Even though Kamasi Washington didn’t set out to become the face of the jazz revival, it was certainly destined as his calling. The 37-year-old has been deeply involved with music for as long as he has been alive on this planet. At the age of two, Washington learned how to play the drums and over time he picked up the piano, clarinet and saxophone.
Even though he technically lived in “the hood,” growing up in South Central L.A. exposed Washington to a flourishing creative community where he was constantly surrounded by poets and musicians. Washington recalls spending most of his days at Leimert Park where he has a lifetime of fond memories. He’ll never forget the experience of attending his first concert at Billy Higgins’ iconic club The World Stage where he watched Pharaoh Sanders perform.
“As a kid growing up in South Central, the way you look at the news and stuff like that, it was such a negative portrayal of where we lived,” he said. “There were definitely gangs and violence and drugs and stuff like that there, but there was also that–places like Leimert.”
After Washington graduated from the Alexander Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music, he enrolled at UCLA to study at the Department of Ethnomusicology. Fast-forward a few years and he would go on to work with some of the music industry’s most notable living legends such as Lauryn Hill, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Chaka Khan, Flying Lotus and Thundercat.
Of course, Washington is an icon in his own right not only within the jazz world but beyond it as he continues to live his truth and fully express his creativity without limits. Last month, he released his sophomore album Heaven and Earth followed by The Choice EP on Young Turks. Scroll down to learn more about how this artist fine-tuned his craft in our exclusive interview.
When did the saxophone make its way into your life?
So I was playing these [instruments] the whole time, but I wasn’t necessarily really into jazz. My dad was into jazz, he was always playing me records. When I was about 11 is when I really started getting into jazz [and] the saxophone. My favorite musician and hard buttons band was Wayne Shorter [the] saxophone player. So by the time I was about 11 or 12, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but my dad wouldn’t let me switch. He felt like I was switching instruments too much, he wanted me to kinda focus on clarinet a little longer. One day, he left his saxophone out, I took it and I figured out how to play my favorite song from Art Blakey on saxophone. I went and showed him, I was like, “Look, I can already play the saxophone. It’s too late.” He ended up giving me a saxophone and one or two days later I joined my uncle’s church band. That’s how I got my start.
Picking your instrument so young, that’s such a big decision. That’s almost like marriage, in a way, when you really think about it, and yet they don’t let you have the time to truly experiment with all of them. Anyway, I’m glad that you were able to find yours so early on.
I feel like everyone has an instrument that they’re meant to play. Sometimes the first instrument that you start playing is not the instrument that you were meant to play.
How would you describe your relationship with jazz now?
It’s definitely the foundation of who I am musically. It’s one of the real key foundations of African-American music. There’s blues and then there’s jazz, everything else now is dividing out from those two. I don’t really like the idea of barriers, I think they’re more connected, but to me, the idea of jazz, the idea of self-expression and freedom… People talk a lot about the physical abuse and the physical enslavement that happened during slavery, but the mental enslavement, the restrictions on the mind was almost even more great than the restrictions on our bodies. To not be allowed to express your mind, to use your creativity. These were brilliant people who weren’t able to use their brilliance. All of a sudden, you get to the early 1900s, and we have that freedom again. Jazz was one of the first recognized inventions that we had.
What has your experience been like creating jazz music in this era? I feel like the history of jazz is still ongoing, but it’s interesting to sort of see this shift.
I think that jazz, it covers such a wide range. Over the years, it’s such a inclusive idea, improvisation and expression and group expression. That’s what really makes jazz what it is. I can’t really relegate it to any particular musical device or rhythm or chord or instrumentation. It’s really that sense of freedom that really makes something feel like jazz. To me, funk is jazz, it’s just a different word for it. Even rock-and-roll and a lot of these other things, we have a different name for them, and I get why we have a different name, but I think that’s what happened with jazz. People took that idea and brought it over to other styles of music.
I grew up in a household where it was all over my house, my friends had no idea who any of these people were. I was in elementary school when I got into Art Blakey and going to school and showing my friends. What got me into jazz too was when I started to recognize some of the samples in certain records. There was this one Tribe Called Quest sample, I remember showing them that that Tribe Called Quest song that we like is actually Art Blakey… It’s just exposure. You rarely meet someone who’s like, “Yeah, I used to really be into jazz, but I don’t like it anymore.” It’s one of those things that people, when they say they’re not into it, it’s usually because they just haven’t heard it.
Is there a central theme that ties Heaven & Earth together? Also, how long had this project been in the making?
We started this out in May of 2016. When I went to the studio, that year was a crazy year. We were touring like crazy, for The Epic we might’ve had 200 shows that year. I didn’t really know exactly what I was gonna do when I went into the studio. As I started working on the songs, this idea of the duality of our reality and how our thoughts and our beliefs affect our experience and our reality emerged. I started going on this journey of that idea, it led me to a really cool place where at the end of it, I realized that we each live in our own little pocket of the world. Because our world is shaped by our thoughts, we have the ability to make our little pocket of the world what we want it to be. Then when you combine all those little pockets of the world, that’s what the world ends up being. Coming to that understanding, it felt like an important idea that a lot of people forget. We each have our hand in making the world what it is even if we take that ability and give it to someone else, that’s still an act of making the world what it is.
So for me, the whole idea was the empowerment of taking people on a journey where they get to this place where they understand that. The world is going to be what we make it, no one person really has any more power than anyone else. It’s cool to sometimes give that power to someone else. Also, to take it back and use your independent thought to try to shape the world into what we want it to be and not be so concerned with the entirety of the world. Make your little pocket of the world what you want it to be. If more people did that, you’d get a real actual shift in what’s going on. That was the driving force once I got in there and started working on the music.
Then I started realizing this interesting divide in that in what I’m thinking and what I’m experiencing and how they’re related and how what I think and what I believe ends up becoming what I experience. That was the whole idea with the cover, with the mirror image. “Which one is which?” You look at a mirror, it’s a reflection of who you are. What’s in the mirror is there because of who you are, but then, when you look in the mirror, you see your hair, you’re like, “Let me pull this out. Let me wipe this thing off my chin. Shape my beard.” Whatever you do, that kind of “Which one is which?” Do you decide what’s in the mirror or does the mirror decide what you are? You’ve never seen yourself until you’ve seen yourself in a mirror. Or it turns into a reflection.
How is The Choice an extension of this project?
So one part of the album is like a discovery of what’s happening and then The Choice was about what will you do with that? Or will you do anything at all? Like I said, most people in the world don’t really shape their world, they let it be shaped by others. When you make the choice to shape your world and make it into something that’s beautiful, it tends to resonate. Those are the people that we read about in history, but those are the people that decided to not accept or give away their power. Imagine if billions of people were actually using their power to make the world what it could be. It’d be an unstoppable force. The whole idea of The Choice was to take this information and use it or not. It’s more of a metaphor. One, I just really like the song and the songs do represent that idea, but the reason why I hid it away was because of that. It made it something that you had to work to get to.
Going back to Heaven and Earth, I read that the “Street Fighter Mas” video was inspired by your fandom for the video game so I wanted to learn more about your connection with it. I also think it’s interesting because Nicki Minaj also recently made a reference to the game with “Chun-Li.”
When I originally wrote that song it was really just a playful thing. For the video I wanted to, in a joking way, have a little theme song for when I play “Street Fighter”—play it when I walk into the arcade, hear it on the intercom or something like that. The reason why I put it on the album was because I had an interesting relationship with video games in general. When I was a kid, all the 7-Elevens, the liquor stores, the laundromats, they all had arcade games in them. We had Nintendos, but back then the arcade system, arcade games were cooler than the home console games. We would go to this place called Red Stall and play Street Fighter. Red Stall was on this block that was really active. It was a dangerous place, but everyone wanted to go there and play the game. Sometimes people [would] forget these are just kids, they would treat them as these adults, but they were just kids who were labeled as gangsters. We were all in there playing the game.
It was funny that there were older kids and even some grown men outside of the Red Stall, outside playing Street Fighter [that] I would be completely afraid of because they were really rough hoods, but in there, we were playing the game [and] all of a sudden we got our humanity back because we were just having fun playing this video game. I remember talking smack to the dudes, all kinds of stuff that we wouldn’t do, and it brought this level of humanity to the situation. It was something that was special for me. It seemed liked we were just playing a game, but I remember straight up OG, hardcore, very violent, scary people that beat me in there playing Street Fighter, and I’d be talking shit to them. As a kid, I didn’t really put two and two together, but as an adult I think back on that time. I’m like, “Wow. What a powerful tool that fun can be.”
Were there any other songs that have references to memories from the past?
I mean, “Hub-Tones” is definitely that. Each track from Heaven and Earth has a companion to it. “Hub-Tones” had that same thing of that connection that people kinda have. With “Hub-Tones,” as an African-American it’s hard to direct knowledge of our lineage, what country we come from. We know the continent, but we don’t have a country. To not have that direct connection to your ancestors is something that can be difficult. But we have our connection to our African-American ancestors. These kids in this neighborhood, who would normally fight each other, have fun with each other. I was trying to take the connection, connecting myself to my ancestors through my African and African-American ancestors, and combine the African rhythms to the Dirty Albert song. In a way, it’s doing that.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of different artists like Florence and the Machine, St. Vincent, Kendrick Lamar… You are all so different from each other, how do you blend all of these worlds together?
That’s what I was saying before, they’re actually already blended. That’s the cool part. Music is much more connected than you sometimes think. For me, when I go in to work with another artist, I take down any barriers and just listen to their music and what they’re doing. When we’re working together, just thinking, being totally open. With that, it’s easy. I can go into any situation because the barriers are really just descriptions. They’re not actual barriers.
Take a jazz musician and put him in a heavy metal band, if he has the right mindset then the music will just inspire something. He’ll have a reaction to that music, and he’ll play something that will be relevant to who he is as a person, more so than who he is as a genre. Whenever I work with anyone, I just try to come as a blank slate. Especially if I’m working for their project, I’m working for someone else’s album. I really try to catch the vibe of what they’re trying to do more so than me coming in and being concerned with any stylistic norms.
When Florence sent me the song she wanted me to write, I was just listening to it. I wasn’t really thinking anything other than just listening to the music and trying to have it touch my heart. Whenever that happens to a musician, you start to hear things you can add to it. Same thing with Kendrick and everyone else. I just come in and try to enjoy the music. Once I can do that, then I can.
For more like this, check out our in-depth piece on Georgian experimental hip-hop duo KayaKata right here.