“Art Should Challenge People”: Mr Moses Boyd’s New Jazz Age

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“Art Should Challenge People”: Mr Moses Boyd’s New Jazz Age

Words by Mr Ajesh Patalay | Photography by Ms Ronan Mckenzie | Styling by Ms Cynthia Igbokwe

15 October 2020

Mr Moses Boyd is on the third day of a three-day fast. My heart sinks when he tells me. What a day to be interviewing him. We meet outside his flat in Bellingham, south-east London, and are heading to a nearby park when he breaks the news. Apparently, a couple of his male friends did the same fast a few weeks ago. When Mr Boyd saw them, their hair was shiny, their skin was glowing. He was so impressed, he decided to try it for himself.

I needn’t have worried. Despite subsisting on nothing but water for the past 60 hours, Mr Boyd isn’t tetchy at all. Lounging on a park bench in the afternoon sun, he is boisterous and full of beans. He used to walk through this park on his way to school, he says. He grew up in nearby Catford. Part of the reason he loves it here and hasn’t moved away is the sense of community. “If I sit here long enough,” he says, “I will see people I know.” Sure enough, a minute later, his dad walks by. We both get a kick out of that.

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Mr Boyd’s music is as unflagging as he is. As a jazz drummer, composer, producer and band leader (of the Moses Boyd Exodus), Mr Boyd creates tunes that explode conceptions of what jazz can be. He brings together electronica, grime, jungle, afrobeat, and drum and bass among other influences. His tracks can be heard on dance floors and at festivals, as well as in jazz clubs. Even the way he releases music (on his own label, Exodus Records) and communicates with fans (via WhatsApp) breaks the mould. At 29, he is a music industry pioneer.

This year, he also drew a lot of mainstream attention after his first solo album, Dark Matter, was nominated for the Mercury Prize alongside albums by Ms Dua Lipa, Stormzy and Kano. “I’m never on the same bill as these people,” he says. “I’m not even in the same room, so this is a win for me, even if I haven’t won.” Although the prize went to Mr Michael Kiwanuka, just being nominated reaped rewards. “Streams go up, sales go up, press goes up,” says Mr Boyd. “Everything exponentially grows.”

The nomination capped what was already “the biggest year in my life”. After the album’s release in February, Mr Boyd embarked on a 13-night European tour, which ended at the Electric Brixton on 12 March. He remembers coming off stage and being told by the tech crew that the venue was closing due to coronavirus. “I got the last show,” he says. “It was bittersweet. Then I had other things planned, festivals and things. One by one, seeing them disappear out of the diary was tough.”

Lockdown afforded him the chance to exercise, meditate and catch up with friends, “things that keep us human that you forget about in the rat race”, but he couldn’t make music. “The whole thing with George Floyd happened,” he says, “and my head went to another place. People getting shot. Things burning. It didn’t feel comfortable being in my bubble, locking myself away to make beats.”

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The situation left him rattled. “Seeing black people being killed by authorities or treated badly is something I have had to live with as a black man in England,” he says. “When the George Floyd thing happened, it was like a trigger. Not like I had suppressed it, but I had made some kind of success out of my life and it can sometimes be easy to separate yourself from those realities when you’re a bit successful. But I am still a black person who could be killed by the police at any point. Seeing a knee on his neck – that could be me.”

Mr Boyd has been stopped by police numerous times. He understands how easily “things could go left for no reason or fault of my own”. That breeds caution. But also defiance. “The Maroon blood in me is like, you’re wrong. Stand your ground.” He was 12 years old the first time it happened. He was helping his godfather, a white Irishman, restore furniture at his antique shop in Brockley. Mr Boyd cut his finger. His brother bought him a box of plasters. Mr Boyd was sitting outside on a display couch, when an undercover police car pulled up and started interrogating him, mistaking his stash of plasters for drugs. “That sets the tone,” says Mr Boyd. “A sad reality for black people.”

His album, Dark Matter, reflects those realities and rumbles with disquiet. Informed by Brexit, Grenfell and the Windrush scandal, it strikes a more stridently political note than any of his previous releases. The cover presents a burning Union Jack. “Is that technically treason?” asks Mr Boyd dryly. He was in two minds about being so overt. “But you know what?” he says. “Art should challenge people. And if you’re too comfortable listening to art, I don’t know if that is art I want to be a part of.”

Mr Boyd derives most hope from young people (younger even than himself, that is), people such as his 22-year-old sister, Keilah. “She’s read so many more books than I have, about critical race theory, misogynoir, all these issues that need to be tackled,” he says. “They are the ones who will harbour change. They are going to be the future lawmakers, people in power, CEOs. That’s what we need – people who understand it before they even get into it.”

As a teenager, Mr Boyd took to jazz with the same sense of purpose. He pored over videos of Messrs Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, jammed with his music teacher during lunch breaks, learned how to record and mix and disappeared “down the rabbit hole”, as he puts it. His music education started earlier. His father, an office equipment engineer (now retired) and his primary schoolteacher mother loved music and flooded the house with gospel, reggae, soul, anything from Björk to Sixpence None The Richer.

At 13, Mr Boyd took up drums. “Before that, I was that kid who was into one thing, then another,” he says. “Basketball. Then I got a skateboard. Then a BMX. When I got into drums, something clicked. I felt this is going to be me for ever. I loved the feeling of being behind the kit, being in control rhythmically.” By 16, he was playing professional gigs and launching a career that has, he says, “afforded me opportunities to travel, be in interesting rooms and elevate my life spiritually and monetarily”. It gives him pause to think how some of his friends, say, ended up in prison. “Given the prospect for young black boys in south-east London at that time, with Operation Trident [a police initiative to tackle gun crime], who knows what the future could have been?”

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Now he’s in a position to help young musicians. “That’s something my parents instilled in me,” he says. “If you get through the door, keep it open.” But he worries about bringing fresh talent into an industry that he sees as broken, whether it’s because of lack of diversity at the top or contracts that practically enslave artists. His greatest fear is that “they would be ruined to the point where they’re not happy making music or just not happy”, he says. “You enter this world, which can be dark, and it kills your vibe. How would I sleep at night knowing that one of my little brothers or sisters whom I helped get into this is a dentist because they didn’t want to continue.”

We start talking about Mr Kanye West, who has been railing against inequities in the industry, including copyright ownership (and peeing on Grammy awards in protest). “As an artist, I respect him, but it’s complex with Kanye because I’m like, right message, wrong messenger. You had an opportunity to fix this,” he says, meaning a culture that perpetuates misogyny and glamorises drugs. “You chose not to, so what’s happened now? Some people want a quick cheque. I can’t knock people for that. It’s a hard world. It can set people up for life, but they will sacrifice something. I’m happy to live a humble life if it means I have done things ethically and not double-crossed anybody.”

Mr Boyd has been grappling with inequity his whole career. That’s why he started his own label and is trying to bypass Spotify or Facebook to engage fans directly with mechanisms such as his Exodus Hotline, a WhatsApp broadcast system. “I’ve seen how this industry works and I’m like, you don’t need to do it that way,” he says. “When I started making music, jazz musicians weren’t pressing vinyls and doing EPs. Now it’s a thing. I remember doing my first headline show at Corsica [Studios, a dance venue in south London]. There weren’t many improvising groups doing that. Since then, the way clubs approach who they book has changed. Sometimes it takes one hard-headed person to go, ‘I want to do something like this,’ and it creates a whole different ecosystem and way of looking at things.” That’s how you lead a revolution, one hard-headed decision at a time.

Dark Matter is out now