Do you like parties? Sons of Kemet would like to invite you to one hell of a dance-off. Are you mad about Brexit, and the sense of isolationism closing minds and borders across the globe? Shabaka Hutchings and company feel your pain. Got a soft spot for history? Right this way, there’s so much to learn. You say Your Queen Is A Reptile? Fear not; there’s a nonet of new matriarchs who don’t need any damn divine ordination to reign. All of the above? Then listen up: this album is the groovy, giddy, ferocious, buck-nasty aural essay you’ve always needed, but would never have known to ask for.
I promise I’m going to talk about the music, but to fully appreciate the genius (yes, genius) of this album we need to start at the beginning: Kemet is the name that ancient Egypt gave itself, in its own tongue. It translates, approximately, to black land, a reference to the black soil plains along the Nile in the southwest reaches of the Fertile Crescent. That the London-based jazz quartet Sons of Kemet have so boldly claimed the cradle of human civilization itself as their wellspring isn’t just because it sounds cool (even though it does); the Sons are as fascinated by history as they are wary of tradition. Stretching back to the origins of civilization itself to construct their identity obliterates the compulsive nature of tradition.
It is upon that blank slate that Your Queen Is A Reptile, the band’s third album (and first under the aegis of the legendary Impulse! Records), carves its thesis: a system that favors individuals for being born into a privileged class is grinding the rest of the population into the dirt. The message is presented most clearly as a takedown of the English monarchy (the eponymous reptile queen being, in accordance with the popular screwball conspiracy theory, Elizabeth II), but those few tracks on the album with lyrics make clear that the principle has, unfortunately, far broader applications. There is a tremendous rage behind the boisterous music, but it’s not enough to decry the things that are wrong; Sons of Kemet want to show us another, better way. The ethos is succinctly articulated on “My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence”: ‘Don’t wanna take my country back, mate, I wanna take my country forward’.
And so we come to the ultimate function of Your Queen Is A Reptile: nothing less than constructing a new mythology. Each of the album’s nine tracks follow the naming convention of “My Queen Is _______”; each of the names that fill in that blank belong to heroic black women whose distinctions were earned by action rather than inheritance, whose legacies are a measure of their personal impact rather than the power of their parents’ name. An example: the aforementioned Doreen Lawrence, who is elevated to royalty by the final track of the album, was a Jamaican-born Englishwoman whose son Stephen was murdered in southeast London in 1993. The killing was racially motivated, but local police failed to pursue justice with any kind of urgency. A full eighteen years later, two of the original suspects were finally convicted of the killing. In the interim, massive investigations were launched into institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police Service, double jeopardy prohibitions were lifted for murder cases in which new evidence had come to light, and Doreen founded a charitable trust in her son’s name. None of this just happened. Doreen Lawrence didn’t just point a finger at England’s law enforcement apparatus and call bullshit. She fought, not only to see justice for her son, but so that other parents wouldn’t have to fight the same battles.
“My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence” has lyrics, but most of the songs on Your Queen Is A Reptile do not. Sons of Kemet feel no need to present a verbal argument that people like Albertina Sisulu (South African anti-apartheid activist, often referred to as the ‘Mother of the Nation’) or Yaa Asantewaa (queen mother of Ejisu, leader of rebellions against British Colonialism) belong among our new royalty. Their songs are instrumentals; to review their accomplishments is to understand their worthiness.
Herein lies the ultimate brilliance of this album: its aim is not to cajole, but to educate with the confidence that its conclusions are the most logical ones to draw from that knowledge. As a white American, my awareness of the diaspora heroes profiled on this album was minimal. Indeed, the only two names among the new royalty that I recognized belonged to Americans. To fully appreciate the power and nuance of Your Queen Is A Reptile required a great amount of self-education, the research for which took me back through time and across the globe. Despite how that may sound, it was far from arduous to do this; there are few things more satisfying than having one’s horizons broadened. And horizon broadening is, in a nutshell, among the chief concerns of this album. The title of Your Queen Is A Reptile may be a refutation, but its content is a ninefold affirmation.
Of course, I wouldn’t have cared about learning the histories attached those nine women’s names if the songs that bore those names weren’t incredible. Naturally, they are. Sons of Kemet generate a titanic amount of energy from four instruments: a saxophone, a tuba, and sets of percussion. The songs range from frantic (“My Queen Is Harriet Tubman”, in which Hutchings wrests all sorts of ferocious bleats and shrieks from his sax) to serene (“My Queen Is Nanny Of The Maroons”, sounding like something Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King might get high to). The common thread that links them all is a nondogmatic approach to jazz, drawing inspiration less from specific luminaries in the field, and more from the cultural histories of the four performers. This happens quite literally in the case of the opening track, “My Queen Is Ada Eastman”; Ms. Eastman is Shabaka Hutchings’ own great grandmother. To begin the album with an absolute banger of a song, bearing a name with which almost every listener will be unfamiliar, sets the precedent immediately – if you want to know whose legacy is making you move, you better get to educating yourself.
All that said, the homework isn’t mandatory. I personally feel that the album has a tremendously nuanced perspective to reveal to any listener prepared to fully engage with it, but you can just as easily have a blast with Your Queen Is A Reptile as pure music. The tunes are fun and furious in equal measure; good luck listening to “My Queen Is Angela Davis” and not bouncing around with a Jens Kidman ‘oh’ face. Of course, this is me speaking from my aforementioned white American’s point of view. To a listener more tapped in to the heroes of the diaspora, a lot of this might be intuitive. But for those of us to whom most of this is new information, Sons of Kemet have created the most hysterically entertaining syllabus imaginable. So listen.
Notable Tracks: “My Queen Is Ada Eastman”; “My Queen Is Angela Davis”; “My Queen Is Albertina Sisulu”
FFO: Ghost-Note, Machito, EMEFE