Modest but supremely talented Michael Kiwanuka is a very worthy Mercury Prize winner

Michael Kiwanuka is a Thundergod! The mild mannered, modest but supremely talented Muswell Hill singer-songwriter is this year’s very worthy winner of the Mercury Prize.

Accepting the prize for his self titled album Kiwanuka on the BBC’s One Show, he made an eloquent and inspiring speech about why he gave his third album his own name.

“I wanted to really express myself in the truest way I could,” he told hosts Alex Jones and Amal Rajan. “When you’re doing music in a commercial setting, you can sometimes have a bit of an imposter syndrome or doubt yourself. I kept having that and it was taking things away from doing my dream job. So I made a decision making this album that I really wanted to be myself and enjoy it and not hold back, and really show myself as clear as I can be. So I thought I’m going to call it Kiwanuka and the name itself says a lot for me, ‘cause its my heritage, it’s who I am, and I wanna be loud and proud.”

Afterwards, Rojan praised him as a role model and inspiration before asking what his surname meant. Whereupon a suddenly bashful Kiwanuka admitted he did not know. “That’s embarrassing,” he grinned. “Someone’s gonna be livid. My father’s gonna be like ‘what!?’ You gotta google it.”

So I googled it. And I came up with a Ugandan clan name, which one website described as “an African god of lightning or thunder” and another simply described as “Ugandan Thundergod.” So there you have it, Michael. You are basically African Thor.

Thundergod is not the first phrase that jumps to mind when you listen to Kiwanuka’s mellifluous stew of funk, soul, R’n’B, rock and folk. This is music that is more like a tropical breeze. It bathes you in a gentle waft of melody and harmony, moves your limbs with slinky grooves, moves your heart with tender emotion and shifts your mind with subtle, philosophical lyrics. It doesn’t strike like a bolt from the heavens. It sneaks up on you, makes you feel all warm and comfortable, and only then pushes you in directions you might not have expected. The effect though is, perhaps, the same in the end. It is electrifying, the sound of power and transformation.

And it is music that speaks to this moment in time, with an unabashed pride that reflects the Black Lives Matter movement, but also a multiculturalism and humanist empathy that evokes unity rather than division. Growing up in Muswell Hill in north London, the son of Ugandan immigrants, Kiwanuka was raised on Britpop. Like so many young men of the Nineties, the first songs he learnt to play on guitar were those of Oasis. Championed by Adele, his debut album, 2012’s Home Again, saw him heralded as a purveyor of classic retro soul, a compliment that was really doing him a disservice. His ambitious follow-up Love & Hate put that to rights, with a bubbling, aromatic melting pot of sound that embraced influences black and white, old and new. It was retro and yet modern. Like so many young people of modern Britain, it was music that rejected self-limiting boundaries and easy classification.

At 32, his third album, Kiwanuka, affirmed his vision and his talent. Analogue instruments including Hammond organs, acoustic guitars, harps and pianos meld with strings and horns orchestrated with the lavishness of Burt Bacharach. Into that he mixes the soul, rock and funk explored in the Seventies by The Temptations, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. He stirs in the tenderness of Bill Withers and the political edge of Gil Scott-Heron. But he doesn’t sound old fashioned, or wannabe American. Kiwanuka sings with his own voice and accent, and addresses the concerns of his own contemporary British generation. There’s an acoustic troubadour spirit that reaches deep into British folk, and a prog rock adventurousness and atmospheric layering reminiscent of Pink Floyd at their most luscious. His melancholic vocals float over gentle melodies, with qualities of humility and introspection rare in the US soul genre. With his collaborators – American super-producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and British hip hop producer Inflo (Dean Josiah Cover) – Kiwanuka weaves an organic musical tapestry that has hallmarks of fine things both ancient and modern: everything just sounds right, and in its place.

Kiwanuka’s lyrics are often charged with self-doubt and yet express bravery within his own vulnerability. “I won’t change my name/ No matter what they call me,” he sings on Hero, a poignantly uncertain anthem where the stirring uplift of the chorus is counterpointed by the querulous suggestion that all the real heroes are dead. “Please don’t shoot me down/ I loved you like a brother/ It’s on the news again/ I guess they killed another.” In these strange and troubled times, perhaps we need new kinds of heroes. So this year, I heartily endorse the choice of the Mercury Prize judges. Bow down to the most unassuming God of thunder you could ever hope to hear.

From The Telegraph

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