Sons of Kemet’s “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman” Is Fiery Jazz for Dance Music Fans
Sons of Kemet is a quartet led by Bajan-British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, one of the leading lights of London’s resurgent contemporary jazz scene. He surrounds himself with an unorthodox lineup—two drummers and a tuba player—and draws heavily from the rolling polyrhythms of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, both in his hometown and across the ocean. New jazz can be a daunting prospect for casual fans, and though Sons of Kemet have a pedigree that winds through the genre’s headier corners, they are also keenly attuned to the power of dance music. “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman,” an advance single from the Sons’ forthcoming third album Your Queen Is a Reptile, is an ideal introduction to their sound for those who haven’t been following thus far: all communal groove and fiery purpose, the kind of jazz record you could contemplate in headphones or throw on at a raucous block party without killing the vibe.
“My Queen Is Harriet Tubman” opens with a flurry of percussion that does not abate for the next five minutes, a dazzling indicator of Sons of Kemet’s musical loyalties, which lie with rhythm above all else. The white-knuckled drumming contains traces of Trinidadian soca, Jamaican dancehall, London grime, New Orleans second line bands—channeling a multi-continental and -generational legacy that has survived in the face of oppression across the globe. (The name-checking of an abolitionist hero in the track’s title does not feel at all arbitrary.) Tuba player Theon Cross fills the low-end role that a bassist might occupy in a more conventional band, and Hutchings darts and weaves to fill the rhythmic cracks. “I’m not trying to be Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, I’m trying to be someone like Capleton or Anthony B or Sizzla,” he has said of his approach, which also involves practicing along to Notorious B.I.G. records.
Sons of Kemet are so successful in part because they treat figures like Rollins and Biggie with equal reverence. They see the elements of reggae and hip-hop for their musical possibility, rather than as shallow aesthetic signifiers, steering entirely clear of the simplistic trumpet-plus-turntable sort of formulas that have seduced even jazz’s greatest luminaries. As “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman” enters it second half, Hutchins zeroes in on a single repeated low note, sounding very much like a DJ taking to the microphone to shout encouragement at a frothed-up crowd. The thrilling simplicity of this gesture also points to yet another unexpected lodestar: James Brown, whose unstoppable rhythms helped bring us hip-hop in the first place. Sons of Kemet have learned well from one of the funk godfather’s greatest teachings: horn, human voice, it doesn’t matter—every instrument can be a drum.