Photography by Geordie Wood
The 21st century is one defined by dichotomy. Humans are more technologically advanced than we’ve ever been, and yet interstellar travel has stalled on the moon. We live in the safest time in our species’ history, and yet we witness more instances of violence through the media than any generation before. We are a more informed species than ever before, and yet civic engagement is on the decline. Social media connects us, while increasing our feelings of disconnect.
Kamasi Washington—saxophonist, composer, and producer—embodies the spirit of this century, a man captivated by the global, yet firmly rooted in the local. Case in point: my meeting with Kamasi takes place at a vegan restaurant called Stuff I Eat, located in the heart of Inglewood, California, Kamasi’s childhood stomping grounds. Upon my arrival, I am immediately met with jazz music and the distinctive smell of southern comfort food. At a large table in the middle of the restaurant, a group of 10 nuns eat and chat animatedly. Other folks sit at tables eating and conversing, generating an energetic hum of communication throughout the space. Looking around, I see a small line at the counter, but Kamasi is nowhere to be found.
At the counter, I order some collard greens, black eyed peas, and cornbread a la Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, and wait. Not long after, Kamasi enters the restaurant. In tan garments fashioned after African garb, he is a commanding presence, and I have a rare moment of being star struck; standing in front of this human being who walks the realms of musical past, present, and future. In order to collect myself, I offer to grab a table while he orders his food, settling down somewhere just far enough from the nuns, where hopefully my recorder will be able to catch everything the soft spoken artist says.
Before we can begin our conversation, we are interrupted by the owner of the restaurant, a pleasant older man who has walked over to say hello. After introducing himself to me and exchanging some pleasantries with Kamasi, he tells us about a new concert series he will be hosting in the restaurant’s backyard. Kamasi graciously offers to come by and play when he isn’t on tour, and the owner, seemingly satisfied, walks away to return to his business. Throughout the interaction, Kamasi is humble, never seeming bothered by the intrusion into our limited time, instead willfully giving this time to the man, putting community first.
Asked why L.A., but more specifically, why Inglewood, Kamasi pauses for a second to chew and think before responding. “Growing up, I was blessed to have a teacher by the name of Reggie Andrews. Reggie did a lot for this neighborhood, for South Central L.A., not only in the fact that he did a lot to bring the musicians from this community together, but that he definitely instilled in me the importance of community. I never had that notion of ‘I’m going to make it out of my community. I’m gonna get big and get away from where I come from.’ I always look at it as a community is a collection of people and I want to contribute to that, to my community. I want to be an asset to my community because who I am and what I have comes from this community.”
This level of modesty from a man like Kamasi Washington takes some processing. Listening to him speak, it is easy to forget that I am sitting in front of a legend, straight off his second studio album, HEAVEN AND EARTH. This is the man who made saxophone a central part of the opening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” along with plenty of other tracks on TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY. Having played with musicians that include, but are not limited to, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Lauryn Hill, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Chaka Khan, Flying Lotus, and of course Kendrick, Kamasi is a giant of the music industry. Along with Flying Lotus and Robert Glasper, it is safe to say that Washington can be credited with bridging the gap between historical jazz and the current era of rap. And yet watching him put aside time for the humble owner of this restaurant, I see a man who hasn’t let global acclaim go to his head.
When I ask him if there are places that he has considered moving, his response is emphatic. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t want to leave. I would just wanna use my billion dollars to build up. To do what I can do.” He continues talking about why other people might be so compelled to leave their community. “They might not see the value in being a benefit to others. It really does feel better to give than to receive. Anyone that’s ever been in a position to give knows that. If everyone just stopped leaving – if everyone that grew up in these communities, that made it big, decided not to leave these communities, we would have these communities that would have dozens of millionaires living within ‘em. If everyone in the NBA and NFL decided ‘I’m not gonna leave my neighborhood,’ all of a sudden there’d be this influx of resource to these places that would maybe equalize things a bit.” This philanthropic side is informed by his mentor Reggie Andrews, who would spend one night a week picking up neighborhood kids to bring them together to play music, but also by his interests outside of music.
Listening to Kamasi’s work, in particular his 2018 album HEAVEN AND EARTH, it becomes clear that his influences lie in the cinematic. When asked about how he goes about discovering music and building his influences, he mentions his parents, school, but also the Force. “Digging for records, looking for things I hadn’t heard, not being afraid to buy things I didn’t know existed, you know? That’s kinda like, you gotta use the Force a little bit. You know, ‘Use your feelings, Luke,’ that kinda thing.” The reference doesn’t miss me, and we both laugh, a mutual acknowledgment that we come from the same clan of Star Wars loving black men, a category we might have not known existed when we were growing up, but is now out and proud, thanks to the internet.
Catching on to this, I inquire into other media that he consumes. “I’m kind of a fantasy movie person. Those things definitely affect my imagination. Music is the common expression of who you are. Eventually everything that you do will make its way down into the music. I’m a big Marvel head. I’ve been recently getting into a lot of the manga. I don’t get to read that much these days. ONE PIECE is probably the last one I got into. I remember the first one I ever saw was STREET FIGHTER II. I was just blown away. My brother and my friend, who lived across the street from me, really got into searching them out. We got AKIRA and then I found out about DRAGONBALL Z - I think Thundercat told me about DRAGONBALL Z…” These influences, especially the anime, give context to the heroic philanthropic narrative Kamasi has around his home of Inglewood. Listening to Kamasi speak about himself, I see a man invested in his community, and doing his best to stay local. And yet looking at him, in his African inspired garb, jewelry invoking another continent, I am sharply aware that this is a man whose interests extend globally.
Having spent his college years at UCLA in their Ethnomusicology Department, Kamasi is a student of the world and its music. “When I went to UCLA, I started to learn more about world music and the world. I started to expand my own music ideas, and then you start to learn that there are people of African descent in places other than just Africa and America; Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, all these other places around the world. Musically, that inspired me, and it’s affected me.” Speaking of his education, Kamasi is cautious in presenting himself as anything other than a student, staying away from identifying himself as a master. “Everywhere I go, I’m amazed by how much music there is. Our global awareness artistically is pretty shallow, generally. There are parts of the world, like Brazil; imagine as many great musicians, the great rich history of music we have here, there’s an equivalent there. They’ve got their own James Brown, they’ve got their own Michael Jackson, they’ve got their own Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. You go there, and start listening to the music and you’re like ‘Man, how have I never heard this before?’” This sense of wonder is often communicated in Kamasi’s music.
Throughout much of his works, on songs like “Change of the Guard,” from his first album THE EPIC, Kamasi implements auditory tools such as sweeping orchestral violins and wordless choirs to evoke a sense of awe in the listener. And awe is exactly what you feel. In an era of short attention spans and cheap tricks, Kamasi crafts grand musical structures that do not shy away from the raw and unfiltered. On “Leroy and Lanisha”, Kamasi’s saxophone carries the narrative, opening optimistically, a jaunt to its step; then moving to the more chaotic second act, screaming indignation and pain; and ending with a gentle refrain that concludes with a joyous final push, as though all its energy had been expended in the creation of the piece. These songs carry the listener through emotions that are vulnerable and transparent, imploring the listener to feel what Kamasi is feeling, building empathic bridges between musician and audience.
It is in these moments, coded in chord structures and harmonies that feel inherently African-American to me, that I fell in love with Kamasi. Sitting across from him dressed in clothing made by community members such as Senegalese designer Durante Ibrahim and Tiffany Wright, I ask him about his relationship to the African diaspora, and how it informs his identity and his music. “Well, firstly it informs me. It’s who I am. I fortunately had two parents who were very much proud of their heritage. And they definitely instilled in me an appreciation for Africa, African culture, history. It’s a source of pride for me. I felt like I was a part of a lineage and a culture that was rich and that had added so much to the world, and to history.” This sense of blackness permeates throughout Kamasi’s music, especially in songs like “Malcolm’s Theme,” where Washington collaborated with Terence Blanchard, famous for composing Spike Lee’s film scores, including on films like MALCOLM X, to craft a song that pays homage to the fallen civil rights leader.
I USE HANDS
TO HELP MY FELLOW MAN
I USE HANDS
TO DO JUST WHAT I CAN
AND WHEN I’M FACED WITH UNJUST INJURY
THEN I CHANGE MY HANDS
TO FISTS OF FURY
OUR TIME AS VICTIMS IS OVER
WE WILL NO LONGER ASK FOR JUSTICE
INSTEAD WE WILL TAKE OUR RETRIBUTION
These lyrics, taken from “Fists of Fury” on HEAVEN AND EARTH, connect the listener to a Kamasi who is ready to take action. Asking him about his perspective on the current political climate, Kamasi does not give the Trump administration all the credit for the state of his politics. “Right now we have a president that doesn’t hide his shame, who leaves it out there for us to see, right there in our face. If these were two year old problems, this would be a much different conversation. These are problems that are over a millennia old. The whole idea of saying ‘We are no longer victims’ is to say ‘You will be a victim until you decide to not be one.’ As long as there is someone who wants to victimize, you will be a victim until you decide that you’re no longer willing to accept that. The thought that someone who wants to hurt you is going to stop just because you don’t want to be hurt is kind of silly.”
On the topic of the police and the black community, Washington speaks similarly. “They rub it in our face. And maybe that’s worse than when they weren’t rubbing it in our face? But it never stopped. Even the police violence, that stuff has never not been there. But now everybody has a little camera on their phone for the first time in history. So before, they do that, someone sees it, tries to say something, nothing happened. Now it’s like, there’s a camera, and everyone sees it, but it hasn’t stopped anything. It hasn’t even slowed it down. Because we essentially accept it. And until we, who this is happening to, decide to do something about it, and not wait for someone else to do something about it, it won’t stop. Because that person we’re waiting for to stop it, doesn’t want it to stop. They want these guys to abuse us. Because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t.”
On HEAVEN AND EARTH and in these conversations, Kamasi comes off as a man ready to take his fate into his own hands, a man ready to be the hero of his own graphic novel. In fact, as we begin to wrap up our conversation, our topic turns to the future and comics again. “My goal for 2019 is to finish that graphic novel that I started back when I was doing THE EPIC. I wish I could draw. That would be some cool stuff. I have images in my head. I want to get the inside of me out, fleshed out. There’s something about how people who draw see the world. The way they see things is different than the way my mind organizes things. Things like perspective, they see the world with perspective - distance is an angle. They see a 3D world in 2D.” It is ironic to listen to Kamasi undersell himself after everything that we have talked about. Driven by a musical vision and a compassion for humanity, Kamasi still sees places where he can improve.
Speaking to this man who is simultaneously so local and yet so global, rooted in a grounded present reality, and also inspired by fantasy and anime, I see a microcosm of all humans in our many complexities and dichotomies. As I make my way out of Inglewood I find myself reflecting on something that Kamasi said in response to a question about the past, present, and future of music and the blurring of genre lines. It’s a statement that captures the master’s holistic approach to not only music, but also life.
“They’re all intertwined, entangled with one another. For my own artistic expression, I don’t really separate them personally. I feel like there's two ways of going about music: basically there's the honest and the dishonest way. The honest way of making music is making music that you really hear, that you really feel in your heart. And the dishonest way is to make music that you think people like. I think the greatest music, and the music that has had the most longevity, has all been honest music, music that people are making truly from their souls. All that music is so interconnected. As a musician, all you can do is make the music that you have in you.”
This is story was originally published in BRICK Edition 06, and is available in print here.