Afro-futurist jazz ensemble conquer Somerset House with an empowering message of cross-cultural unity

It’s not easy to make a largely instrumental show crackle with righteous political energy that Sons of Kemet manage on Saturday night, though being introduced by lauded poet Joshua Idehen as ‘sons of immigrants’ in front of the blown-up words of Boris Johnson (“crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”) is a pretty great way to set the tone.

The very fact that the Windrush-descended band leader Shabaka Hutchings and his multi-racial outfit are here, playing probably the largest headline show of their short career in such a symbol of British Imperialism as Somerset House, is a political act in and of itself.

Hutchings, who also plays saxophone for two other ascendant British jazz acts (The Comet Is Coming and Shabaka & The Ancestors), is fast becoming a household name outside of dedicated jazz circles, due in no small part to his impressive knack for securing Mercury Prize nominations. But while the mind-expanding psychedelia of The Comet Is Coming might finally earn him (and jazz in general) that particular prize, it’s his work with Sons Of Kemet that feels more concerned with the human condition, especially the part of it which pertains to being black and British in 2019.

Their wild musical cocktail of jazz, afrobeat, grime and dub (the last of which is impressively realised live thanks to the thunderous tuba work of Theon Cross) is symptomatic of their outlook and core objective as a band: the opening of people’s minds and the celebration of shared identity.

This philosophy is always present in their music both in concert and on record. Tonight, however, it is amplified by the awe-inspiring nature of the venue, the enthusiasm of a Saturday night audience and the support of both an incredible horn section and an inspired selection of guests.

Given that their last record ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’ saw each track dedicated to an inspiring and powerful woman, it’s only right that an inspiring and powerful woman provides the apex of tonight’s set. In just under three minutes Australian rapper Sampa The Great succeeds in making her mark on the evening; her calm, fluid vocal delivery melding perfectly with the band’s surging performance of her 2017 single ‘Rhymes To The East’.

D Double E similarly manages to pack a lot of presence into a short appearance thanks to his trademark quickfire delivery on a jazzed-up version of his track ‘Schoolin’’. It’s an 100mph reminder of the potency of cross-cultural pollination between the jazz of South London and grime from the North and East.

There is no such brevity from surprise guest Kojey Radical, who relishes a chance to feed off the improvisatory nature of jazz, tirelessly trading freestyles with the band over two previously unheard tracks. Though the guest spots, track premieres and prime location conspire to make this more than just a Sons Of Kemet show, the core quartet never fade into the background.

Twin drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick never try to outdo one another, each giving plenty of space to the other so they never seem to double up their parts. Hutchings is an undeniable wizard on his instrument, occasionally playing with one hand while conducting the horn section with the other in an enviably casual manner.

The fact that he leaves most of the audience interaction to their guests is probably for the best, given that the first of his two trips to the mic risks pushing the night’s theme of unity into parodic territory (“I want to take us back to the pre-colonial mindset, and in that I include the druids” he insists, eliciting more giggles than cheers).

The staging is simple but effective. Positive slogans like ‘Question the objectivity of structures – Question the subjectivity of representations’, ‘Stay Up’, ‘Do Not Lose Hope’ are displayed in large white letters behind the band. It might seem like a shame that there is no psychedelic backdrop for them to play against, but closing your eyes and seeing ‘We Will Remember Grenfell’ seared onto your retinas as ‘Inner Babylon’ flows into your ears is a uniquely powerful sensation.

Just as he introduced the band with a moving message of overcoming barriers and loving your friends and enemies alike, Joshua Idehen closes the circle and returns towards the end for his guest spot on ‘My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence’. As he shouts “Don't wanna take my country back mate” the entirety of the crowd, young and old, male and female, black and white, roar “I wanna take my country forward” back at him.

No-one witnessing a performance like this could come away without feeling flushed by the unifying power of music and buoyed up by the promise of a better future. Sons Of Kemet don’t usually need words to communicate something so universal, it’s just that when they actually do have them the combined impact is dangerously potent.

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Words: Josh Gray

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