Interview: Kamasi Washington

Whether you know him from collaborations with Kendrick Lamar or his ambitious 2015 debut The Epic, we can guarantee you’re counting down the days until Kamasi Washington visits our city.
Kamasi Washington

Russ Musto caught up with the jazz saxophonist and bandleader ahead of his Istanbul performance

African-American music and culture critic Greg Tate described you as the “jazz voice of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Would you care to comment on that?
“I think the Black Lives Matter movement is about the perception of African-American people as being a threat – and I’m a prototypical big dark-skinned guy that is the model of the threatening person you’re supposed to be afraid of. And I think it is that fear that ends up leading to the violence. There’s a fear of aggression, and that leads to a lack of humanity in the way that we’re viewed. I think in that sense, yeah, my music is a representative of that. I think it shows that type of mentality that there’s no logic to it.”

Do you think your music can help change attitudes?
“I think that music is one of the greatest ways of doing it. When you listen to someone’s music and it reaches you, you automatically connect with [that artist] and that visual image. Instead of you thinking of some person as one you need to be afraid of, you feel connected to [that person] from the music.”

What took you so long to make an album under your own name?
“Well, it’s a gift and a curse being in demand and having a successful career as a sideman. I was making music for other people. I needed to make that leap of not just taking what comes to me but going after what I want. But that was part of my journey.”

What were some of the lessons you learned from playing with Snoop and Kendrick?
“I was really impressed with the fact that Kendrick’s last album was incredibly successful. Then for him to turn around and do something in such a different direction [with To Pimp a Butterfly]… A lot of people are fearless when they’re coming up, but when they rise to the top, they get stuck in what they think people want to hear. Seeing that was inspiring to me.”

You call your band the Next Step. What does that signify?
“The Next Step was like, ‘Okay, we’ve now done this, we’ve been on the road, we’ve played with our heroes.’ I don’t want to get caught where I’m just hopping from one gig to the next. I want to take the next step and bring all that wisdom and knowledge back to my music and push our own voice to the next level.”

Kamasi Washington plays Beykoz Kundura for the Istanbul Jazz Festival. 

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