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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