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Soweto Kinch

Birmingham sax star Soweto Kinch staged a one-man demo at the MOBO's recently because they dropped their jazz category. Clearly, a man prepared to stand up for what he believes in - and as Nick Booth discovered that includes staying in his home city.

Soweto Kinch was stripping wallpaper when I arrived at his flat in a tired old tower block overlooking the Hockley Flyover on the northern edge of Birmingham city centre. This had been his third floor home for three years now, he told me, and he was trying to freshen it up.

It has also inspired his latest work. A life in the day of B19 - The Tower Block, is the first of two albums which explore the world of inner city Birmingham.

It combines jazz and hip hop, with Moira Stuart as the narrator, into a tale which rivals anything The Streets has done.

"It was very important for me to take this locality as my inspiration", he says "I want to show that there are no easy assumptions to be made about people or places."

Soweto was brought up in Handsworth but educated privately.

"Living in Handsworth on the one hand and going to a private school in Edgbaston had me existing in two worlds. It's something that constantly crops up, doing things that somebody from Handsworth is not supposed to do - or listening to Jazz and being a hip-hop head. It was not usual, not the norm. But many of us straddle different worlds."

The characters on the album reflect this. “Their world might be in a job centre or living in a council tower block, but their aspirations are high.”

Perhaps the biggest character is the neighbourhood itself. Soweto sketches it out as Newtown, Lozells, Handsworth, Hockley - the land in the shadow of the flyover. It's a place also overshadowed by mostly negative attention from the media for gun crime, race riots.

"From living here I know that there is also the ordinary struggle. Regular peoples efforts to clear their debts, or find a relationship or to create something." Soweto stays exactly because he sees the creativity in the area.

He admires many other local artists, including another jazz saxophonist who's “arduous” practice is heard echoing through the halls of their shared tower block. “There is immense talent in this area and the opportunity to do something different, something unconventional which couldn't be created elsewhere.”

Winning major international awards from the BBC, the MOBO's the Montreux Jazz festival has given him a platform to live, work and perform anywhere he likes. London, New York, Amsterdam. But that half stripped wallpaper is evidence of this man's determination to stay in Birmingham, stay in his tower block.

Soweto is a passionate believer in the power of culture to energize his neighbourhood and the people living there. But he sees efforts to organise music events for B19 stifled by bureaucracy.

"In terms of the City Council and the Arts Council people have to be more forward thinking to stimulate imagination and stimulate growth in people and communities. Dare I say it - the council is has a very mundane and unimaginative attitude to it's responsibilities.

"If you have all these problems with unemployment, gun crime, race riots, I'm a firm believer that the best way to combat them is not through a negative campaign. 'Put down your guns' or 'put down your drugs'. People just wont listen, they've heard that message before.

"The Message is 'pick up' something else. People will find themselves another calling and those problems will fall away”,

Winning major international awards from the BBC, the MOBO's and the Montreux Jazz festival has given Soweto Kinch a platform to live, work and perform anywhere he likes. London, New York, Amsterdam. But when he stoops down to picks up that wallpaper stripper it is evidence that this man is determined to stay in Birmingham, and a great reason for you to pick up his album.

If you want a taster of Soweto's music and him talking about the album you can do so on the Grassroots Channel podcast at


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