Soho Rising: Moses Boyd

A black and white blurred photo of a man's head

As part of our Soho Rising series, Soho House Head of Music, Dom Chung, spotlights members making waves in the music industry. Here, musician Moses Boyd discusses the pan-African influence on his jazz-grime hybrid sound

By Otamere Guobadia    Above image: Moses Boyd (Liz Johnson Artur)    Friday 18 September, 2020    Short read

Moses Boyd’s music defies easy categorisation; he wields a kind of pan-harmony – developed, genre-queer stylings firmly rooted in his jazz sensibilities. But it has broader, more ambitious and more current references from across the diaspora, all in service of the pan-African. This is the sense I get when we discuss how he defines his sound, influences and artistic practice.

‘When people say, “Is it jazz?”, I don’t disagree with them. And when they say, “Is it grime?”, I don’t disagree,’ laughs Boyd. ‘All of that is kind of in there. It’s neither one or the other, you know? So I say my sound is just the continuum of the Black music diaspora. If I had to narrow it down, it’s mainly improvised music through the lens of sound-system culture,’ he elaborates. And indeed Boyd’s music does transgress, skirt, merge and evade norms all together. 

Dark Matter, his debut solo album, is evidence of all the above. It was released on Valentine’s Day to critical acclaim and a spot on the 2020 Mercury Prize Album shortlist some months later. The opening track ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ begins with glittering jazz melodies that fuse midway with a modern grime sensibility and soars into new territory. ‘B.T.B’ (which possesses all the hallmarks of the Nigerian highlife music that soundtracked the long, hot weddings I had to attend as a child) segues into ‘Y.O.Y.O’, which takes that premise, and adds sugar and tempo. ‘You’ll hear jazz, but also a bit of dubstep and garage – a little of all the things I love about sound-system culture. But there’s a lot of improvisation in there, too,’ he says.

And perhaps where more traditionally acclaimed jazz offerings might be characterised by improvisation as a central trait, Boyd had more of a road map when he stepped into the studio to create Dark Matter. ‘I purposely didn’t want it to sound like if you were to pick up Kind Of Blue or A Love Supreme. Those are incredible albums in the jazz world, and you can hear they’re heavily improvised. At first listen, [Dark Matter] sounds very produced, [but] I think the way I recorded it was really open and improvised,’ Boyd explains, and says he would give the musicians he collaborated with a framework and let them do their own thing. He’d then take the music and edit it, lending it its more refined ‘produced’ sound. ‘There’s a lot of improvisation, but maybe not in the traditional sense that listeners of jazz or improvised music are used to,’ he concludes. 
A black and white photo of a man drumming

‘When people say, “Is it jazz?” I don’t disagree. And when people say, “Is it grime?’ I don't disagree. My sound is just the continuum of the Black music diaspora’

His work is glorious in its unmistakable hybridity, and in its ability to constellate disparate genres and influences into something shining, exciting and deeply authentic. His career and philosophy account for a great deal of what he’s able to achieve with his sound now. 

‘Music, for me – as much as I love it and it’s my career, and people can see it as entertainment – is not rooted into entertainment; it’s something deeper, it’s more spiritual. Music should be for the people,’ says Boyd, when I ask him to elaborate on his mission within music. ‘Whether it’s like church, and it’s for a group of people, or it’s like a sound system or a rave, and it’s for a group of people, all of those forms aren’t necessarily entertainment, but they nourish people, right? So, for me, I’ve been very lucky to start my career off as a sideman playing in other people’s bands and in their world, in different genres, all connected to the diaspora.’

It is precisely those early, formative years of Boyd’s career, combined with his deep love of Blackness and Black musical traditions, that have furnished him with his versatility and made him into the musical nomad he is today. ‘I grew up playing reggae and gospel – all sorts of stuff. Then I went on to play jazz, funk and Yoruba Ifa music with Kevin Haynes,’ he says. ‘So, for me, when I then stand back and see where my position is, I’m very aware of where I sit in the history of Black music, particularly here in the UK, but I guess [within] world history. I’m able to kind of draw from all of these things, and I have the scope to push it forward in my own way.’ 

This is the powerful heritage of Black music traditions that Boyd seeks to summon and proliferate into the future. ‘I’m very understanding of what’s gone before and where I fit in this sort of timeline,’ he continues. ‘So that’s why I say I’m just another part of the continuum. There’s music [that came] before me and there’ll be music after me. That’s what we do. We are creative people; we shape culture. I’m just a small cog in the works and happy to play my part, but at the core of it is people; it’s for those who look like me. And it’s not an exclusive. It’s not that those who don’t look like me can’t participate, but that’s what inspires me – when I’m around my community and feeding into it – at a dance, a barbecue or a church service,’ he explains.

Who can be more primed to soundtrack our futures than a man with a vision and a comprehension that stretches way back beyond his glowing and present moment, and into the value of his communities’ histories and traditions. ‘I’ve been very blessed, man,’ he responds, when I ask what’s next for him. ‘If you had talked to a 13-year-old Moses and been like, “Yo, this is what you’ll have achieved before you’re 30”, I would have just laughed. I’ve always just followed my instincts, my heart and my creativity.’ 

For Boyd, the future looks like ensuring that the young people who come after him can learn, grow from, and ultimately participate in the continuum of the Black music diaspora. ‘I’m really interested in having my own creative space, my own kind of Motown – not in terms of the label or the sort of hit factory, but more like the building where you can learn music, hear a concert, have a workshop or record. We don’t have enough of that, at least not where I’m from in southeast London, and just generally in the UK. It’s now my new mission to do something that is no longer really about me. It’s more like, how do I invest in those coming up below me… the way people have invested in me,’ he explains.

‘Music is energy,’ he adds. ‘It’s important to me, and that’s how I’ve seen my music. Yes, it’s entertaining and I do shows, but that’s not what’s at the core of it. It’s about giving something back to the people, to hopefully raise a vibration – you know, what I mean?’
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