Soweto Kinch tells Terry Grimley why the Hockley flyover is the ideal place to showcase the best of Britain’s and Birmingham’s urban culture.
Soweto Kinch will finally get to realise a long-held ambition on Saturday when he hosts an all-day free street festival under Birmingham’s Hockley flyover.
It’s at least a couple of years since the award-winning jazz saxophonist and hip hop artist spotted that the apparent urban wasteland of a roundabout accessible only via pedestrian subways was a natural amphitheatre, but the idea was not initially easy to sell to others.
“When I first approached people and said I’ve got this idea to do an event under a flyover, the response was I’m not sure who you speak to about that – is it parks or regeneration?” he says.
“It seemed the city council was a million-and-one departments and I was bounced around five different people who were all on holiday at various times.”
Finally his persistence paid off. He has enlisted the assistance of his father, theatre director Don Kinch, and Gigbeth director Clare Edwards, as well as an extensive cast of performers from Birmingham and London. They include hip hop stars Bashy, Ty and Jonzi D, veteran saxophonist Andy Hamilton, Steel Pulse founder-member Basil Gabbidon and internationally acclaimed a capella group Black Voices.
It’s a celebration of contemporary urban culture and its roots, presented in a location readily-accessible to the local community.
“I didn’t feel there were enough platforms for local people to see art for themselves,” Soweto says. “All the people on the roster merit being on the national or international stage. It’s a chance to see jazz and poetry and theatre alongside hip hop and grime.
“It’s very important for me to have people like Andy Hamilton and Basil Gabbidon to reflect the fact that there’s a tradition. Hip hop hasn’t come out of nowhere, it’s part of a tradition that’s quite strong here in Birmingham.”
The other motivation for the project was a social one, to counter the negative image of this part of the city.
“Much like any other inner city area, it receives only infamy and bad press for anything bad that happens – riots, gangs, shootings. But this is not in any way an anti-gang event, it’s a pro-art event for people in the area.
“People who live in these areas don’t see themselves as underprivileged. You don’t grow up thinking I’m disaffected – you deal with what’s in front of you.”
This was the subject of Kinch’s astonishing second album, A Life In The Day Of B19 – Tales Of The Tower Block, which blends jazz and hip hop while following the lives of three young Brummies through a narration read by former TV news presenter Moira Stewart.
Its sequel, Basement Fables, was originally planned for release in March last year, but its continuing non-appearance has now resulted in Soweto parting company with the record label, Dune. Unfortunately, he doesn’t own the record.
He has now resolved to take more control of his career, and the Flyover Show marks the debut of his own new production company.
“We mutually decided they [Dune] couldn’t do what was necessary for the next album,” Soweto says. “I think it’s the season to take control of things like PR and distribution. I was inspired by everyone who is on the roster for the Flyover Show. Ty reached an epiphany and left his label as well.”
As well as playing with his regular band tomorrow, Soweto has been working with a group of young Birmingham associates recruited through his long-running Live Box sessions to create a piece of theatre, combining music, rap and humour, which extends the innovative mix first heard on A Life In The Day.
This will have three performances at 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm, with Soweto performing his B19 Show between 7pm and 8pm.
Since it’s a free event with no tickets the organisers have no idea how many people are going to turn up, though it is licenced for 1,500.
“There’s supposed to be cover, but the weather is expected to improve,” says Soweto. “It would make a difference if there are blue skies and smiling people. We’ve got graffiti artists painting on 8ft x 4ft cubes, break dancing, and we’ve got chicken and rice and peas as well!”
Future plans will depend on how the event is received.
Meanwhile, Soweto has a tour previewing Basement Fables coming up, and he is talking to possible production partners including the Roundhouse in London and the Birmingham Rep about his musical show Midnight Hop, originally meant to be part of the reopening festivities at the Town Hall last October. He also has two weeks of saxophone practice booked in July ahead of some festival dates.
This week he has faced an exhausting schedule, shuttling between Birmingham and London for rehearsals and interviews, including an appearance on Radio 4’s Midweek on Wednesday.
But his commitment to Birmingham remains unshaken, vindicated by the young talent he sees emerging around him.
“It’s an exciting time to be a Brummie. I don’t know if everyone feels this, but when things reach a point where everything is so packaged, there’s the opportunity to do something alternative. We’re not in London – let’s get on with it and be the alternative.”
The Flyover Show takes place at Hockley flyover on Saturday, May 31, from 1pm to 8.50pm. For further information visit www.myspace.com/flyovershow. Soweto Kinch’s Basement Fables Preview tour comes to Birmingham Town Hall on July 25.