In honor of Black History Month, Atwood Magazine has invited artists to participate in a series of essays reflecting on identity, music, culture, inclusion, and more.
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Today, Mercury nominated singer/songwriter and producer Dave Okumu shares his essay “Black History & Collaboration” as a part of Atwood Magazine’s Black History Month series. Active in the music industry since the early aughts, Okumu is perhaps best known as the frontman for London-based art rock trio The Invisible. He released his first solo record, the instrumental concept album ‘Knopperz,’ in 2021. Okumu is set to release his new album, ‘I Came From Love,’ under the moniker Dave Okumu & The 7 Generations, on April 14 via Transgressive Records. He describes the album as being all about the Black experience, exploring ancestry, the legacy of slavery, what it means to exist in an unjust society, and Okumu’s own family history.
BLACK HISTORY & COLLABORATION
by Dave Okumu
If you’re looking at it literally, Black History is the stories, the culture, and the experience of a melanated component of the Human race.
On a personal level, I think of it as a characteristic of my context as a person. My parents embodied their Blackness. They were my primary beacon of what Blackness means. They delighted in where they came from. That was really empowering for me because we didn’t live where we came from. They raised us with a connection to where we were from and it was celebrated. They taught me a sense of ancestral context, to know that I do come from somewhere, the place has real value, and it’s different from other places and that’s great. I had this sense instilled in me that I carried inherent value just by virtue of existing, which really is every human’s birthright.
I discovered my tribe of creators in my teens, when I moved to a school in South London called Pimlico that had a really vibrant music culture. Through some of the teachers there, I was encouraged to audition for a place at The Weekend’s Art College in North London. I did a Jazz class there for a year which was life changing both because of the quality of the education I received, but also because of the relationships that were forged there. Learning to collaborate was a really organic process for me. I suddenly found myself around people younger and older who were passionate about music. I met Tom Skinner there, a wonderful drummer (The Smile, Sons of Kemet) who is one of my oldest friends and basically the person I learned to play music with along with an amazing bass player, Tom Herbert. We would play together every day if we could and just set about the business of working it out.
It was born out of this insatiable appetite, this need to express ourselves and to share that experience together. The energy consumed us and the experience of that gave me a real appreciation of relationships and processes. It’s in that coming together over long periods of time, where culture blossoms, that’s where the best parts of humanity are preserved and developed. This enrichment occurs through that and I felt that it’s not about a solitary journey or ego. It’s about a shared journey that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I feel so blessed to have gone through that at such a young age and to have met elders who were willing to share the information with me and to guide me and to create a space for me to learn.
What I noticed was that there was such an absence of ego in the community that I found myself in. We’re creatures that learn from example and my experience was replete with examples of excellent people who were in service to music, they weren’t trying to prove anything. I started to notice in all these contexts, while playing all these different styles of music that would have different visions and ambitions, all of these people who were wildly distinct from one another, shared this quality, and it’s something that I’ve seen consistently throughout my career. Whenever I’m in the presence of greatness, there’s a quality that I recognize there and it’s an egoless one.
Making my new record I Came From Love was a big journey for me.
As the project emerged and really started to take shape, I knew that I wanted to bring people into a world of my creation. I knew that I wanted the complexity and nuance that only comes from deep collaboration and that there weren’t necessarily many people who would be appropriate for that role with the heavy subject matter. I’m so lucky to have a community that’s replete with talented and amazing people so there were people I could call on and I was so lucky that they understood the vision and they connected with it. It was really important for me to find the identity of this thing that I was trying to make, and then invite people in to populate that because the nature of the material required a sense of communion and fellowship in the actual fabric of the music.
One day, I went to see Wesley Joseph, and I had two songs in mind for him that I really wanted his character to appear in. Something that I sometimes do when I’m collaborating with people is that I’ll start the ball rolling, but I’ll leave an open door to see what someone’s instincts might be. I hadn’t actually written my lyrics for either of these songs yet. I had titles and the production started and I put it on. He just picked up a mic and sang an improvisation straight through. It’s pretty much what you hear on the record, and it was so spine tingling and eerie, how he kind of intuited exactly what the intention of the song was just from the textures and turned it into something really special. I felt like he was just channeling something so pure and I’ve never heard him like that before.
The day we went to record Grace Jones for the record, we went to her flat.
It’s always magical entering the realm of Grace, and there’s this sense of just never knowing what’s going to happen. There had been a long dialogue over the years about the possibility of her doing something on a record and I never make a record without thinking of her in some way. She’s been an inspiration to me since I was a child so it’s completely full circle for me. It was all so tentative, because she was in London, and then she wasn’t in London, and she was back in Jamaica and then she was in town for a few days.
Even as we were going over there with some portable recording equipment, I remember thinking, “You know what, if it doesn’t happen, it’s fine. I’m just getting to have dinner with Grace.” When we got to the flat, I remember thinking that we might not hit record today. We were just having a great time sharing food together. Suddenly, the energy just changed and microphones came out, and she was there asking me about my record and I couldn’t believe this woman was here, listening to what I wanted her to do. The sense of privilege was overwhelming. My whole body felt electric and it was as I’d always envisioned it, this matriarch of the whole record. She didn’t even need any instruction. It was so natural, and it was over in a flash and I kind of just couldn’t believe it.
For me, I want to be part of this conversation. I want to be in the stew of life and I want to help bring value to the human experience. That’s my aspiration, to be part of the continuum of the good things that happen in the world. The title of the album sort of lays claim to that idea. I guess in stating that I came from love, that’s what I’m trying to engender here. That will hopefully continue as I go on and I’ll keep learning and keep trying to share that with those who come on that journey with me. – Dave Okumu
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“The Intolerable Suffering of (The) Other” – Dave Okumu & The 7 Generations
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