Political Songs | Punching into the zeitgeist

Kamasi Washington’s jazz is a salve for the political animal’s soul.

On the morning of Friday 31 March 2017 I had an enormous Jacob Zuma-induced hangover as I was stumbling around the labyrinthine Cape Town Convention Centre to collect my press pass for that evening’s Cape Town jazz festival. A few hours earlier, I had been dosing myself with whisky in front of the television as a rampant Zuma was firing a number of cabinet ministers in a late-night reshuffle.

“Where’s the media centre?” I asked everyone at the convention centre. Finally someone told me. As I was traipsing out, I heard faint music.

I stopped, strained my ears and found the source. I pushed open an unmarked door, passed a backstage, around a corner and before me was American Afro-futurist saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington and his amazing eight-piece band on stage doing their soundcheck for that evening’s concert. But it was more than a soundcheck. It was a full-on two-hour-long rehearsal, and there’s an audience of one: me, a gasping, entranced, mesmerised, groupie in the cavernous hall.

That evening, I was back at the same hall, this time surrounded by fellow jazz disciples. Washington and his band were bathed in volcano-red lighting, their soundscapes flowing over us like molten lava. While the music is mostly instrumental, it’s political – sometimes you don’t need words to express yourself. At the end of the exhilarating performance, Zuma was but a faint “he, he, he” in my mind.

But jazz is not only a salve in our distressing world. Washington is a deeply committed artist. He gained prominence beyond jazz as one of the main instrumentalists on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), an album considered the soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Washington is the jazz voice of the movement – his ecstatic, angry, delirious jazz is important. Jazz matters when, as jazz critic John Fordham wrote in his book The Knowledge, it sounds like life, as it is “lived and improvised from moment to moment: imperfect declarations of wonderment or love, fevers of anguish or anger”.

Washington’s music resonates life. In an interview with The Guardian last year, he said his music reflects his experience as an African American. “It’s a reality that I’m living in, a reality I’ve lived with since way before there was the term ‘Black Lives Matter’, that black people all around the world have lived with for a long time: the idea that because of the colour of your skin, your life is not valued at the level other people’s lives are. And so my music is a representation of who I am.”

His second studio album as band leader, Heaven and Earth, released last year, is even more overtly political than his previous music (the 37-year-old has been performing since the early 2000s). The opening track of the three-hour-plus sprawling album is Fists of Fury, an interpretation of the soundtrack of Bruce Lee’s eponymous 1972 kung fu film.

Sung by Patrice Quinn, a vocalist in Washington’s band, and jazz veteran Dwight Trible, it refuses to back off.

Our time as victims is over
We will no longer ask for justice
Instead, we will take our retribution.

The chorus is a battle cry:

And when I’m faced with unjust injury
Then I change my hands to fists of fury.

In the right hands, jazz can be a revolutionary weapon.

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