Mercury Prize Star: Michael Kiwanuka

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Winning the Mercury Prize for his 2020 self-titled album, Kiwanuka is a contemporary force to be reckoned with. Freya Martin takes a look at the music in question, and the man behind it.

Growing up in 1980s North London, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Michael Kiwanuka was heavily influenced by performances of Black artists such as Bill Withers and Otis Redding, which directly defied assumptions at that time that a Black man playing acoustic guitar or being visibly and musically vulnerable was a rare or unconventional sight. Having taught himself the guitar whilst in secondary school, Kiwanuka has since become universally known for his alternative folk-rock style, which draws on a myriad of influences such as his Ugandan heritage, gospel and soul music. Releasing his debut single ‘Home Again’ and album of the same name in 2012, he earned himself the 2012 BBC Critic’s Choice award and his first Mercury prize nomination. Two more Mercury prize nominations followed, for his 2nd album Love & Hate, and finally an utterly deserved win with his third and latest album Kiwanuka in September 2020.

Kiwanuka has been described as an album of its time, a masterpiece blending the lines of concept album and autobiography with protest song. This is epitomised in ‘Hero’, a standout track of the already extraordinary album, which poignantly highlights the experience of growing up Black in an intrinsically prejudiced society, even more strikingly relevant in the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising: “Please don’t shoot me down / I loved you like a brother / It’s on the news again / I guess they killed another / Am I a hero? ” It is lyrics like this, each line poking a carefully aimed hole in the turbulent fabric of modern society, that pick apart the experience of being Black in a white-dominated society and the issues of systemic racism and police brutality, a theme which runs throughout the album. The lyrics “No tears for the young / A bullet if you run away / Another lost one / Like father, like son, we pray” in ‘Rolling’ mourn the loss of so many young BIPOC as a result of racially-motivated violence and indeed the way in which this has become such an accepted cog in the mechanism of modern white society, focusing on the defencelessness and resignation of people simply trying to exist in the world that they live in.

Throughout the album, as one track seamlessly glides into the next, the impetus and gravity of the songs are initially masked by the sheer joy of the sound, created by the upbeat, arresting guitar, ringing piano and Kiwanuka’s warming and broad vocals. This is notable in ‘You Ain’t The Problem’, the album’s opening track which resounds with trumpeting chords, tambourines and a jubilant backing chorus of ‘la-la’s, but conceals an ode to a past lover and heartbreak, demonstrating a feeling that is common to many. “I lived a lie / Love is the crime / It’s you I believe in (I know) / Don’t hesitate / Time heals the pain / You ain’t the problem”. It is perhaps this juxtaposition of politically charged songs with those of love and heartbreak that perfectly illustrates our shared humanity; whatever may divide us, humans fundamentally share their core emotions and innate feelings. 

Michael Kiwanuka. Credit: NME

This is heard again with ‘Another Human Being’, a short interlude prefacing the love song ‘Living in Denial’, featuring sampled quotations from participants of ‘sit-in’ protests pioneered by the Greensboro Four during the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

“You cause no violence / You have no angry words / The idea that here sits beside me, another human being.”

The album as a body of work presents itself as an impeccable narration of Kiwanuka’s life and experiences as he has grown up in a rapidly changing country and global society. It marks his journey to (and achievement of) self-acceptance, identity and heritage and presents his view of issues of police brutality faced by so many people of colour worldwide on an unacceptably regular basis. 

Long-awaited recognition, in the form of the prestigious 2020 Mercury Prize, voted for by a near-on unanimous voting panel, as well as widespread laudations, has finally come to a man and musical talent who overwhelmingly deserves it.

ITM Recommends:

  • Hero (2019)
  • Love & Hate – Live (2016)
  • Black Man in a White World (2016)

Header image: Michael KiwanukaCredit: NME