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The New Cool: Sons of Kemet balance rage and healing, future and past

Cover artwork by Mzwandile Buthelezi
Sons of Kemet's new album Black to the Future was released last week.

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings returns with a fantastic new album with his band Sons of Kemet and continues to live up to the building hype around this young English modern jazz star. Their just-released fourth album, in the wake of the death of George Floyd and ensuing protests, furthers the band's mission of harnessing anger, acknowledging sorrow, expressing joy and committing to a future better than the past.

The new Black to the Future album is a balancing act. Hutchings continues his forward-thinking examination of centuries of African history, blending new cultures with tradition. Now, Sons of Kemet balance anger and love, inspired by more recent history. Anger and frustration over the recurring deaths of Black people at the hands of police along with the global Black Lives Matter movement power the album's musical intensity.

Joined by tuba player Theon Cross, drummer Tom Skinner and percussionist Edward Wakili-Hick, Hutchings is the melodic lead of the quartet. Sons of Kemet's rhythmic canvas shapes the saxophone and flute lines, drawing from hip-hop and traditional pan-African beats Hutchings grew up hearing in Barbados.

Vocalists are a bigger part of the Sons of Kemet sound than ever before. Rapper Kojey Radical fronts the single "Hustle," also featuring singer Lianne La Havas. Angel Bat Dawid, Moor Mother, D Double E lend a variety of vocal styles to the first half of the album, bookended by features for British-Nigerian poet Joshua Idehen.

The lyrics bring the political edge of Black to the Future to the fore. Idehen asks, "How can we expect the dungeon keeper to make the rules and play fair?" in lead track "Field Negus." Radical's repeated line on "Hustle" points to the protracted struggle of people of African heritage in England, America and around the world. "I was born from the mud with the hustle inside me," he exclaims.

American saxophonist Kebbi Williams joins in for Black to the Future's longest song, "Envision Yourself Levitating." The exploration of both reed players twists around changing rhythms, reaching for hope and finding a sort of musical triumph.

Credit Udoma Janssen
Sons of Kemet (from left): Edward Wakili-Hick, Tom Skinner, Theon Cross and Shabaka Hutchings

More expressions of healing come through on Sons of Kemet's "To Never Forget the Source." Hutchings says he's referring to "the principles which govern traditional African cosmologies/ontological outlooks symbolizing the inner journey. It is the unifying factor that gives meaning both to looking backwards (in nuancing and continually adding depth of contextualization and meaning to the past) and visioning forward (in speculating and striving to realize a better future for humanity).”

Shabaka Hutchings is a busy musician, having appeared on 10 albums in 2020, including We Are Sent Here By Historyfrom his group Shabaka and the Ancestors. He's also been a special guest on three releases already this year, and with the new Sons of Kemet album, Hutchings continues to impress.

The New Cool airs Fridays from 9 to 11 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.