The words and drawings on the cover of Sons of Kemet’s Mercury Prize-nominated third album Your Queen Is a Reptile immediately throw down a gauntlet, an us-versus-them tension that animates their music. The title is printed on the front, and all of the track titles, listed on the back, follow the same format: “My Queen is Angela Davis,” “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman,” “My Queen Is Nanny of the Maroons,” an 18th-century Jamaican rebel leader. Ten total queens stand out in black against the Impulse Records orange. In South African artist Mzwandile Buthelezi’s twitching lines, each queen is adorned in traditional African finery, their long necks stacked with rings, spears in hand.
From this side of the Atlantic, all this might seem like a bit of surrealism paying homage to important figures that tend to be written out of our collective history. But then you realize that reed-player Shabaka Hutchings’s band is from London with roots in the colonies—Hutchings himself grew up in Barbados—and the context shifts. Suddenly, they’re not talking about any hypothetical queen but the Queen and, by extension, the entire British monarchy, the empire, and the historical subjugation of people of color in British society. “Your Queen is a reptile” becomes a modern variation on the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen,” a call to action, a cry from a people whose worth the Queen and everything she stands for seems to ignore. By extension, Sons of Kemet delivers a similar shock of radical energy to jazz as punk did to the rest of rock ‘n’ roll.
“We claim our right to question your obsolete systems,” they write. To say “My Queen is Ada Eastman” (Hutchings’s great-grandmother) is to claim to a forgotten history, a statement of belonging, an embrace of patois and pidgin. From their perspective, the monarchy might as well not be human since it doesn’t view them as human: “We knew the system was rigged and the only path to freedom was for the system to burn.”
These polemical politics grow directly out of Sons of Kemet’s music, a vision of jazz drawing on a volatile mix of sounds from around the black diaspora as a musical version of that pidgin and patois. Their unusual lineup of saxophone, tuba, and two drummers give the group a nimble, propulsive energy. That drive starts with tuba player Theon Cross, whose deeply funky bass line and countermelodies refer to everything from brass bands and New Orleans second lines to dancehall or Balkan beats. He even makes his horn sound like a scratching record on the album-closing “My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence.”
Around this foundation, the two drummers, Tom Skinner and Eddie Hicks, skitter and clatter, creating complex, intertwining patterns on treble-heavy snare drums, cymbals, and Afro-Cuban percussion instruments. Occasionally, they pull out bass drums to go in a heavier dub or hip-hop direction, but even then there is an overriding sense of lightness in their playing. The combination is surprisingly nimble, at times seeming like the rhythm section could just start strutting around the room without missing a beat.
And then there’s Hutchings himself, playing twisting melodies and nimble solos in glorious counterpoint to the rhythm machine underneath. At thirty-three, he’s already a central figure in London’s burgeoning jazz scene. Sons of Kemet is one of three adventurous bands he leads; the other two are Shabaka and the Ancestors, a free jazz band with South African players, and the Comet Is Coming, whose 2016 album of spacy electronic dance music, Channel the Spirits, was also nominated for a Mercury Prize. On Your Queen Is a Reptile, his playing is simple and focused, eschewing flashy runs for tight, direct lines, sounding at times like a toasting emcee or a West Indian deejay.
All these elements come together in combustible songs like “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman.” Hutchings plays a chattering tune, occasionally soulful, occasionally clipped, in conversation with an equally fleet bass line in Cross’s tuba, bouncing across octaves at will. The tempo feels breakneck, but it’s just fast enough to compel your body into motion without flying entirely out of control. Drummers Skinner and Hicks play an impossible number of percussion instruments, always on top of the beat in a way that pushing everything forward. At a key moment, Cross drops out, leaving Hutchings to hover on a single note while the drummers explode in a delirious breakdown. The song is just under six minutes long, but it’s more than enough to leave you exhausted.
Sons of Kemet’s political, multi-diasporic jazz stands out in an Art of Cool Festival lineup dominated by soul-jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. Their music has a ferocious, unrelenting presence, perhaps inspired by the energy of the queens they invoke: “Our Queens walked among us. Our queens led by action, by example, our Queens listened.” Thus Sons of Kemet listens, leads, combines.