Interview \\ Shabaka Hutchings on taking up space and his account on an unjust police arrest

When Shabaka Hutchings is in the room, you feel it. The average person is quite happy to take up infinite space in the digital world; outpouring endless photos, social media updates and blog posts. We are far more conservative in our mortal realm. Walking into a room we can typically slouch our shoulders into smaller postures and reserve our most honest thoughts for our inner-monologues. To some degree, most of us are introverted, inhibited and bashful of our physical space and conversational weight, unsure of how much space we have the right to take up in the world.

And then there is Shabaka. A musician so creative and articulate that he not only heads up three globe-trotting bands but utilises his profile to speak eloquently about social issues. His presence is humble, his actions expansive, words impactful. Whether he’s critiquing the ignorance of certain awards ceremonies for The Guardian or performing a reading on his new Worldwide FM residency, he uses his spotlight to encourage conversation and progression, concerned equally with humanity as much as music. Shabaka is not afraid to own his space and expand his values unto others who are listening intently.

Shabaka is in the middle of a busy touring season with Sons Of Kemet. Before their headline performance on the EZH stage of The Great Escape Festival, he covers a lot of ground in conversation with Tina Edwards. They talk about his upcoming releases, social responsibility and unravel the recent unjust arrest of drummer Eddie Hick in Amsterdam that lead to Sons of Kemet playing a night of their tour as a trio.

\\ You’re an artist that’s not afraid to take up space; some people make themselves smaller and compromise themselves, but you humbly overcome that social phenomenon. Where does the confidence to be a large presence come from? 

There’s a lot of different aspects to it. One is that – on just a purely musical level, something I was thinking about for many years – is big stage playing versus small stage playing; you can be doing for instance jazz gigs – really amazing gigs – that are very satisfying on small stages. The way that you play or you hold yourself – the aura around what you do – is a certain thing. It doesn’t need to fill up a big space because it’s about the music itself; the power of acoustically what’s happening on that stage. Whereas when you start playing bigger stages – where there’s a massive gap between you and the audience and it’s not so much about how that acoustic vibe is translated to people that can just hear the sound – you have to get your vibe and push it across into the back of a crowd. How that’s done in practical terms is not even clear to me.

You’ve just gotta rev up the amount of vibe that you have. That doesn’t necessarily mean being more energetic; whatever thing that is trying to be created on stage – atmosphere or attitude – just has to be amplified. It can’t be a case of you’re politely trying to perform music. It’s one of the things I’ve learnt in doing so much touring; there’s no politeness about it, there’s’ no half-stepping into just playing the music and then getting your cheque and going home.

” A lot of the right wing’s thought processes aren’t taken to their logical conclusion but they don’t care… they just get them out there”

You’ve got to be committed to really going into whatever your performing. That’s what makes it easy to perform in various different bands;  it’s like I’ve got to really be focused on going hard on whatever the vibe is. You’ve got to go hard on going soft. In terms of politically, we’re in a time where – for lack of a better word, the forces of evil, the forces of ignorance or just stupidity are very vocal, and they take up a lot of space… in public, in general.


\\ Do musicians carry responsibility when it comes to social issues?

It should be the mission or obligation for everyone who has some degree of visibility or who has the ears of the public in general – even if it’s a ‘small public’ relatively speaking – should feel the obligation to fill that space with whatever they’re thinking… even if what they’re thinking isn’t completely finished. And this is thing with the right wing. A lot of the right wing’s thought processes aren’t taken to their logical conclusion but they don’t care… they just get them out there. The amount of stuff they put out there creates this whole narrative. Whereas left wing politics has to be justified and it has to be perfectly formed so that all the arguments make complete sense. Sometimes there’s no time for that. Sometimes, it’s just about counterbalancing the amount of bullshit that’s being put out there.

If you have something to say, it’s about not being afraid to say it. If you’ve got nothing to say – if you just play really good music and you don’t have much opinion on what’s happening on the world then for me it’s a matter of trying to do some reading and forming an opinion on something. As opposed to doing it the other way around of just trying to find something to say.

\\ Tell me about the first time that you realised your clarinet or saxophone could be used as not just a musical instrument but as a tool for communication. 

Sometimes my clarinet or saxophone is just an instrument, you know. And sometimes I do feel like the music is maybe opening a space for people to feel different things, like respond to the stimuli that they might leave the concert venue in a different way. I can see it happening more in the last couple of years. Sometimes it goes in phases where sometimes I feel like we are just outside of maybe what we actually say politically, outside of the concerts, sometimes we perform music and we try to make the best music that we can. Sometimes when the situation is right and the crowd is with us, then sometimes we transcend it and you open up the space for other messages that are beyond our actual cognitive appreciation.

\\ I saw on your Instagram account that Sons of Kemet had to perform as a trio in Amsterdam recently after Eddie Hick was arrested. Are you happy to shed light on what happened?

It’s the kind of situation that you hear about happening in the US a lot now where the police get called to a situation and over-react. Eddie had a disagreement about a receipt where he thought a transaction for a two euro coffee didn’t go through so he asked for a receipt and she said “I’m not going to give you a receipt”. That carried on and the line was forming.

The woman who was serving said “you can come around to the till and take a picture”. The manager who was stood in the corner was getting infuriated that Eddie was in someway causing a nuisance by asking for a receipt – he decided to come across the till and try to push Eddie – even though he’d been invited to come behind – and soon as he did that he said “I’m calling the police”.

“They took [Eddie] off to the jail – they didn’t tell us where he was for about two hours”

Five police walked in – he’d already called the police already – so once the police come in, they come in to stop criminal activity. They don’t ask questions. They come in on the offensive. They try to wrestle Eddie to the ground. Eddie’s saying “I just wanna take a picture of the till, I’ve been told that I could”. As soon as [Eddie] takes his phone out they get really aggressive saying “you can’t film us, put away your phone”. They wrestle him to the ground, start kicking him, then about ten police turn up and anyone that tries to explain the situation they start beating off – they threw Tom Skinner to the ground. They were kicking our gear out of the way. Acting in quite a violent way.

They took [Eddie] off to the jail – they didn’t tell us where he was for about two hours – they told us he was in a different police station than what they actually took him to and tried to charge him for assisting arrest. It’s crazy. There were five police pushing their shoes into his back. Something that happened so quickly… because the manager decided that instead of talking to Eddie or trying to find a solution to the situation, they just call the police on him. They turn up, and they just see a rasta guy who’s a troublemaker so they immediately go into violent mode.

[Eddie’s] got a court case coming up. It shows you how easy it is to be criminalised within a society; there are sectors of the society including people of colour who deal with the police on these terms all the time. It makes you realise how easy it can be because of certain stigmas or ways that people are perceived – how easy criminality can be just lumped onto people.

\\ What message or action points would you like to send out to people? How can your fans, our friends, families help to move these situations forward? 

It’s easy to forget that actually the police work for civil society. In some ways they are our employees. Obviously they’re not when they’re assaulting us or beating us up but in essence – anyone has the right to walk to a policeman and ask, “what’s happening?”. It’s easy sometimes to view a situation where the police are carrying out their duties – it’s easy in some ways to assume they’re always on the good side. Sometimes they are and sometimes it’s a case where injustices are being carried out and it might be a matter of filming it. It might be a matter of making it known that there is someone there that is interested in what is happening within the right processes of the law in that you can’t obstruct what’s happening but you can just say like “I’m not prepared to just carry on like nothing is happening”.

There was a line of people behind us and there were a couple of people who saw what was happening and were outraged. They took videos and they got in touch and said “if there’s anything we can do we’ll support you with witness statements”.

\\ It’s great there there were people there who had your back and are supporting Sons of Kemet through the injustice. Looking ahead, creatively, where you at the moment?

We’ve nearly finished the new The Comet Is Coming album, we’re just working on track listing and names. We’ve got enough music for over two albums. So we’re trying to narrow it down into one. [Releasing] a double album is one of the conversations we’re having at the moment and one we’re going backwards and forwards on. Typical concerns I’m having is that if you have double vinyl, you could be carrying double the amount of merchandise on tour. We’re not at that stage where we have someone else to carry it for us, so when you see merchandise at a gig on a run of five dates, it means that Shabaka Hutchings lifted a bag of merchandise onto the tube. Things like that are boring but practical concerns.

Other than that, I recorded half of the new Shabaka and the Ancestors album in South Africa in February. We’re gonna start mixing it next month and I’m gonna go back later in the year to record the next half. We’ve started writing a new Sons of Kemet album which we’re gonna record within the next year as well.

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Sons of Kemet play the EZH stage at Patterns on 19 May as part of The Great Escape

EZH | Tina Edwards