Interview: In Conversation With Soweto Kinch (@sowetokinch)

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Award win­ning alto-sax­o­phon­ist and MC Soweto Kinch is one of the most excit­ing and ver­sat­ile young musi­cians in both the Brit­ish jazz and hip hop scenes. Undoubtedly, one of the few artists in either gen­re with a degree in Mod­ern His­tory from Oxford Uni­ver­sity he has amassed an impress­ive list of accol­ades and awards on both sides of the Atlantic — includ­ing a Mer­cury Music Prize nom­in­a­tion, two UMA Awards and a MOBO for best Jazz Act in 2003. In Octo­ber 2007, he won his second MOBO Award, at the O2 Arena, Lon­don where he was announced as the win­ner in the Best Jazz Act cat­egory- fend­ing off stiff com­pet­i­tion from the likes of Wyn­ton Mar­s­al­is.

His skills as a hip hop MC and pro­du­cer have also garnered him recog­ni­tion in the urb­an music world: hav­ing sup­por­ted the likes of KRS ONE, Dwele and TY, and being cham­pioned by the likes of Mos Def, Rod­ney P and BBC 1-Xtra’s Twin B. 

Thank you for tak­ing the time to do this inter­view. To the people read­ing this and have not heard of you before could you explain why you came up with the name Soweto Kinch and what type of music you per­form?

Well my Mum has to take full cred­it for nam­ing me! Soweto is a Town­ship ‘S-Outh W-Est’ of Johan­nes­burg. I was born a couple of years after a major incid­ent there which aler­ted the world to the evils of Apartheid, and the racist policies of the South Afric­an gov­ern­ment. Chil­dren were protest­ing ‘Ban­tu’ edu­ca­tion which set out to fur­ther ghet­toise them, and the gov­ern­ment of the day opened fire on chil­dren killing many of them.

The name’s (and more import­antly the story) def­in­itely inspired me, and I feel a huge debt to the cour­age those chil­dren showed–  res­ist­ing racism and a bru­tal régime.

Music­ally, I guess my two biggest influ­ences are Hip Hop and Jazz — I play the sax­o­phone and I MC, you can find me hit­ting jazz jam ses­sions one day, and in a Dont Flop Battle the next!

How and why did you come up with the con­cept to mix your sax­o­phone play­ing and rap/poetry togeth­er?

When I star­ted tak­ing my MCing and sax­o­phone play­ing ser­i­ously, Hip Hop had turned a corner (in the 90s). Pro­du­cers were as likely to sample jazz records as they were James Brown — The Phar­cy­de, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul all had a massive impact on me.

But I also had the influ­ence of art closer to home. My Father’s a play­wright and I recog­nised the power of art to chal­lenge ste­reo­types — I was inspired by Lin­ton Kwei John­son, Steve Wil­li­am­son and Court­ney Pine in this coun­try who;d already star­ted to break out of the con­fines of ‘gen­res.’

What or who inspires you to write the music you do?

I have a wide range of influ­ences and inspir­a­tions — ran­ging from life, love through to his­tory and polit­ics. I’ve tried through most albums to fol­low a theme as a thread, and that tram­mels my writ­ing pro­cess. On The New Eman­cip­a­tion, I was keen to reappraise ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom’ in a mod­ern world of cor­por­a­tions, and sup­posedly post-racial polit­ics. On The Legend of Mike Smith, the 7 Deadly Sins was the inspir­a­tion — which allowed me to inter­n­al­ise dif­fer­ent moods and ener­gies for each track, as well as make some com­ments on the com­mer­cial music industry.

With Nona­gram, my latest release — I’ve taken numbers/geometry as my inspir­a­tion. I think our brains are pro­foundly affected by the worlds of sound, and laws of geo­metry that sur­round us every day with us pay­ing atten­tion to them. I wanted to explore an approach that would bring people togeth­er (irre­spect­ive of race, gender and class) and in some way alter con­scious­ness. So much com­mer­cial music is mar­keted in a tri­bal way, and our pop­ular polit­ics seems to be rein­for­cing divi­sions in our soci­ety. I intend for Nona­gram to be a bit of an anti­dote!

You worked with the BBC to coach 12 vul­ner­able young per­forms to show­case their first show. What were some of the chal­lenges for you and what did you take away from the exper­i­ence?

I really enjoyed that pro­cess, with Gol­die, Miss Dynam­ite, Guy Cham­bers and oth­ers. It was great to get a snap shot of how much tal­ent there is across the UK — and often des­pite economic/personal hard­ships. In some ways it was a con­tinu­ation of work I’d star­ted a long time before, and am still doing. I think the tag of ‘dis­ad­vant­aged’ is some­times unhelp­ful — as some the most tal­en­ted people I meet are from poorer back­ground and don’t have the sorts of industry leg-ups that oth­ers do. If I took any­thing away, it was aware­ness that some of the most excit­ing art is hap­pen­ing in the places that the ‘industry’ ignores.

You cre­ated an event in Birm­ing­ham called the fly­over show. What is the event about and why did you decided to cre­ate it? Also now in its 6 year what are your plans for the fly­over show in the future?

The Fly­over Show, does embody the way I like to cre­ate and stage work. Its a day-long fest­ival that takes place beneath a motor­way fly­over in Hockley — and after the amaz­ing recep­tion we got this year I’m even clear­er of what the show’s about. So many tal­en­ted artists live in Birm­ing­ham — once again in areas, cre­at­ing work the main­stream tends to ignore. People like Tre­mend­ous, Call-Me-Unique, Amerah Saleh, Trope, Jae Dot Sosa.. (the list is end­less) are con­stantly cre­at­ing ground-break­ing ideas and sounds, and just need a plat­form that endorses them — pro­pelling them to be more ambi­tious. Areas such as New­town, Hockley, Lady­wood, and Handsworth are often wil­fully neg­lected. How­ever, there are deep tra­di­tions in the com­munit­ies that have made them home — The show among many things is about refram­ing Black Brit­ish cul­ture, bey­ond the gangland ste­reo­types and cel­eb­rat­ing the best in our city.

You have trav­elled per­form­ing at many events around the world. How does per­form­ing in dif­fer­ent places affect your per­form­ance and the type of music your write?

I really enjoy get­ting to travel and try out our mater­i­al on dif­fer­ent crowds. I’ve been lucky to get to places such as Palestine, Moscow and Zim­b­ab­we — and its always massively eye-open­ing get­ting beneath the ste­reo­types we hear on the news. I think its given me a broad­er world-view — as well as con­vinced me our human sim­il­ar­it­ies vastly out­weigh the dif­fer­ences. I’ve also been sur­prised at how recept­ive people are to ‘polit­ic­al’ songs around the world. There’s a sort of media myth — that the most suc­cess­ful artists are the ones who make com­mer­cial music. Con­trary to that idea — I reck­on the audi­ence for an Immor­tal Tech­nique in Egypt, or Pub­lic Enemy in Aus­tralia even now would dwarf a Lil Wayne con­cert… The only dif­fer­ence is mar­ket­ing.

Your latest album titled Nona­gram is being released in Novem­ber. What is the con­cept of the album and what can people expect from it?

As I star­ted to describe the new album is really about heal­ing and the con­nec­tions of sound to numbers/patterns. There’s a lot of maths in art/sound and vice ver­sa — it’s some­times frus­trat­ing how we are taught to think of such rigid dis­tinc­tions between sub­jects. So I hope it’s an eye/ear open­ing exper­i­ence hear­ing the new album, and encour­ages people to look past the super­fi­cial.

Find out more about Soweto Kinch Here. 

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Arash Sharifi

Arash Sharifi

Arash has been pas­sion­ate about Hip hop for many years. He believes through hip hop you can teach, edu­cate and empower people to become bet­ter ver­sions of them­selves and help and sup­port their com­munity and oth­ers. Hip hop is more than just music, it can be a teach­er to us all.

About Arash Sharifi

Arash Sharifi
Arash has been passionate about Hip hop for many years. He believes through hip hop you can teach, educate and empower people to become better versions of themselves and help and support their community and others. Hip hop is more than just music, it can be a teacher to us all.