Afrofuturistic, cosmic jazz comes to the Motherland

Musical trailblazers at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival

The golden era days of jazz-rap occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hip-hop artists of the time sampled jazz and funk records to create their sound. Unlike then, we are now entering an age where jazz and funk artists are redefining the boundaries and the sound of hip-hop. The Cape Town International jazz festival has tapped into this new age.

A number of these musical trailblazers are coming to the African motherland soon, where their musical prowess will be showcased at the annual festival. Some context on these musicians: They do this delineation by fusing genres like spiritual/cosmic jazz, Pfunk and West Coast hip-hop with ideologies of black consciousness, Afrofuturism and syncretic black spirituality.

We also see more of an emphasis on collaboration between hip-hop artists and contemporary jazz musos. Not only well versed in the golden era of hip-hop, these jazz musicians also know their way around the jazz of yesteryear. This interaction sees more interplay between traditional hip-hop sampling methods and a jazz-based composition, improvisation and performance aesthetic in hip-hop. A prime example of this development can be found in songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “For Free? (Interlude)”, “Astral Progressions” by contemporary jazz trumpeter Josef Leimberg featuring rapper Kurupt and the works of artists like the Canadian jazz band, Badbadnotgood.

Unlike in the golden jazz-rap era, jazz is no longer a mere sonic muse or pallet for beat makers. It’s now at the forefront of hip-hop production and is directly influencing the trajectory of the genre. For jazz this period marks a new era of fusion that’s heavily influenced by the open minded innovators of the fusion movement of the 1970s such as Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Weather Report and Tony Williams. These musical revolutionaries were able to change the shape of jazz and other genres simultaneously through the redefinition and fusion of styles.

Something really magical is taking place at the moment. The last few years have seen a gradual increase of black artists who are really – as opposed to just aesthetically – tuned into the circuit-jamming frequencies and epoch-making ideas of George Clinton, Sun Ra, Tupac Shakur, Malcolm X and everything in between and beyond.

As a scholar of Afrofuturism, a DJ and record collector I am extremely grateful that the Cape Town International Jazz Festival has booked some of these gifted young artists that have built this movement over the last few years.

I’m particularly excited to witness, in my own city, the stellar art of Laura Mvula; Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore; Kamasi Washington and Digable Planets.

Laura Mvula

I can best describe Birmingham native Mvula’s music as ethereal, spaced out vocal jazz with gospel and African choral roots. She sounds unique, exploring themes of blackness, spirituality and space in an elegant manner.

Her style is minimal, clean and elegant with a particular knack for making full use of emptiness and space. Listening to her music makes me feel like I’ve been teleported to church in outer space. Worth noting is that her African surname is of no significance to her music – it’s simply her Zambian husband’s surname.

Digable Planets

The title of Digable Planets‘ 1993 jazz-heavy debut release “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)” is an apt and clear indicator of the musical direction they were taking during that period. This particular album served as my first introduction to jazzy hip-hop and the idea of “space, jazz and blackness”. Their second release “Blowout Comb”, which is super Afrocentric and created around themes of Black Nationalism, black urban culture, jazz and entomology, took me further down the rabbit hole of Afrofuturism.

For me the group exemplifies my comparison between the golden era of hip-hop, the advent of late 90s neo-soul and the here-and-now, as they were one of the first groups to explore Afrofuturism, space, time travel, blackness and urban culture through the idioms of jazz and hip-hop. They definitely set the tone for this kind of expression and continued to do so even after their protracted hiatus which occurred between 1995 and their reunion tour of 2016.

During that period group member Ishmael Butler went on to establish another highly influential Afrofuturistic outfit, Shabazz Palaces, and Cee Knowledge created and recorded with the spaced out hip-hop/jazz band Cee Knowledge and the Cosmic Funk Orchestra while Lady Mecca went on to record her solo hip-hop offering, “Trip The Light Fantastic”. One simply cannot discuss Afrofuturism and jazz within the bounds of hip-hop without mentioning Digable Planets and their unique legacy.

Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore

The idea that DJ, producer and multi-instrumentalist Taylor McFerrin is teaming up with jazz drummer Marcus Gilmore is most thrilling because they have never recorded a collaborative album that showcases their collective sound. This collaboration is an argument in favour of the assumption that musicality is innate by way of one’s genes. Both these artists are direct descendants of two of the most prolific artists of our time.

Gilmore, who is the grandson of legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes, recently recorded an album with the jazz fusion giant Chick Corea. Gilmore has also collaborated with foremost Afrofuturist Flying Lotus and Ravi Coltrane. Both are from impeccable jazz stock – the latter the son of jazz gods, John and Alice, and the former their grand nephew.

McFerrin, the son of Bobby, is known for his left-field, futuristic fusion of electronica, jazz, soul and hip hop. He is affiliated to the aforementioned Flying Lotus’s experimental LA-based Brainfeeder record label, a purveyor of some of the finest Afrofuturistic art of the last decade.

Kamasi Washington

Saxophonist Washington’s multiple 2015 award winning debut studio album “The Epic” (also released via Brainfeeder) is one of the most important jazz albums of the last five years. It simultaneously garnered the respect of critics and jazz purists, as well as audiences who wouldn’t otherwise listen to anything as musically complex.

Released as a triple disk on vinyl, “The Epic” is a worthy investment for any vinyl enthusiast and music lover.

This phenomenal album, along with Washington’s work as a notable collaborator on a significant number of the most prominent Afrofuturistic, jazz, hip-hop and funk albums of the last five years, makes him an artist of great stature. One finds his name printed in the liner notes of recent, groundbreaking albums by Kendrick Lamar, Josef Leimberg, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Miles Mosely and Run the Jewels.

Washington definitely is an important part of the machinery that’s shaping the future sound of jazz, hip-hop and funk, in their individual forms and as a futuristic, experimental fusion projects.

The festival is an exceptional opportunity to engage with artists, who are relevant and progressive, especially in the Motherland. I sincerely hope that South Africa inspires their art and that we can absorb something from whatever they project.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

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