Dave Okumu transforms the personal into a conversation

Dave Okumu transforms the personal into a conversation

After spending almost 20 years in the music industry working with everyone from Amy Winehouse to Grace Jones, the veteran artist is finally embracing the spotlight to release his most intimate album – with a collaborative twist.

Dave Okumu is concerned about community. “Everyone is encouraged to go down a solitary road at the moment, where other people don’t matter and you can just find everything out yourself online instead,” he says. “Whereas my vision is about shared experience and cultural enrichment. I want to be around people that I love who inspire me. I want to have an embodied experience where we all feed into each other's growth.”

On a typically grey, rainy London afternoon, the 46-year-old producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is sitting in his Greenwich studio complex, bathed in warm light and the spiced scent of burning palo santo. Over the past three years, Okumu has built this labyrinthine space as a physical manifestation of his collaborative ethos. In the airy rooms surrounding his there is a hive of activity – singer Rosie Lowe is downstairs, while the other spaces are variously occupied by musical director Aviram Barath, singer Eska, engineer Nick Powell and a roster of young instrumentalists and producers.

“It's a vibrant and loving community with a lot going on in each room,” he enthuses. “There’s operas being written, we made Yasmin Lacey's record [Voice Notes] in this room, Eska's daughter even has her violin lessons here. It’s its own little ecosystem.”

Coming to prominence in 2009 after forming the art rock trio The Invisible and earning a Mercury Music Prize nomination for their eponymous debut album, Okumu has since gone on to work with an enviable list of collaborators. He has produced, written or played with everyone from Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen to Amy Winehouse, Adele, Jessie Ware, St Vincent and Grace Jones, employing his calming baritone and genre-spanning curiosity to coax out studio magic.

After spending almost 20 years in the music industry, Okumu is now finally embracing the spotlight to release his most personal album yet. “I released my first album under my own name in 2021, Knopperz, but that was a remix record of [composer and pianist] Duval Timothy’s work, named after a chocolate bar I was obsessed with snacking on while making it,” he laughs, making the thick silver rings on his clasped hands shake. “For this new album, I didn’t want to make a ‘solitary hero record,’ but I wanted to see if there is a way for me to make a personal statement about my life and to celebrate my collaborative spirit. I wanted to do something that gives me life.”

The result, I Came From Love, is an involved tapestry of frenetic post-punk, bouncing Afrobeat, squelching P-funk and emotive spoken word. Across its 15 tracks Okumu plays with his newly-minted 7 Generations band, which features The Smile drummer Tom Skinner and studio partner Barath on synths, as well as trumpeter Byron Wallen, violinist Raven Bush and poet Anthony Joseph, among others. Unifying the range of groove-laden music is a deep thematic exploration into Black identity, with Okumu’s lyrics covering everything from the story of 18th Century slave girl Priscilla to the 1981 New Cross Fire and even the work of French poet Aimé Césaire.

“Just making some cool beats and getting famous friends on it was never going to do it for me,” Okumu says. “I wanted to turn the telling of my story and identity into a conversation, by including multiple perspectives that might share a similar DNA to mine. That way, I’m inviting listeners in, to bring the personal somewhere more universal.”

The literary and historical references can serve to complicate Okumu’s personal story as much as they contextualise it, but in hearing him recount his childhood, it is clear that his identity has always been difficult to pin down. “I have Kenyan parents but I grew up in Vienna as the youngest of eight siblings,” Okumu says. “I was spoiled and indulged and I loved the feeling of togetherness we had in our house. We would always have friends of my parents coming to stay with the 10 of us and that informed my outlook deeply in really valuing a feeling of shared experience.”

At home, life was comforting and forgiving, but outside Okumu experienced another world. “My mum would caress my body and rub cream into it after every bath, making me feel so delighted and valued. But when I walked the streets of Vienna, I was something different,” he says with a pause. “People would openly shout racist abuse or involuntarily put their hand into my hair. It was painful and alienating trying to understand my place in this world.” On the family trips back to Kenya, things were still uncomfortable in a different sense. “I was disconnected from this place that my parents talked about. It didn’t always feel like a homecoming,” he says.

“For this new album, I didn’t want to make a ‘solitary hero record,’ but I wanted to see if there is a way for me to make a personal statement about my life and to celebrate my collaborative spirit. I wanted to do something that gives me life.”

Dave Okumu

Reconciliation came in the form of music. Specifically, the open-mouthed, dark-skinned defiance of Grace Jones. “Ms Jones came ripping into my life via my sisters. I remember picking up a copy of Slave to the Rhythm in one of their bedrooms and I thought the cover image of her mouth spread wide open was so beautiful and striking and scary,” he says with a smile. “I felt like she was screaming, ‘be yourself!’. Not even that it's okay to be yourself, but it's essential to be yourself. It was so powerful to see this woman with the same skin as me being so uncompromising. It was utterly life changing.”

Years later, serendipity and his work with Jones’s principal collaborator Ivor Guest would lead Okumu to become part of her production team, crafting the follow-up to 2008’s Hurricane. The album is still underway. “Things are on a different timescale with Ms Jones,” he says. “She’s so in tune with herself that even if her process infuriates you, that is the way it has to go. She lives to be out in the deep and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.”

That uncompromising pursuit of creativity is ultimately Okumu’s inspiration. “There's a handful of people I have worked with who have grasped the vitality and the pulse of life, no matter their age,” he says. “When you're around those who have tuned into what matters most to them, it's irresistible. Grace embodies that and Tony Allen was cut from the same cloth too.”

Recording in Paris shortly before Allen died in 2020 to produce the following year’s joint record with Joan As Policewoman, The Solution Is Restless, Okumu describes how the drummer turned up hours late to their session and simply began playing without saying more than a few words. “We went for four or five hours non-stop and it was like the best swim in the ocean you've ever had,” he says. “Standing beside Tony and playing with him enriched me, it showed me things that no masterclass or degree could.”

While there are sadly no opportunities left to play with Allen, Okumu recently managed the near-impossible with another guiding light. Grace Jones lends her inimitable, defiant voice on two tracks of I Came From Love, marking a rare guest appearance for the singer. Her baritone opens the record, venomously reciting 18th Century slaver Elias Ball’s motto to “do two things with your money: buy land and buy young slaves” over a lamenting choral soundscape. As the record progresses, Okumu sets out his energetic protest of this history of subjugation, thundering through a propulsive bass riff on "Blood Ah Go Run" and entreating to “fight for survival”, while "My Negritude" harnesses a deeply funky Afrobeat syncopation beneath poet Anthony Joseph’s reading of Aimé Césaire’s text on the vitality of Blackness.

“You never quite know if it’s going to happen with Grace but that’s what makes it exciting,” he says. “I went over to her apartment with the recording equipment, feeling open to whatever might happen, and left with these two tracks. It’s such a full circle moment to have my childhood idol on my own album.”

As the record nears its release, Okumu is also thinking about another childhood – that of his five-year-old son. “He’s into his own music and it’s such a crazy mix, from John Coltrane to Kraftwerk and Bo Diddley,” he laughs. “He set the tone for the album based on the music he’d play around the house when we were recording. He’s part of its fabric and I hope that as he listens and grows older, he finds the connection and community in it as well.” Since, in Okumu’s world, there is no self worth exploring without everyone else included too.

I Came From Love by Dave Okumu & The 7 Generations is out on April 14th via [PIAS].

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