Yesterday’s Mercury Prize nominations have prompted the usual arguments about who is responsible for the best British or Irish album of the last year. Who should be on the 12-strong list that isn’t? Who shouldn’t be there that is? Who does or doesn’t deserve to be on the judging panel? Why on earth did they give it to Klaxons over Amy Winehouse in 2007? And so on. It’s tradition.
From Michael Kiwanuka, at least, there are nothing but good feelings for the £25,000 award. Others have been nominated more times (Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey and Laura Marling) but only he and Anna Calvi have appeared three times and been shortlisted for every album they’ve made.
“It’s a nice trilogy, man. It’s amazing,” he tells me. “You don’t make albums to get awards, but you do need to have something to be ambitious towards, to keep you digging for the best stuff and bettering yourself. It keeps you hungry.”
The 33-year-old already enjoyed an even bigger platform at the start of this year when his third album, simply titled Kiwanuka, was nominated for British Album of the Year at the Brit Awards. “I still think of the Brits as super pop, so for me it was a win just to have a seat at that table,” he says. He lost out to Psychodrama by the rapper Dave, which he didn’t mind because they’re using very different musical styles to explore the same thing: what it is to be black today.
Kiwanuka, whose Ugandan parents escaped Idi Amin’s regime to settle in Muswell Hill, samples a speech by Alabama-born civil rights leader John Lewis, references the “sit-in” protests against racial segregation in 1960 in the US, and has a song on the latest album called Hero which is about murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The lines, “It’s on the news again/I guess they killed another,” have given the song a powerful resonance right now. Then again, there has rarely been a time when those words aren’t relevant.
“In those first few weeks [after George Floyd’s murder] it was difficult to talk about. It was so heavy, on top of the pandemic, I didn’t really know what to say,” he says. “Now I realise how important art can be. Making music, you think you’re just writing songs, but the world does give it to you, if you just sit and be in it for a while. When you open yourself up to that you can write something about what is really happening today.”
He had to find out about Lewis and Hampton for himself. He wasn’t taught about that period at school in north London. You can hear his growth if you listen to his three albums back to back. Home Again, his debut from 2012, is lightly toasted folk-soul, acoustic mostly, somewhat cosy. On Love & Hate, in 2016, this nice guy’s musical ambition becomes apparent. There’s Cold Little Heart, a swirling 10-minute epic that went on to become the theme song for the all-star HBO television drama Big Little Lies. There’s also Black Man in a White World, a sparse clapping song that sounds like an old spiritual and first expresses his lifelong feeling of outsider status. Then on Kiwanuka, released in November last year, the canvas is broader again. There’s gospel, funk, fuzzy psychedelic guitar, a wild, vaulting sound concocted with the help of producers Danger Mouse and Inflo. It sounds like Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye – retro but of impeccable quality.
“When I was making my second album I really started to think about my identity, because it kind of gets thrown in your face when you’re a singer,” he says. “I was trying to survive in a system that wasn’t really made for me – on a pop label, making the kind of music that I make. I was called ‘soul’, because I’m black, but then my influences are so varied. It was really annoying me. Then that carried on into the next album which was less about me and my identity, and more about the identity of black people in the world.”
When he began his career in music, he was advised to take a stage name because Kiwanuka was supposedly hard to pronounce, so it’s gratifying to see the name in curvy organge capitals on the third album cover, above a portrait of the singer as African royalty by the Atlanta artist Markeidric Walker. It shows a self-confidence that he lacked early on, when he dropped out of a course at the Royal Academy of Music in 2007, worn down by negative appraisals, or abandoned sessions for Kanye West’s Yeezus album in 2012, convinced that he didn’t belong in such company.
“At some point you have to be loud and proud about who you are. A third album is often where people find their feet and really get going. You kind of know what you’re doing. Sonically, the title, the cover, everything on it is more confident. You always have doubts, but I decided I’m not gonna keep moaning about it.”
Of course he should be confident. That was him jokingly showing his ruthlessness by firing a tardy roadie in the Richard Curtis film Yesterday. The success of Cold Little Heart has increased the size of venues he plays the world over. He very much hopes that large hometown shows at Brixton Academy in September, and just down the road from where he grew up at Alexandra Palace in November, can go ahead. “I want to be positive but I’m trying not to think about it because I don’t want to get disappointed,” he says. “I’m thinking more about new music, the next chapter, but when the world does get back to how we remember it, I’m definitely ready to go back into touring.”
In the meantime, he’s sitting on a highly award-worthy album that, for better or worse, has captured the mood of the time. “I think that’s what the zeitgeist is,” he says. “If everyone’s thinking about something, and you just sit there and listen, it will come out in writing and songs and art. You will have things in the music that can be healing. It makes me want to go back and keep working.”
The winner of the 2020 Hyundai Mercury Prize is announced on Sep 10.
Michael Kiwanuka plays Sep 5, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (o2academybrixton.co.uk) and Nov 27, Alexandra Palace, N22 (alexandrapalace.com)