Michael Kiwanuka, Xoyo, London
Emeli Sandé, Xoyo, London
Darling of the music industry he may be, but Michael Kiwanuka is no Bill Withers. Still, he needn't look far to learn from a true star turn
Sunday 29 January 2012
How do you turn a duck into a soul singer? You put it in the oven till its bill withers. Sure, it's an old one. But if you think that joke's time worn and predictable, wait till you hear Michael Kiwanuka.
The 24-year-old from Muswell Hill is the latest oven-ready duck to be served up by the music industry, having recently topped the BBC Sound of 2012 poll, the survey which, with increasingly depressing results, asks supposed experts and insiders (in the interests of full disclosure, I do have a vote) to go with their heads, not their hearts, and predict who will make it big over the next 12 months. If Michael Kiwanuka really is the sound of 2012, heaven help us.
In Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, the authors Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor recount how the Lomaxes, Alan and John, coerced the blues legend Lead Belly – in reality a smartly dressed and versatile musician – to appear on stage wearing a prison uniform and to perform only the most primitive end of his repertoire, playing up to the image of the "singing convict" in order to appeal to white audiences' expectations of what "real" black people were like.
There's an unmistakable whiff of that stereotyping about an industry that pushes an act like Michael Kiwanuka. With his big wooden guitar, checked shirt and head-smashingly simple songs about coming "home again" and Bible-bashing banalities like "Oh Lord, I'm a'getting ready to believe", he's like something out of the first reel of The Jerk. Except that this is no joke: it's the latest land-grab for what Popjustice has been calling "The New Boring".
To describe what Kiwanuka does as "soul music" is to perpetuate a reductive idea of what soul is. In a world where artists like Janelle Monáe have blown the possibilities of that genre wide open, Kiwanuka's victory is a retrograde step. It's as though the music business is saying: "Just give us something we can sell by the truckload to sandal-wearing Jack Johnson fans, and we will reward you."
If that is what the music industry is doing, shame on it. And if you're encouraging it, shame on you. As for me, sorry but no pasaran. This will not stand. It's just not good enough.
"Is anyone here a fan of Bill Withers?" he asks, before a cover of the Seventies hero's "I Don't Know". But you can put Michael Kiwanuka in the oven all day long. He ain't no Bill Withers, sunshine.
Kiwanuka stands at the back chatting throughout Emeli Sandé's set. How do I know? He's right next to me. I have to move away to hear her above his conversation. But why would he pay attention? He has nothing to learn from her, or from anyone who didn't peak over three decades ago. You can see why Q bundled this pair together for one of its "Now: The Sessions" showcases. But despite their superficial similarities – young, black, British winners of newcomer awards, drawing upon vintage soul for inspiration – Sandé is everything Kiwanuka is not.
The week after we lost Etta James, it's not only Emeli Sandé's bleached-blond hair that creates the sensation of a mantle being passed on. She's no groundbreaker, this former medical student from Aberdeenshire, but Emeli Sandé does at least demonstrate plenty of what Barton Fink would call "life of the mind".
The pre-announced winner of the Critics Choice Award at the Brits 2012, she's already a well-established mainstream force, having guested on a No 1 single by Professor Green, and written for Cher Lloyd and Susan Boyle. She's also writing for the reunited Sugababes, however, so she's at least partly on the side of the angels.
In any case, it's her own material that shines – reality-rooted narratives such as "Suitcase" and "Lifetime". And her new single, a stunning proclamation of invincible love called "Next to Me", sounds like a standard in waiting. It's songs like this that could make the Scot – full name Adele Emeli Sandé – as ubiquitous as the other Adele.
Preceded by a proggy overture from her backing band, she prowls on with the presence of a natural star, effortlessly owning the stage, and delivers harsh, heartbreaking lines about dropping "all the pills the doctor told us to take" in the kind of easy soul voice that ought to make lesser Brit-schooled warblers crawl away and hide, muttering "Sandé, bloody Sandé".
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