Sheila Maurice-Grey on Art’s Emancipatory Properties

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Trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey performs in both Kokoroko and Nérija, groups that recently issued debut EPs indebted to jazz, Afrobeat and more.

(Photo: Glauco Canalis)

Kokoroko, a London-based Afrobeat group, released its self-titled debut EP earlier this year after being featured on the We Out Here compilation in 2018. Sheila Maurice-Grey and the rest of the horn section move from coloring the effort with cooled-out lines to etching it all with punchy bursts of brass. But the trumpeter also contributes to Nérija, another group—saxophonist Nubya Garcia and guitarist Shirley Tetteh are members—that recently issued a short debut.

Maurice-Grey hails from a network of youth development programs focused on music whose graduates—like Garcia and Theon Cross—populate and propel the contemporary London jazz scene. She recently took some time to speak with DownBeat about her recordings and the emancipatory possibilities of art.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe Kokoroko to the uninitiated?

There are a lot of people that haven’t heard [the] music, and the way I normally describe it is an Afrobeat band from London. People who know about Afrobeat are like, ‘Oh really? Sick.’ I guess it’s inspired by music from West Africa, mainly Afrobeat, but also Highlife, which is also important. Highlife came before Afrobeat; that’s something to point out. Most of [Kokoroko] are from the African diaspora; we’re a younger generation trying to emphasize that this music is very much relevant and important. And it’s timeless.

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews a goal of playing music that attracts diverse audiences. Have you found that crowds at shows have changed during the past few years?

I feel like I’ve performed for so many audiences: It feels like it’s hard to answer that question in a way that feels fair. But from my opinion, just talking about the Kokoroko audience, I would say it depends on the country we go. We have an interesting audience. We have so many young people coming up to our shows, and diverse crowds in a lot of countries we go to, and it’s not as diverse [in others].

A lot of things are linked to society, in terms of what people are exposed to or have access to—different classes or backgrounds. But especially in London, there’s a healthy mix of a lot of cultures and ages, actually, which is great, and what one should be aiming for. I can confidently say that a lot of shows are—forgive me if it’s not politically correct—kind of whitewashed. And I feel like that’s due to a lot of countries we’re going to, what people are exposed to. I feel like I’m blessed enough to be part of a family ... that encouraged me to take on music. I feel like, if I didn’t go to a school that was a music-funded school—I didn’t go to a great school—but if I didn’t do all those things, I don’t think I’d be a musician.

Does this current political moment influence what you do?

One-thousand percent, and it’s very relevant to both [U.S. and UK] cultures.

I feel like [the music is] a massive statement, although we haven’t necessarily said anything that’s majorly political. But definitely we’re in a time where there’s a lot of questions about people’s identities. Particularly in the UK, young and old. There’s a lot of stuff that been stirred up through Brexit about the Windrush Generation, and a lot of people who are supposedly living in this country illegally, who have been made to feel like this is not their home.

It’s definitely music that’s very relevant to both of those cultures, especially for me and a couple of the other people in the [bands I play in]. A lot of us take pride in our heritage. But at the same time, as much as we take pride in our heritage, we will never really be considered 100 percent one or the other. There’s an identify crisis happening all over the world, and the crisis—I feel like, in some ways, people have made it a positive thing and put their own spin on it.

Have you had the experience of feeling personally empowered by an artist’s work?

Before studying music, I studied fine art. A big part of my art, even before I went to study it, has always been about exploring the notion of my identity. I’ve found art to be a way of expressing or exploring that for as long as I remember, even from when I first picked up the trumpet.

I think one of the key things that struck me about playing trumpet, I remember very vividly at the age of 14 playing the music of Abdullah Ibrahim. I knew [about the pianist] because I grew up with my step-dad—he’s from South Africa and Zimbabwe—and it was a thing that was spoken about; apartheid and the history behind it. And listening to the music that came with it, I’ll never forget that feeling.

When I joined Kinetika Bloco, I remember the theme of that year was “Rise to Freedom,” and it was basically exploring the music of Abdullah Ibrahim, and how that music was written when Nelson Mandela came out of prison. That was also the first time I listened explicitly to Fela Kuti. I feel like, for me, music—or art in general—that in some way, shape or form explores the notion of identity has always captivated me. DB



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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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