Your Queen Is A Reptile, the new release from Sons Of Kemet, is ferocious. This tightly crafted album is an apparatus for robust political dialogue, as band-leader and composer Shabaka Hutchings weaves a narrative of revisionist black history. Addressing the British Monarchy, the Sons reject the notion that some are born better, and the idolatry of the British Queen. Instead, Hutchings here presents an alternative: his own Queens.
With their inclusion of rap and elements of dub, it is easy to see why Hutchings and the Sons Of Kemet are feted well beyond the contemporary jazz scene. The unique instrumentation, cross-genre exploration and agile thematic expression are bracing. It makes you want to dance, mourn and hold a political protest all at once, and it seems entirely fitting that for their third album, the group has joined the legendary label Impulse, known for names such as Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, creators who reaped benefits from fearless experimentation.
As well as featuring Hutchings on clarinet and saxophone, Sons Of Kemet includes Theon Cross on tuba and both Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick on drums. Poet and lyricist Joshua Idehen adds vocals to the record, as does Congo Natty. This impressive group of musicians make the most of their collective force, with acrobatic interplay.
The album was created as an intentional confrontation to the zeitgeist of contemporary Britain, aiming to deconstruct ideas of monarchy, colonialism and white supremacy. The titles of each of the tracks, all beginning with “My Queen Is…”, are an insight into Hutchings’ worldview; each one spotlights a politically or socially prominent female figure in black history, from Harriet Tubman to Doreen Lawrence. “Our Queens led by action, by example, our Queens listened. Our Queens made bright futures out of cruel and unfair pasts,” say the Sons. Opener My Queen Is Ada Eastman is dedicated to Hutchings’ great grandmother. Idehen’s lyrics are equally combative as he plays with ideas of migrant politics: “I’m still here… rebels still rebelling.”
The scope of ambition shown in Your Queen Is A Reptile is monumental, and yet it does not at weigh down the boisterous musicality of Hutchings’ compositions. It is not just the textual qualities of the record which speak of an uprising, but the sonic qualities as well. Hutchings said: “I see one of the primary roles of music as being a vessel for the articulation of sentiments which we fall short of semantic tools to express.” A heavily textured mix of influences, from Rastafarian vibes to African beats and jazz patterns, Your Queen Is A Reptile is musically quite happy to turn tradition on its head.
Its sprawling rhythms and rich melodies are a heady combination which leave the listener on unsure footing. Given that the record’s central aim seems to be moral and social unrest, this philosophy is carried well throughout the tunes. Skinner and Hick are a double drum act to be reckoned with; high-energy and urgent, with not so much as a beat out of place. Cross’s tuba adds a distinctive, often pleasantly disorientating layer. This is the perfect place for Hutchings’ rich and sultry saxophone solos to be heard in all their full-throated glory, particularly on My Queen Is Harriet Tubman and My Queen Is Albertina Sisulu, as Hutchings and company showcase their immense and varied talents with zealous polyrhythms and deft interaction.
Throughout Your Queen Is A Reptile, thundering drum solos and rapid tempos are tempered by Caribbean beats and carefully constrained composition. The result is a highly listenable album with an audibly beating heart, which deserves to be played so loudly that the neighbours complain.