Soweto Kinch is a British MC and saxophonist whose mastery of words is as impressive as his wizardry with octave clefs. His innovative musical style has brought the genre of hip hop infused Jazz firmly into the mainstream. It has also won Kinch several awards including MOBO’s Best Jazz Act and BBC Radio Jazz’s Best Instrumentalist. Having grown up in a theatrical family the rapper has a keen appreciation of music’s capacity as a narrator which he has put into practice with The Legend of Mike Smith. Using the tracks from his 2013 album of the same name, Kinch has written a full length piece of dramaturgy exploring the seven deadly sins in modern society. As we discuss musical genres, western morality and ecclesiastical anomalies I find Kinch friendly, witty and remarkably intelligent with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the subjects raised. If my 20 minute interview with this musician/writer is anything to go by The Legend of Mike Smith will be fascinating, humorous and educational.
How would you describe The Legend of Mike Smith?
I sat down with Jonzi D and discussed it from an almost surgical point of view. So what you’re seeing and hearing will be a culmination of about four years of discussions and writing.
It’s an exploration of the seven deadly sins in the modern context. It also follows the travails of one young character, Mike Smith as he’s attempting to get signed by a major record label and curtail his normal style to see what he thinks they will find successful or appealing. So he straddles a lot of different worlds. Personal temptations, temptations of commercialism; I guess the normal barriers that a young person, especially a black artist might face.
As a musician yourself, is this piece at all autobiographical?
I think there’s a lot that’s autobiographical in it. I’ve drawn on my personal experiences in writing the songs and I wanted it to have an honest connection. Particularly with the seven deadly sins, so not pontificating like ‘I’m a holier than thou righteous artist’ but to say ‘This is what it’s like to be personally tempted on a daily basis.’ But I think why it’s not autobiographical is because of where Mike Smith is in his career. The lure of being a major artist and being young and inexperienced and without having any kind of recognition is a different position to the one I am in.
Soweto Kinch The Legend of Mike Smith
How did you develop a stage show from a musical album?
I conceived this as something in which the narrative would have a life beyond the album. Most of my albums prior to it have had a strong narrative quality, because themes and narrative has always been a great way to blend what people consider different musical styles. In this sense I wanted to take that a stage further; even before the album was recorded I sat down with Jonzi D and discussed it from an almost surgical point of view “Would this actually happen? Would this rapper use the microphone in this way?” So what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing will be a culmination of about four years of discussions and writing and having thematic materials and sculpting songs and scripts towards it. The thing that’s most exciting for me is that this is not easily definable as a hip hop theatre piece or a Jazz concert with some scenes attached. People are finding it hard to classify, but are just excited by the work which for me is gratifying.
How would you classify it?
I wouldn’t! (Laughs.) Which is just me being facetious; I like the idea of people not knowing what to call it at this point. I’m a committed MC and there’s a lot of word play and stuff, which I think people that are engrossed in the hip hop scene and battle culture and innuendo will get. I’m also a Jazz musician so there’s a language to those art forms that I’m aware of and I’m imbibing that within the thematic conventions. I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have had the upbringing I’ve had. My father is a playwright and producer, my mum’s an actor and my partner’s an actor so I’ve grown up in the theatrical world. In some sense this is the natural progression of what I’ve been doing, but also I’m trying to do something different; knowing the rules to break them as it were.
The choreography for this production has been developed by Jonzi D who you’ve worked with before. How far back does your relationship go?
Yes, Jonzi is choreographing and directing the show. I met him when I was called in to work on Aeroplane Man back in 2000 and then we worked a lot more closely on his piece Markus the Sadist so yeah, we’ve grown together in understanding each other’s vision and ways of working. This was gratifying that he understands my vision and the message I want to put across; and he’s seen the evolution of the storytelling and knows what bits to take out and what bits to leave in (Laughs.)
Soweto Kinch The Legend of Mike Smith [ L-R Soweto, Ricardo, Tyrone]
Which of the seven deadly sins do you personally find the most difficult to resist?
Well in researching the piece; going back into Faust and Dante’s Inferno and thinking about the subject material I had to contextualise sin then and sin now. I had to look at what is attractive about sin in our contemporary culture. There’s something inherently seductive about each of the sins; ‘Greed is good’ or ‘Sex sells.’
Legend of Mike Smith will turn on its head people’s assumptions about urban culture, about hip hop and jazz and about what the power of theatre can be.
All these modern mantras that make sin so ubiquitous so it’s hard to pick any one that’s particularly tempting for me. It’s hard if I’m honest to not be affected by all of them. That was a big vantage point for me, rather than saying ‘Sin is bad; stop sinning kids’ it’s a different framework to point out that these are natural impulses but over time influential elites have effected guilt to coerce us. Manipulate us to buy things or to vote for a particular party, so I had to question all of these things.
Having written a play exploring a concept from the Bible has religion been a big part of your life?
Two points. Religion, or rather faith has been a massive part of inspiring me in my music and getting my chops together, but the seven deadly sins is nowhere in the bible. (At this point, the journalist turns very red and wishes she had paid more attention in Sunday school.) It was developed by a 4th century monk called Evagrius Ponticus and was then taken up with gusto by Pope Gregory some four hundred years later. This was a big discovery for me actually. Jesus himself only mentions the devil once, and then he’s only mentioned a few times in the Old Testament so it’s a modern fascination with sin and dare I say it, a western fascination with sin. So I found that fascinating. What’s the purpose of sin? What’s the purpose of guilt? What’s purpose of all these florid paintings and depictions of various demons? Given that in our modern culture were increasingly secular, sin is playing even more of a role. Status envy with seeing celebrities living glorious lives, greed or gluttony. Consumption; even in the midst of a recession there’s a new shopping centre opening every other week. We are almost oblivious to how powerful sin is in the modern era because we’re still thinking of it in religious terms when it’s totally evolved from that. In a sense a religious framework has been helpful to me in terms of personal identity and being inspired to create but in the other sense we have to scrutinise.
As a musical novice I think of jazz and hip hop as separate. How do the two genres overlap?
They’re similar and I’ve been a practitioner of bringing them together for 15 years and this question has never got old (Laughs.) But from the first album where I put jazz and hip hop together in around 2000, people have always seemed perplexed. The point at which that I got into jazz, it was commonplace for hip hop artists to be sampling jazz musicians. So groups like De La Soul and The Pharcyde were sampling Gary Bartz and Miles Davis; Ron Carter was on the cover of A Tribe Called Quest album.
Come and see my show. It will revolutionise your life.
What you’re dealing with is a longer continuum of black music and musical expression. Both forms of art have been tremendously important. The reason why it’s so perplexing for people has me scratching my head and leaves me wondering if it’s more to do with perception. You hear jazz and think of goatees and berets and 40-something guys in a smoky bar looking esoteric whereas hip hop is all about guns and calling women bitches. Actually if you’re aficionados of the culture then you realise these are just stereotypes which have been constructed to take away the revolutionary power from each of these art forms.
The Legend of Mike Smith
You studied Modern History at Oxford rather than music. When did you become interested in music and making it your career?
Well, it was a passion from when I was a child. I started playing the clarinet at seven, my grandma paid for organ lessons so I was playing a bit of piano when I was five or six. It wasn’t until I was nine and saw a saxophone player at a cultural centre in Wandsworth that the penny dropped and the love affair with the saxophone started. I went along to see Wynton Marsalis at 13 and the passion was further developed, so without even realising that it would turn into a ‘career’ the love for the music and the art developed. I think anybody who goes into Music College still has to have had this connection with the art form that inspired them to want to study it so even though I haven't had formal education in music I certainly spent a long time studying. Going to masters of the music and getting information, getting books or publications or online materials. There’s never been a better time to be a Jazz student because there are so many resources available to you; it’s now about the culture so it doesn’t remain academic.
Why should people come and see this show?
Because I believe it will turn on its head people’s assumptions about urban culture, about hip hop and jazz and about what the power of theatre can be. That’s the articulate answer. Soundbite version is “Come and see my show. It will revolutionise your life!” (Laughs.)
Info: The Legend of Mike Smith is at The Albany Theatre from 1 to 5 October 2013