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Photo: Nina Manandhar.

Kokoroko: "Jazz & Afrobeat Shouldn't Stay Within Our Parents' Generation"

We talk to the buzzing London afrobeat group's bandleader about their debut EP and much more.

Last February saw Brownswood Recordings release the fresh and exciting compilation We Out Here, assembled by Shabaka Hutchings, which celebrated the new generation of London jazz musicians who've been organically fine-tuning their craft for the last decade.

In an epoch where streaming numbers and views can often precede the foresight of quality and legacy, this grassroots family is welding their formal education at Trinity Laban and Guildhall alongside the energetic tutelage of Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco to create an essence for your ears that is unmistakably from the Big Smoke.

One band who feature triumphantly on We Out Here are the empress-led Kokoroko, an 8-piece afrobeat band hailing from the UK capital. Drawing influence from West African highlife and jazz, they sit at the intersection of past and present, well-marinated in enough polyrhythm seasoning to induce fires on the dance floors they play.

We spoke with the talented bandleader, trumpeter and visual artist Sheila Maurice-Grey about paying homage to highlife heroes, the burgeoning London jazz sound and their new self-titled EP, Kokoroko.


Where are your parents from?

My mum is from Sierra Leone and my dad is from Guinea-Bissau, but I grew up with my step-dad who is from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Kokoroko's mission statement is "This is not idle music." What was your musical grounding early on?

I guess it was typical in the sense that I grew up in the church. I first started playing guitar and then keys before I started playing trumpet, which was in secondary school. It played a massive role in terms of what West African Pentecostal churches are like. It's very charismatic and it was really good music to be honest. It was my first encounter of my heritage in that sense. I started playing keys maybe when I was eight, and playing in church between the ages of 12 to 14. It wasn't something I took too seriously but it was something I enjoyed doing.

Which part of London was that in?

That was in South London actually around the Stockwell and Brixton area.

The band's name is of Nigerian Urhobo origin meaning "Be strong." How important was it to maintain a connection to Africa?

Very, very important. I guess that was the whole point of starting the band. I started the band with (percussionist) Onome Edgeworth. I remember us having a conversation in Kenya about afrobeat, and afrobeat bands in general in the UK. We said there aren't enough afrobeat bands that represent the diaspora and I was like 'we should start one.' The importance of it is that it's very powerful and we keep the legacy of the music. Jazz is important in terms of its legacy, so is afrobeat. It's not something which should stay within our parents' generation, especially now with the massive rise of afrobeats. It's great music but it's just as important to keep the roots of it alive because politically, socially and historically, it's important music.

Photo: Nina Manandhar.

Within that, you speak about empowering this new generation of young people that listen to the music and share the experience of having that dual heritage.

Yeah. I don't know where you're from?

Ghana.

I don't know if you have, but I think most of us have that experience being here in Britain. We'll never be English but of course we are British. Then when you go back home you're not really considered Ghanaian. I don't know if that happens for you, but in my case I'm always seen as the English girl that's come home. So I guess it's about keeping that connection and being like, although we haven't lived back home, it's a very important part of our identity and I think that's quite powerful in itself.

I liken it to walking across a plank, especially when people describe you as being British-Sierra Leonean or British-Ghanaian. That hyphen is a tightrope where you're essentially stuck.

Definitely, for sure.

You started out paying homage to highlife and afrobeat via covers of legends like Pat Thomas, Ebo Taylor and Tony Allen.

And Fela Kuti… It's important to say!

What rhythmic elements of their music have inspired your growth as a collective?

I guess it's trying to understand the music in terms of little things like how melodies are structured and, compositionally, how things work. It's just different from any type [of music]. Most of us have come from a jazz background, a few of us went to school to study jazz. I guess it's just very different, simple things like where the horn lines are placed, how the bass lines have been written... I think especially with that type of music…rhythmic nuances are the main thing that make the music what it is before you even get to the harmony or the melody. It's different from a lot of music, but I feel like it's the foundation to a lot.

I understand what you were saying earlier and how difficult it is to learn Ebo Taylor's work.

Yes. It sounds beautiful but it's not the easiest music to play! (laughs)

Fela also shares a closer connection to Kokoroko as he also attended Trinity Laban when he first arrived in 1950s London. To what extent has he resonated with your collective?

Before Fela Kuti created afrobeat he went to study jazz which I think people forget sometimes and, as I was saying, afrobeat is important in terms of what it's come through historically. It's something that I feel like people will see as music of the past. They should take the time to realise how relevant it is to now. I guess those are the connections I make with jazz and afrobeat, it's very important and it should be around for generations to come. As much as we give importance to jazz, it's the same kind of importance we should give to afrobeat as well.

I think at present everyone has their eyes on London as a city with Brexit happening. What you're a part of within the young jazz realm is really unapologetic and shows people that the experience of growing up in London is still unique and can't be sold off. As a Londoner, what are your thoughts on that?

I think we're living in strange times where as much as the UK is an island, it feels like London is an island within an island. In the sense that culturally what's going on is amazing and beautiful. You have so many cultures living side by side and you're hearing the music and art but a lot of things that come out of London are taken from a mixed match of diversity, which is really important. It's a weird time as soon as you leave London, you kind of realise the reality of where we're living. I think the beautiful thing about London is that you have so many things to draw [inspiration] from. The other day I was in Dalston Market and it was so beautiful to see many cultures side by side. You have the Turkish people selling the Turkish food then you have Nigerians, Ghanaians selling their traditional African food. That's very beautiful to see within itself.

"Abusey Junction" was your first release a year ago as part of the We Out Here compilation. Since then it's been streamed over 20 million times on YouTube and has gone on to win Track of The Year recently at the Worldwide Awards. How did that song come together and can you describe the personal impact it has playing live?

Oscar wrote it when him, Onome, and I went to Gambia a few years ago. He wrote it on the rooftop of a place where we were staying. I think it's more the energy and the vibe that was recreated at that moment. That's what makes it really special. It was very organic how it came together, especially how it was recorded. To be honest it's been hard to recreate that same vibe on a live stage as it's very different from everything else we've written… Not necessarily everything else but what we play in our set.

KOKOROKO - ABUSEY JUNCTION // WE OUT HERE youtu.be

How was the process of composing and writing your self-titled EP Kokoroko?

We've been working on it for quite a while. Before "Abusey Junction" was recorded we had already recorded the EP but it wasn't quite ready, so we decided to continue playing and writing more music. Earlier last year we went to the studio with the mind-set of trying to record tunes for a potential EP and it sounded great. Now we're looking forward to writing the album.

What's your favourite track on the EP?

I think it has to be "Ti-de" as it's just a little similar to "Abusey Junction" but still quite different. I really like that tune but all the tunes are really different and they are tunes we've all written.

So how does the dynamic work in the group with eight of you? Is it led or does everyone have an input?

I'm the bandleader and I get things together to make sure things get done but in terms of writing music everyone contributes. I guess what makes a band a band, rather than the Shelia Maurice-Grey project, is that you have eight really strong and important characters that I can really value for their sound. When we write tunes, someone will bring a tune in we will play it and reshape it a little. Sometimes we don't even reshape it. Our set is comprised of tunes that everyone has written.

What's been your favourite gig so far?

Favourite destination to play with the band was Worldwide Festival earlier last year in Sete which was very beautiful.

Who designed the artwork for the EP?

Her name is Kasmir Jones (The Afrodigiac) who is from New York. I really like her stuff and I think it's great.

What is it about the energy and support that has made everyone in this London jazz "scene" grow?

From my perspective I think it's the fact that a lot of us came through different music programmes. The main ones were Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco. I guess the fact that I've known a lot of these people since I was 12 and I've been playing with a lot of people since. I'm 27 now so that's a long time to know a lot of people and I think that's a key thing. By the way not everyone is from South London! (laughs)

Just imagine if you played football with some guys since you were 10 and eventually all these guys ended up being footballers and you ended up being the best. I guess it's just natural. When you have a community of people you grew up with I think you're bound to create something which is quite unique and special to your group.

What would be your dream collaboration?

With Kokoroko I think it would be great to be in the same room with Seun Kuti. It would be a dream to play with and just gain more knowledge about the knowledge of the music. Seun Kuti or Femi Kuti would be a dream.

And then end up at the Shrine.

That would be amazing!

The new self-titled EP by KOKOROKO is out now.

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K.O Releases ‘Killa Combo’ Featuring Zingah, Loki, Tellaman and Mariechan

Listen to the first single released under K.O's new imprint Skhandaworld.

The last time we spoke to K.O., he revealed that one of his goals for the year is to launch Skhandaworld, a newly launched imprint founded by the South African emcee. The up-and-coming rapper Loki was a top priority as he is the first signee under the label.

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Twice As Tall World Tour. Flyer provided by Atlantic Records.

Burna Boy Announces 'Twice As Tall' World Tour Dates

The Nigerian star will be playing shows across North America and Europe this summer.

Burna Boy is hitting the road again.

Following the celebrated release of African Giant—which came with nominations at both the Grammys & BRIT Awards and a trophy for Best International Act at the BET Awards—the Nigerian star will be embarking on a long run of shows that will take him across North America and Europe.

The Twice As Tall World Tour will kick off in May in Atlanta, and will see Burna Boy playing concerts across the US, Canada, Norway, France, Portugal, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and more locations.

You can check out the full tour dates for Twice As Tall World Tour below and revisit Burna Boy's performance for Okay Acoustics.

Tickets are available now.

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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

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Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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Sarkodie "Bumper" (Youtube)

Watch Sarkodie's New Music Video For 'Bumper'

A dance-heavy clip for the Ghanaian star's turn-up single.

Sarkodie comes through with the energetic new dance video for "Bumper."

The new track is a high-octane affair that sees the Ghanaian star rapper delivering some standout rhymes and flows over an afro-fusion leaning production from Nigeria's Rexxie.

The new video for "Bumper," which was directed by Monte Carlo Dream, follows a group of dancers as they show off their moves inside a barbershop.

"Bumper" comes after the release of Sarkodie's latest album, Black Love, which features the likes of Donae'o, Idris Elba, Efya, Mr Eazi, Stonebwoy, Tekno, Maleek Berry, King Promise, Kizz Daniel and several other artists.

OkayAfrica spoke with the artist in November, following his win for Best International Flow at the BET Hip Hop awards. "[The album] is just about love amongst black people and it's 90 or 80 percent based on relationships," he said.

Watch the new music video for Sarkodie's "Bumper" below.

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