Soweto Kinch explains White JuJu: “it’s hard to conceive of a career until you see other people like yourself doing it”

There are musicians who are hard to define, and then there’s Soweto Kinch. Composer, saxophonist, emcee, hip-hop artist, and an Oxford University graduate to boot. Kinch has surely now created his masterpiece in White JuJu, his latest album which is a live recording taken from its premiere at the London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Hall. This orchestral jazz and hip-hop opus tackles a lot of ground, inspired by his experiences during the global Black Lives Matter protests, and his observations of British culture and society. Kinch chats to Headliner about how the music and thematic material all came together in this vast body of work…

As you might expect from one of very few Modern History degree-holding graduates from Oxford University with a foot in both the worlds of jazz and hip-hop, Kinch’s music has always been utterly unique in both his approach and its sound. 

Born in London, his family moved to Birmingham when he reached primary school age, birthing a close relationship between the young musician and ‘Britain’s second city’, where he still hosts events, including the Flyover Show beneath a major Birmingham motorway.

Upon leaving arguably the world’s top university, Kinch’s love for jazz took a firm hold on his life (meeting trumpeter Wynton Marsalis as a youth left a huge mark on him earlier), his discography kicked off with Conversations With the Unseen in 2003, earning him a Mercury Prize nomination. 

The nominations wouldn’t end there; he’s the winner of two MOBO awards, the second of which saw him up against his great inspiration Wynton Marsalis. As a jazz musician, he has many admirers, including Amy Winehouse who once stated she would love to work with him.

anyone acquainted with voodoo would imagine West African witch doctors sacrificing chickens. Well, what's the white establishment version of that?

Kinch is speaking from his home in Birmingham and is reminiscing on his early days of studying: “I’d been encouraged to not see those creative pursuits as something you study. I was just looking to get good grades and excel in my education as much as I could, and then see what I felt like doing afterwards. 

"I think it’s hard to conceive of a career until you see other people like yourself doing it. It wasn’t until I met people like Wynton Marsalis, and having people around me like Tomorrow’s Warriors, having a family around me – that gave me the hutzpah to pursue it.”

The new Soweto Kinch album follows on in a relatively linear way from his previous LP, 2019’s The Black Peril. His gargantuan latest effort, White JuJu, also delves into topics of culture, identity, society, and race, albeit massively shaped by the many events crammed into the year that was 2020.

And simply put, it’s a magnificent artistic achievement that is fully worthy of having The London Symphony Orchestra attached to, as was its premiere at the London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Center, London. 

A sprawling mixture of jazz, orchestral music, rap from Kinch himself, interspersed with soundbites from the likes of Boris Johnson, also including some dreadful racist commentary from talking heads like historian David Starkey.

The title itself is hopefully quite provocative and thought-provoking.

“The title itself is hopefully quite provocative and thought-provoking,” Kinch says. 

“There's no set answer to what White Juju is. I think that anyone who's grown up in this country, who is acquainted with witchcraft or voodoo, would imagine West African or Haitian witch doctors sacrificing chickens. Well, what's the white establishment version of that? 

"And if I flashback to current affairs news programmes when I was a kid, I remember the loud brash timpani and acerbic strings are supposed to grab your attention when programmes like Newsnight start.

“There's a piece towards the middle of White JuJu where there's a sort of military snare, and high Anglican, national anthem-esque music is played. And whether you’re rich, poor, black, white, northern or southern, you know exactly what to do when you hear that. Arch your back slightly and be on the lookout. And it’s those sorts of barmy things I wanted people to look at through a different lens.”

I thought about what I wanted to say, 100 years since the race riots in Britain – even before George Floyd was murdered.

And of course, what better time to compose 72 minutes of orchestral music than when you’re stuck at home during 2020?

“This piece began as a commission,” Kinch recalls. 

“I'd always planned to do an augmented version of The Black Peril with the London Symphony Orchestra. We performed and actually debuted it with a string quartet and hoped to augment it to a full symphonic adaptation. But given the circumstances of the lockdown, I had a radical rethink. I thought, when am I going to get the chance to be at home with so much time to write for such an incredible orchestra?

“I especially thought about what I wanted to say in that moment of 100 years since the race riots in Britain. And even before George Floyd was murdered, with increased police hostility and harassment towards black people in the UK. I felt that I needed to have an archive about what I was really thinking and feeling at that time. Because historical records can be misleading.”

If you’re completely gutted to have missed the premiere of White JuJu at The Barbican, don’t worry, because this dazzling opus is set to return to London. Kinch and The London Symphony Orchestra will form their stunning partnership once more at the brilliant events space of Printworks, in South East London. 

“There will be a lot going on! I’ll be emceeing, triggering samples and loops, playing sax. I’m looking forward to just floating in the music; sometimes emceeing, sometimes conducting, sometimes in the orchestra or soloing.”