On their latest creation, the expansive and tumultuous Black To The Future, Sons of Kemet explore what it means to be Black and British in the 21st century. The result is a flawless body of work that spans genres and themes, and gets right to the heart of the Black experience.
‘A sonic poem for the invocation of power, remembrance and healing’ says Shabaka Hutchings of Black To The Future, the most recent full-length release from jazz quartet Sons of Kemet. One of Hutchings’ countless projects — also at the helm of The Comet is Coming and Shabaka and the Ancestors — he describes the latest offering as a work that seeks to ‘redefine and reaffirm what it means to strive for Black power.’
It is apt, then, that the British-Barbadian saxophonist and clarinettist recorded the bulk of the record in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, against a backdrop of impassioned protest and renewed discourse surrounding Black identities in the context of structurally racist frameworks. Of the album title, Hutchings suggests that it acts as a reminder to the Black community ‘not to forget why we are here; we’re here to try to make it as well as we can within the society’; a sentiment that runs deep throughout the record.
Constructed of improvised lines lifted from jams recorded on tour, Black To The Future borrows elements from various different genres across the Black diasporic tradition, from Ethio-jazz and Central African flute music, to grime and American jazz — Hutchings stating that he believes the latter two genres ‘intersect in terms of their dual reflection on what it means to be of the Caribbean music diaspora within a London context.’ The result is a work that shifts through a scope of sonic stylings, harbouring a sense of unpredictability as a result, yet remains coherent and unified under a common theme.
The album opens with scattering percussion and entrancing, almost morose brass leans that flitter in and out of focus. Titled ‘Field Negus’, the track is incandescent with rage; sermonic invocation spat overtop brooding instrumentation courtesy of poet Joshua Idehen. His searing words – ‘I do not want your equality: it was never yours to give me’ – burn with the same fire sparked by the reignited BLM campaigns earlier last year. As the preaching increases in intensity and the vocals are ravaged rawer, so does the instrumental underneath, shifting into almost complete discord before petering out into nothingness. Sons of Kemet open Black to the Future not with a whimper, but an aching wail.
From the embers of this echoey shriek, the coals of ‘Pick Up Your Burning Cross’ are stoked, a track which in its beguiling timbre harkens notes of Mulatu Astatke – whom Hutchings has previously toured with – and features words from lyricists Moor Mother and Angel Bat Dawid. Lively and grooving, understated vocals are woven between carnival blares and calypso syncopation. A frantic racket of brass and drum strokes, the track comes to a head with reverberating saxophone screeches before reaching an abrupt stop.
We then pivot to ‘Think of Hope’, a track which is diametrically opposed to its precursor in its jaunty, reggae mellowness. Chirpy and cheery, the track features meandering percussion, mono-rhythmic woodwind lines, and bright, brassy sax showcases. The track, true to its name, is hopeful, and conjures up hazy visions of unity and togetherness.
This takes us to the record’s lead single, ‘Hustle’, featuring the gruff vocal stylings of Kojey Radical in the fore, complimented by Lianne La Havas’ crisp tones at the back. Propulsive and urgent, there is a return to the album’s earlier intensity with the song being propounded by a stomping, single note brass refrain. Atop the thrumming rhythm are bright, orchestral wind lines, which are interjected by restrained percussion, rife with tension. Radical’s cadence flits between gravelly grumbles and clear crooning, in both lamenting the strife that comes with the ‘hustle’ that underpins building a life for oneself as a Black Briton — ‘you don’t need to pose and posture when you were born in the struggle.’ The track then veers sharply into jittery, dispersing wind, which melts into a melodic section where the tension seems to have dissipated, fizzling out into the following song.
Similar to ‘Think of Hope’, ‘For The Culture’ is comprised of a Caribbean groove driven by earthy bass refrains that plod across the track. Featuring grime artist D Double E, the Jamaican influenced vocal flair, as referenced earlier, touches on what it means to be a part of the Black diaspora in London. The track is off-kilter, ornamented with descending wind lines and urgent saxophone calls, which carry throughout the song.
Urgency becomes curiosity for the saxophone, with ‘To Never Forget The Source’ opening with inquisitive brass lines lurking around sparse percussion. In Hutching’s words, ‘The Source’ refers to ‘the principles which govern traditional African cosmologies / ontological outlooks and symbolises the inner journey’ and this mystic quality is mirrored in the track’s querying sound. Deep trombone interjections and tentative wind refrains meld into a smooth meandering of melody, before tapering off into hush.
The silence is ruptured. An immediate change in tone with chaotic, jittering, almost gasping pipes taking the floor, flirting with discord in their shrillness. ‘In Remembrance of Those Fallen Sons’ feels less eulogistic than the name suggests, though the tone is terse and undeniably on edge. Trundling trombone and stuttering saxophone screams comprise the bulk of the song, though there is a return to the breathless pipes at the track’s end.
‘Let The Circle Be Unbroken’ ambles in with sprightly drumbeat and pithy brass lines. It is indeed circular in its structure, building up and layering simple instrumental elements, akin to the arrangement of sounds in a live jam, a tradition within various genres across the Black diaspora. The track gets slowly sterner, then sparser, with palliative wind lines breaking off and making way for a din of flitting squeals and squawks.
Rainforest ambient and clarion birdcall is ushered in by a peel of fluttering cymbals. ‘Envision Yourself Levitating’ is as illusory as the title would have you expect; a hazy and ultimately dreamlike track. The dawdling pace of the percussion and accompanying brass refrain is at odds with the rapid and intricate saxophone trills laid overtop. The sax only grows hoarser and more feverish throughout, fading into quietness as the trudging drums march off into the distance.
‘Throughout The Madness, Stay Strong’ flitters into focus with an echoey clatter of drum taps and strokes, harkening the clave rhythms of Afro-Cuban music. The track is composed of toing and froing wind lines and robust brass refrains which seem to rise and fall throughout the song.
‘Black is tired. Black would like to make a statement.’ Joshua Idehen returns for ‘Black’ with his vocal delivery that is not dissimilar to civil rights speakers in the Black Panther circles in its exhorting, almost pleading quality. The track seems an addendum to ‘Field Negus’, similar in form and content, closing the circle of the album. Alongside jilted orchestral instrumental, Idehen spits his sermon; as the backing crescendos into wailing swells of brass, the words grow in severity, ending with a pained plea of ‘just leave Blacks be… leave us alone.’ It’s a rattling statement on which to end the album, and an effectively blunt way through which to phrase Hutching’s intended message of the song, and really rather the album at large: that there seems ‘so much attachment to trying to unpack the elements of blackness, that what we all needed was to deal with our respective traumas, rather than the violence of reliving traumas in the arena of public spectacle.’
On the whole the album is immaculate. Sonically it is unblemished, not merely in its instrumentation and technical prowess, but in its experimentation with genre, flitting between various musical subsets of the Black diaspora with ease. Tonally it matches this quality, mapping the intricacies of the Black experience in a nuanced and holistic way. What Hutchings’ says of the import of ‘Hustle’, is essentially the narrative that is depicted throughout the record at large: ‘what we’re (Black Britons) trying to do is find a place for ourselves and really try to work as hard as possible in achieving our potential.’ In the context of a year wherein issues of race are being discussed at a much louder volume than usual, Shabaka Hutchings has created a rendering of Black British experiences that is deafening in its poignancy.