to be common in hip hop. But my recent show in Philly with The Last Emperor and Ursula Rucker was more of a sharing. They welcomed me to their home.
M.E.: Your lyrical content and overall theme of your music seem to be pretty conscious and current. What is the inspiration?
Art should be contextualized and informed by what is happening in the world around us. I have been so incensed by what’s happening with the banking system globally and chose to express that through the music on my recent album, The New Emancipation.
M.E.: Your top 5 MCs?
(in no particular order)
Ty (UK artist)
M.E.: Thank you!
For more information about Soweto and to purchase ‘The New Emancipation’, visit: http://www.soweto-kinch.com
About ME: Muhammida El Muhajir is a global brand marketing, media consultant and filmmaker who has traveled, worked and studied abroad extensively throughout Europe, Asia, Latin America, The Caribbean, and Africa (Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa). She pursued graduate studies in International Relations at The University of Ghana and directedthe highly anticipated documentary, Hip Hop: The New World exploring the global impact of hip hop. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY
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