Ahead of his performance as part of the Borderless series, I recently spoke to MC, alto-saxophonist, and all round prodigy Soweto Kinch about his most recent work, his preoccupation with concept albums, the historical relationship between hip-hop and jazz, and political music.


Well done on the success of Nonagram, what were the ideas behind it?

Well it started initially from want for exploration, getting excited about how I could adapt geometric shapes and create sounds out of principles like sacred geometry. I started to chance upon things that fascinated me in solitary, and then I started to think more broadly about that fits into everything that's happening now, in politics, and division, and I thought it'd be important to explore music in ways music can bring people together in ways that don't involve any of that division, and encouraging people to expand their consciousness as well as enjoying the music at the same time. It's also maybe how mainstream music manipulates earworms to get inside our head, and I was interested in and inspired to do the same thing from jazz sensibilities, to create earworms that enhance our consciousness and bring us closer together.

I can see that, a few of the tracks that articulate that - at least from my perspective - are 'Waved' and 'Soul Bearings' and 'King David's Lyre', these embody that earworm feel. So is there any different area within the album itself, in terms of geometric shapes, is there any significance to the number nine as in "nonagram" or is it a purely symbolic gesture alluding to geometry's subjective?

No not at all, to help you understand it, it's about the Nonagram as an idea of a wheel, by the end - if you were to explore the angles building up all sides; from a triangle to a square, to a hexagon, all the way up to a nonagram, you find all those numbers are contained within nine, and you see a wheel of increasing complexity, and that's what I wanted people to feel. I'm also working with somebody at Southampton University to create images that carry with these sounds, which will hopefully help people understand the geometry of the sounds themselves and the composition process.

Going back to your formative years, what generally came first; your affinity for hip hop or jazz?

It's really hard to pick. I grew up steeped in the new burgeoning hip hop culture, loving Run DMC and Big Daddy Kane, and when I became interesting MCing was around the age of thirteen when I was inspired by Onyx, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul; and a lot of these groups were starting to sample jazz at the same time. And it was around that time I went to visit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with my dad, and his play [Soweto's dad, Don Kinch, is a playwright, perhaps most famous for establishing Staunch Poets & Players in London] and he had two jazz musicians in the car with him, and I really got the jazz bug around the same time. It's the coming together of things which helped shape my identity, and I was always compelled by jazz - trawling through old record stores for jazz vinyl - and I think it was the same break, rap junkie producer way where they'd get fascinated by old jazz records and find the ways to carry my skills as a saxophone player and my skills as an MC.

As you've probably noticed there's an increasing intersectionality between hip hop and jazz in achieving mainstream success the past few years, conspicuously in albums from Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus; what do you think of their meshing of genres together to create something new?

It's beautiful. In the sense it's new but it's nothing new. I started combining MCing with soft jazz around 2002/03, and before that I was very influenced by Steve Williamson and his album Journey To The Truth, and The Roots were also seminal in blending hip-hop and jazz; and if you really want to get into it, you have Don Redman and The Last Poets, there were plenty of antecedents for MCing as we know it. For me, it's all about being authentic in what I do. I didn't want to be a guy who bends his cap backwards and tries to reach out to the kids. I needed to know why MC history to freestyle and battle, to feel rounded as an MC, and authentic. The same is true for me as a jazz musician. People use the term "MC" with irreverence, without realising the tradition and history of language which goes into the idiom of jazz as well as feeling authentic as an improviser.

You're obviously incredibly well-informed on this subject, why do you think it is that hip-hop and jazz play off each other so well; as opposed to hip hop and rock, or jazz and rock?

There's two kinds of sides to that. Some of our modern obsession with genre makes it difficult to see how they can coexist. And I guess it has capitalistic origins; how do we package this and sell it to an audience, and make it work; whereas musicians and artists don't deal with that, they only deal in what they can hear. So in that way, there's plenty of good hip hop/rock collaborations, fusions, whether or not it takes off as a genre depends on market forces. The second part is that they're good bedfellows is their common origin. When you're dealing with music of the African diaspora; jazz, blues - reggae as well, music of the West Indian diaspora - had a profound impact on hip-hop. DJ Kool Herc and the Toasting Culture informed hip-hop in New York. So I don't like to draw too many demarcated lines between the canon of hip hop and jazz, I delve into a long history and tradition that extends back into the 19th century back in Africa., in which case if you're talking syncopation I get a lot of inspiration from the very early composers like Scott Joplin.

You've touched on it tangentially, but you enjoy infusing your music with metaphysical and political substance, imbuing sound with theme, what is it that attracts you in using music as a form of expression, whether that politically, or tackling existential or nihilistic concerns?

I think partly my background with my family being artists, particularly my father being a playwright, I can see how art reflects the political and can be informative in the way people see themselves in performance. I can also say the way I create in general affects me profoundly. It makes me laugh, chuckle, move to anger; I feel music is the best way to express way. Sometimes I feel lyrics are a good, specific way of expression, and sometimes music can be more impressionistic and letting people draw their own conclusions. But a lot of these things are at the core of being moved in some way, at the political. It's time to get fired up. People are getting hyped about Kendrick Lamar because Good Kid M.A.A.D. City dropped, he started going in about police brutality, and being alright ['Alright' the track from To Pimp A Butterfly which became one of the anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement], and I think art has to engage with the real world. And that involves love, loss of love, money, but also politics at this time.

We heathen music journos are guilty of projecting political meaning onto works of art that might not necessarily demand it. You consider Tribe's album from last year, Phife Dawg shouting out 'The Donald' and that kind of thing. In terms of applying political meaning to albums which could be released years before but seem so prescient now, is there meaning there?

It's possible to apply that to all sorts of albums. It was only watching Straight Outta Compton last year, that I realised the political context of it all, that the music wasn't divorced from it. As much as that album was coarse and the birth of gangsta rap it was also very political. Of course 'Fight The Power' and Public Enemy, and that movement were contemporaries. When something's political the album are most tuned into something the audience most wants to hear. Even the battle rap tracks, the diss tracks, that I've heard, I enjoy that they say all the things that the fan or critic is thinking. So the ability of hip hop to galvanise popular sentiment and to condense it into politically charged phrases is a draw for me.

Yeh I completely agree. We'll have to see whether the Lib Dems manage to galvanise Mumford & Sons to write an album about EU membership though.

Haha yeh, and I guess it frames how you see politics as well, or action in politics, your window into it is the parliamentary process and the parties we see. But the MC in me is saying "who are the lobbyists" or "who are the real influencers", and are they colluding in the political corruption we see around us. It's important to speak from the perspective of the left behind, both those who disagree with Brexit and agree with Brexit need representation in art.

There's quite a few characters in the US who offer those voices in the mainstream - A Tribe, Kendrick, Vince Staples - do you think there's anyone in the UK mainstream who's been prominent or explicit in laying down a manifesto or mandate for the disillusioned?

Sporadically a lot of people have actually, not to mention low key. There's Akala, Plan B, they've all touched hugely on things that affect the working classes, and everyone in Britain, together. And to look at the wider action of Britain from a wider perspective. And much like Corbyn, they've been vilified as an enviable alternative, that they should just focus on selling lots of records. They're not "strong leaders" to carry the analogy further. I think there's a more anti-establishment leaning within hip-hop, but again that returns to the authenticity inherent in the genre and for jazz as well. Trotting out the party line is anathema. These statements that we make are personal. In that way, it's no surprise that many artists support Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. Hip hop to me isn't just the bars and the production presenting yourself authentically, confidently and articulately. Theresa May backing out of TV debates is all the more un-hip-hop and inauthentic. That to me is a battle; you get your bars ready, your stylist ready, and trounce your political opponent. The fact that she's not, speaks volumes.

Bit of a Segway away from the political. How's your Jazz Now programme on BBC Three going? I listened to a few episodes and found it utterly fascinating.

The show is built around giving listeners an insight into the process of building the music. A lot of people who aren't jazz acolytes, it can sound excluding or opaque. But allowing you access into the mind of a jazz composer gives you a completely different take on it. Moreover, you can infer a lot from the title. We are looking at the shape of the movement and music now, as much as we love to discuss jazz history, and how much that history informs the present, we're looking at how that history inspires new artists, new takes, new movements around that inspiration. What I've enjoyed is that it's a broad church, where I can discuss the Branford Jazz Festival one episode and then speak to Scandinavian musicians the next, and also with older musicians like Peter Erskine. The idea that generations of musicians are in flux is something that makes jazz quite unique.

What does the Borderless Series offer to artists looking to perform their work - often quite experimental or innovative - to an audience of various demographics, ages and backgrounds?

They're very useful in giving us a platform to share what we have to say with honesty and integrity, and that may confound people with preconceptions of what jazz is, what's underground and what's overground, what's affecting and moving you, what you'll remember in ten years time. It's about creating those experiences, rather than to chart. I mean charting would be nice! But it's mostly about having that platform to create art that leaves a lasting impression.

Soweto Kinch is performing at the Battersea Arts Centre as part of the Borderless series on Wednesday 10th May. For more information on the series, and to buy tickets, head here.