Cassie Kinoshi interview: 'I feel like, in Britain, we don’t like to acknowledge the problems we have'

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The 2019 Mercury Prize nominee Cassie Kinoshi and her SEED Ensemble take the wild sci-fi writings of Samuel R. Delaney as the foundation for their debut statement, Driftglass. Kinoshi spoke with Nick Hasted about the impact of Afro-futurism, poetry and protest on her music

'The Darkies’ is the ballsiest song-title imaginable for our regressive and fractured times. When Cassie Kinoshi announced it during her SEED Ensemble’s appearance at Brighton’s Jazz Re:fest festival last year, where countervailing forces of inclusivity blissfully dominated, I had to laugh. Now released as part of the SEED Ensemble’s debut, Driftglass, ‘The Darkies’ shocks with its directness like a splash of cold water to the face, even as it asks how such an archaic term of abuse can sound so natural in 2019. With another track, ‘Wake (For Grenfell)’, recalling a shameful yet already fading cataclysm, awareness of race and history permeates Kinoshi’s music.

The 25-year-old alto player was first heard by many in Nérija, the septet which won the Best Newcomer Parliamentary Jazz Award in 2017, and with members also including tenor Nubya Garcia, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, guitarist Shirley Tetteh and trombonist Rosie Turton, is proving a launch-pad for a generation of female jazz talent.


This is my way of trying to start a conversation

Cassie Kinoshi

Kinoshi is just back from a rare holiday when we meet in a London cafe near Broadcasting House, straight after a BBC session. Before that, she toured Brazil with Maurice-Grey’s gorgeous Afro-beat band Kokoroko, part of what she calls a mutually supportive “family” of linked but distinct young players: Maurice-Grey and Tetteh also play in the SEED Ensemble, alongside other key, close musicians such as Ezra Collective keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones and Sons of Kemet’s tuba player Theon Cross. A BBC Young Composer of the Year nominee in 2012, having studied classical composition at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire, Kinoshi continues to have parallel success in the classical and musical theatre fields. But Driftglass is her most complete statement to date, combining Afro-futurism, poetry and protest in a century-spanning jazz suite.

The album is named after a short story by Samuel R. Delany, a gay African-American science-fiction writer whose poetic outsider perspective has been hugely influential, and is reflected in the track ‘Afronaut’, in which poet Xana imagines “that the top floor of the estates are high enough to break into space”. “I love how open-minded he is,” Kinoshi says of the sexually polymorphous Delany. “I’ve almost finished reading his autobiography [The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science-fiction Writing in the East Village], and reading about how he thinks, I want to be like that. Reading him as a black person in science-fiction was also really inspiring.” This Afro-futurist perspective, which also permeates music from Sun Ra to hip-hop and has now been popularised by the Marvel film Black Panther, is often seen as an escape into a different, dreamed reality, in the face of a racially unjust world. Kinoshi’s thoughts on it are, though, appealingly modest.

“Afro-futurism is something I’m learning about still,” she says, “through Sun Ra, and reading. I like science-fiction, that nerdy world. That’s the angle I came in from. And the political side came afterwards.” Kinoshi is more forthright on the historical and racial underpinning of Driftglass songs such as ‘The Darkies’. “I wanted it to convey a minstrel-like character,” she says. “And it quotes Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ [1908], so with something that stupid-sounding and the song’s title, you think, ‘What?’”

‘Wake’ reaches back to the Harlem Renaissance for its Grenfell elegy, quoting Langston Hughes: “Tell all my mourners to mourn in red, ’cause there ain’t no sense in my being dead”. “I love Langton Hughes’ poetry,” Kinoshi explains, “and I saw that poem and I instantly heard a melody, and I instantly connected it to Grenfell Tower. Mainly because of the line, ‘there isn’t any sense in us being dead’. Because it could have been prevented simply by applying more resources to the area. It highlighted the classism that exists in our country still. The disconnect, or blind eye [from the consequences of socially callous policies]. I thought, I have to write this – to express how I feel about what happened, and to remember what happened. I wanted it to feel heavy, stodgy, slow, as if you’re overwhelmed by a combination of sadness and anger. I liked how the musicians let themselves go with a crazy sort of anger.”

What was Kinoshi’s immediate response on hearing about Grenfell? “I was very sad,” she says. “And it was hearing about the political side of things that made me angry. It was how it was dealt with in the media, and by the higher-ups in that borough. I was sad that that can happen in this day and age, and that afterwards people still cannot have sympathy with people who were involved in it, because of classism and racism. And there was a very British attitude of sweeping it under the carpet.” Kinoshi would like Driftglass to combat such ignorance and indifference. “I make a point when we play live to explain the compositions I write that are political. I feel like, in Britain, we don’t like to acknowledge the problems we have. Our history is very complex, and has very dark moments. I studied History A-level, and the British Empire wasn’t in my curriculum at all. So this is my way of trying to start a conversation.”

Kinoshi also forthrightly backs Soweto Kinch’s stand against jazz’s own racial blind-spots in his recent BBC4 documentary, Jazzology. Ever since Scandinavia’s declaration of artistic independence from American jazz, and the music’s subsequent establishment in conservatoires in the 1980s, we have become used to cool European takes on a deracinated music. Kinch and Kinoshi take issue with an unintended side-effect: the forgetting of jazz’s black origins.

“I agree with everything Soweto says!” Kinoshi laughs. “It’s removing the historical context of jazz, getting rid of where it came from and why it exists. Conservatoires teach jazz in the same way as classical music, without the emotion that comes with why it sounds like it does. That removes the blackness of it. And also in Britain it’s presented often as an upper-class genre, where people sip cocktails and wear a tux. That removes the whole idea of jazz being a community genre for everyone. You have to acknowledge the history of the greats, John Coltrane and Miles, Duke Ellington – and they’re talking about that struggle that comes with the music. If you throw that out, it’s a completely different genre.”

Does Kinoshi think that the lack of black faces at jazz gigs till very recently reflects something that was missing from the music?

“Yeah, I think so,” she considers. “Jazz has always been about communication, of shared experience and emotion. So, when you concentrate on the virtuosity they teach in the conservatoires and remove the community with other people, that makes it a very cold thing. It’s the classical approach, when jazz has come from dance. It’s got ‘refined’. I’ve seen it change mainly through Tomorrow’s Warriors. They’ve always tried to make sure that it’s a community thing that includes men and women and all races, and that it retains that blackness in the music as well. And lots of my peers, like Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia, and promoters like Total Refreshment Centre, make sure they maintain that dance movement and energy in the music, which has brought people back. Also the genre’s evolved to include a lot of the music that we listen to. Now it includes a lot of grime and Afro-beat.”

Perhaps it all comes back to history again. Where Courtney Pine’s generation were made distinct by Afro-Caribbean dub and reggae influences, Kinoshi’s new British jazz generation again reflects Britain’s cultural shifts. “The politics and the history of the country has shaped the sound,” Kinoshi agrees. “Who has come into the country, and what’s popular at the time, has always seeped into jazz.”

Kinoshi’s own roots lie in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, where she was raised by hugely supportive parents, who played jazz, gospel, Afro-beat, rock and musicals around the home. “Welwyn Garden City is 20 minutes from Finsbury Park, but it’s a different world,” she says. “Very green. Trees and woods. I felt a bit cut-off, because I didn’t go into the city much when I was a teenager. Growing up in a small town in Hertfordshire, in a minority in a very white area as well, I decided that moving to London was going to be a changing point. If you come to London and you don’t change, you’re walking around in blindness. I was very shy when I came. But when I was 17 I thought, when I go to Trinity, I want to become more confident, and involved creatively. It is a place where you can decide to be a particular person.”

The Delany story which Driftglass is named after describes its titular material shifting in colour and quality as it moves in tidal water. This made Kinoshi think of improvisation. Does that defining jazz practise then connect to the concepts of migration and mutability in Delany’s story?

“I think so,” she considers. “It’s the growth of a person over time, and how you change and present yourself. Jazz is a genre which constantly grows and absorbs new things, just like people do. And improvisation is a very pure form of expression for that journey. If you look at how someone expresses themselves at the beginning of their musical career, it changes. Yeah, it is related.”

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