LABEL : IMPULSE!
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: Britain’s most prophetic jazz group grow in power and intensity as they draw on the source of Black power.
It came as a surprise to me when I realised how political Boney M’s cover of The Melodians ‘Rivers of Babylon’ was. As a child, the song and its double A side, ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’, were part of the essential pop vocabulary of our suburban streets; a primary school disco staple. Even when I discovered that the lyrics quoted Psalm 137, it came as a pleasant ‘I didn’t know that, put it in the trivia file’ amusement. It took longer to think a bit deeper about what it would mean to a Black British audience in 1978 to have a song about living in exile, captivity, oppression and being expected to be happy about it dominate the UK charts. ‘Rivers of Babylon’ uses Psalm 137 as a metaphor for comment on the experience of the Windrush generation and the 3.1 million slaves Britain transported across the Atlantic between 1662 to 1807. It holds a plain mirror to a White British society in love with its own distorted reflections, happy to dance along while refusing to confront how we are Babylonians.
It is worth meditating on how Psalm 137 ends:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137: 7-9. NRSVA)
You can’t make a hit record out of lyrics like that. This is poetry with the same fire as ‘Field Negus’ and ‘Black’, revolutionary minded spoken-word pieces performed by Joshua Idehen that begin and complete Black to the Future, the new album from Sons of Kemet. Bandleader Shabaka Hutchings has spoken about how the concept of the Negus, an Ethiopian king or emperor, is central to this album and how a Field Negus is everyone communally carrying the heart and dignity of a king. Written after and referencing the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, these pieces shape a king’s armour and weaponry around the rest of the collection.
Similar to Psalm 137, that twists from lament to fierce anger while centring on the memory of the place of peace, Jerusalem, Black to the Future is chiastic in structure. It works inwards towards its central message and meaning before working outwards again. The first half of the album is more vocal and influenced by hip-hop. Theon Cross’ boneshaking tuba basslines are utterly distinctive. ‘Hustle’, a stand out track featuring Kojey Radical and Leanne LeHavas, is a dynamic celebration of those who ‘make nothing something’. A guest appearance from D Double E on ‘For The Culture’ both gets the party started and also makes a point of how both British Jazz and Grime come from the same cultural sources.
It is the source, the Asili, that is at the centre of Black to the Future. In light of an uncompromising, unchanging White culture, Black power is found in connection to and celebration of African and Carribean culture. As the band connect with the source, the vibe of the album slows, deepens and settles. Instrumentation takes over with Shabaka Hutchings intelligent woodwind work centre stage. His voice is more staccato, more insistent, more rhythmic than many saxophone players on the UK scene. For a band that know how to make a ferocious noise, perhaps Sons Of Kemet sound most like themselves in the stillness.
Jamz Supernova, the BBC radio DJ, compared Black to the Future to the kind of house party depicted by Steve McQueen’s film Small Axe: Lovers Rock. One aspect of that film is how it illustrates even in the midst of celebration, the threat of racist abuse, violence, arrest and trauma is inescapable in the peripheral vision of the Black British community. Black to the Future addresses that too but, by placing its polemic at the edges and its groove in the centre, it similarly keeps its focus on the community and life that is happening in the moment.
Describing the album’s making, Shabaka Hutchings talked of how the band limited the number of takes that they made. The emphasis on Black to the Future is on the feel, rather than on instrumental perfection. To call it a masterpiece would be missing the point. As Sun Ra, quoted by American Filmmaker Ephraim Asili, said, ‘That which is perfect is finished.’ As good as this album is, Sons of Kemet are far from finished. Perhaps it is better to describe Black to the Future as a living document testifying to the growth and power of one of Britain’s most prophetic, significant groups.