2020 Hyundai Mercury Prize A brief look into… Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘KIWANUKA’

Ahead of the 2020 Hyundai Mercury Prize, we’ve taken a brief look at the twelve shortlisted albums.

‘KIWANUKA’, emblazoned in bold above a regal Tudor African-style portrait of Michael Kiwanuka for his third album’s cover art is about as direct a statement can get. This is who he is: a proud, black Ugandan-British man. On ‘KIWANUKA’, the famously self-deprecating musician has finally learnt to accept himself even if the odd doubt fires up. That new-found confidence is matched by Michael’s most widescreen retro-futuristic music yet. Funk, psych, orchestral soul and space rock intertwine as naturally as the record’s free-flowing production seduces. Clever interlacing of samples from the ‘60s civil rights movement capture the despairing mood of the current times; Michael showing the prejudice he swallowed growing up remains in a sorry state today.

With ‘KIWANUKA’, the 33-year-old artist has made his most ambitious, political and spectacular record to date. It’s his third time appearing on the Mercury Prize shortlist following folkier debut ‘Home Again’ (2012) and grand follow-up ‘Love & Hate’ (2016), but ‘KIWANUKA’ is his crowning glory. An enviable production team of Danger Mouse and Inflo have helped him realise his vision. For instance, on the dreamy ‘Another Human Being’, Danger Mouse splices a sample from a civil rights sit-in protest report. “And for the first time, the community was confronted with negroes in places where they had never been,” jars a doomy, pitch-shifted vocal against the song’s celestial harp melody. Its demonic tone plays on a white fear of blackness. A voice then emerges, distinct and clear, to counter it: “You cause no violence… the idea that here sits beside me, another human being.”

The social justice story continues on fuzz rocker ‘Hero’, about murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, which is musically indebted to Funkadelic’s boisterous riffage. “It’s on the news again / I guess they killed another,” he sings. In interviews since the album’s release, the musician has laid no claim to his music’s prescience. Instead, he’s addressed art’s tendency to imitate life and vice versa. “In those first few weeks [after George Floyd’s killing] it was difficult to talk about,” he told the Evening Standard. With ‘KIWANUKA’, he’s more attune to how vital art is in human understanding.

There are lighter ideas on ‘KIWANUKA’, however, largely attributed to the songwriter’s personal growth. ‘70s groovers ‘You Ain’t The Problem’ and ‘Rolling’ espouse his views on self-acceptance (“I used to hate myself / You got the key / Break out the prison”, he sings on the former).

‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ and ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ carry the lush orchestral work of Isaac Hayes, and tap into Michael’s anxieties about the vulnerability of love despite being better equipped to manage them. “The Lord said to me / Time is a healer”, goes the latter’s hopeful, gospel call-and-response outro, working as much as an outward spiritual guide as his inward personal mantra.

Indeed, the album doesn’t shy away from pain nor wallow in it. In a complex world wrought with suffering, everyone could do with a heady dose of ‘KIWANUKA’’s power.

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