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Cassie Kinoshi: Letting The Sunshine In


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Highlighting mental health is of the utmost importance to me. The new album was written partly to guide my own healing. I’ve always had anxiety and I’ve had therapy for a long time.
—Cassie Kinoshi
Cassie Kinoshi, the acclaimed British composer and alto saxophonist, made her name as a founder member of the Afrobeat-inspired band Kokoroko and with her own ten-piece Seed Ensemble. Her work pushes social change, interrogating inequality and injustice, mainly through instrumental music, occasionally with lyrics, and always with invention and singularity. Seed's sophomore album, gratitude (International Anthem, 2024), adds mental health, and how to improve it, to Kinoshi's sources of inspiration. She addresses anxiety and depression with the benefit of personal experience, as she candidly explains to AAJ.

But first, the backstory ...

Rewind to March 21, 2019: AAJ interviews Kinoshi at London's Kings Place concert hall, where Seed are performing that evening. During the course of the interview, Kinoshi explains that she took care to ensure that the ten-piece band's recently released debut album, Driftglass (Jazz Re:freshed), reflects the social milieu out of which it grew. "It's important to me that I bring attention to what it means to exist as a young Black British citizen today," says Kinoshi.

Fast forward to December 3, 2020: Police are called to a school in the London borough of Hackney, where a teacher suspects a 15-year-old Black female student is carrying cannabis. On arrival, two female police officers take the girl into an empty classroom and make her remove all her clothing. The girl, who is menstruating, is also made to remove her sanitary towel. She is searched. No teachers are present, nor is any other appropriate adult, as is required under British child-protection protocols. Two male officers stand guard outside the room.

No cannabis is found. The girl returns home, distressed.

In the local community, familiar as the people are with police misbehavior, it is widely believed that race and gender played a part in the decision to strip search the girl. Protests start within days, demanding that the police be held to account. On June 15, 2022, eighteen months after the incident, the nominally Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), finds that the four police officers should be investigated for gross misconduct.

Fast forward to March 26, 2024: AAJ is interviewing Kinoshi once more, prompted by the release of Seed's second album, the with-strings gratitude (reviewed here). Kinoshi is speaking on the phone from Berlin, where she has recently relocated. Back in London, the IOPC has yet to set up its investigatory panel or even complete the preliminary process of appointing a chairperson. Astonishing as it may sound to anyone unfamiliar with the glacial pace of IOPC inquiries, it is now over three years since the incident. The girl at the centre of the affair, who is known in the media as Child Q to preserve her anonymity, is still receiving therapy for the trauma she experienced. On past form, the IOPC panel, when it is eventually set up, will take several years to pronounce on the conduct of the police officers.

Justice delayed is justice denied.

How does Kinoshi feel about this example of being a young Black British citizen in 2024? "It makes me feel very angry and frustrated," she says.

Kinoshi says more but, before continuing, here is a quick update on her CV since AAJ last spoke to her ... Kinoshi's activities have become increasingly multi-disciplinary and cross-genre, extending into orchestral work and music for contemporary dance, film, visual art and theatre. Collaborators have included London Sinfonietta, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Balletboyz (England On Fire) and London's Globe Theatre (Shakespeare's The Tempest). For gratitude, Seed's lineup was expanded to eighteen players, including members of London Contemporary Orchestra. In 2022, Kinoshi left Kokoroko, as she wanted to focus more on Seed and on her compositional career. She spent most of 2022 in Paris and has been based in Berlin since late 2023, though she does travel back to London quite frequently.

The move to Berlin came about, says Kinoshi, mainly because of Britain's Tory government's increasingly unsupportive stance towards the arts. "They really look after the arts in Berlin," she says. "They funnel a lot of money that way. There's a lot of subsidised tickets, a lot of quality space for artists to create in. Also the way the government looks after freelancers and self-employed artists is very different from in the UK. It's significantly more supportive. More funding is available and they'll help you apply for it." It is a sorry state of affairs when British artists have to move abroad in order to receive the support they deserve.

End of update.

The conversation returns to the police treatment of Child Q. "It makes me feel very angry and frustrated at the system, or rather the lack of one," says Kinoshi, who has engaged with other harrowing events in her music. In 2019, for instance, "W A K E (for Grenfell)," a keynote track on Driftglass featuring guest vocalist Cherise Adams-Burnett , addressed the scandal of a fire which swept through a poorly maintained jerry-built public housing tower-block in London in 2017, killing 72 people.

Some artists are able to deal with such issues without suffering damage to their psyche. Pablo Picasso, for instance, never admitted to any nightmares after painting Guernica. Social workers and healthcare professionals are taught not to take their work home with them. How is Kinoshi affected by the issues that have inspired some of her music?

"Dismantling injustice is very important to me," she says. "But it has impacted on my mental health. I'm trying to widen my focus—to include other aspects of the Black British experience, championing some of the more beautiful and nice things about being a Black British person. To balance out how my energy is being used."

In public, Kinoshi invariably comes over as poised and confident, so what she says next is unexpected. "I've always had anxiety," she says. "As a teenager, it went undiagnosed. I didn't have the language to communicate what was going on. I've had therapy for as long time. All through university as well [Kinoshi studied composition at London's Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance from 2011-2015]. I also tried medication for a while. And in 2022 I was diagnosed with depression. Over the years I've tried different types of therapy with different therapists. I still have therapy, once a week."

gratitude confronts anxiety head on. "It was written partly to guide my own healing," says Kinoshi. "It was one of the energies behind it." The suite starts in a dark place, but later sections such as "Sun Through My Window" and "Smoke In The Sun" project a more centred vibe, though the journey is not as simple as that over-linear interpretation suggests. Does Kinoshi find music itself to be therapeutic? "It can be. The communicative part of making music with people is good. But practicing my instrument, and the deadlines that come with composing, those things can induce anxiety. So it depends."

The "making music with people" that Kinoshi refers to parallels the talking therapy recommended to people living with anxiety. "Sure," says Kinoshi. "Bottling things up makes it all worse, and I have a bad habit of allowing myself to spiral into dark holes, so it helps being able to be honest to friends. But it's not good to overburden people with it. Taking it to a different space, to a therapist, is good. There are things that over time can be worked on, at least in my personality. But anxiety, I think that's something that's always going to be there. It's a question of learning the practices to regulate that."

Among those practices is the keeping of a gratitude diary, from which, of course, Seed's album title derives. Kinoshi got the idea from her mother. "Over the past few years, my mum has got quite introspective herself about her own mental health," she says. "As part of that she keeps a book in which she writes about something that has made her happy each day. Like she just sent me a video of a kaleidoscope of butterflies that were in a bush in her garden. That was really cute. And things growing in the garden. When I was struggling with depression I found it really helpful to focus on the good things, because like I said I have a tendency to spiral downwards, to think of all the things that are not going well. It helps to take a little time each day to think of the good things, simple things that made me happy that day, like I managed to get out of bed or I completed this task or I spoke to that person."

One of the good things that has happened for Kinoshi recently is signing with Chicago-based label International Anthem. When AAJ interviewed Ruth Goller in March 2024, Goller, like Kinoshi a recent signing to International Anthem, spoke about how supportive the label's Scottie McNiece (Goller's interview can be read here).

Kinoshi feels the same. "I was in conversation with Scottie for several years before releasing anything with them," she says. "He'd heard about my orchestral composing and wanted to know if there was any way of supporting it. Even talking to him back then I could feel there was a genuine desire to support the community around music and certain types of messages in music. Now I'm working with them I feel even more of that. Like Ruth said, it's the music first with International Anthem, it's what can we do for the music and what can we do to support the vision that the artist is trying to share with everyone. I really appreciate that, especially in the age of streaming, where numbers usually take precedence."

gratitude was recorded in a philharmonic performance at London's Southbank Centre in 2023. Kinoshi is finding orchestral composition to be liberating and empowering, and so, too, her work in dance and theatre. When AAJ spoke to her in 2019, she was emphatic that jazz was the most authentic and effective platform for her sort of community-driven music. Now she sees other, additional opportunities.

"I've realised that there is a whole other space for commentary on social issues and for pushing change," she says. "That includes areas of classical music, which I didn't see before as I see them now. And contemporary dance. There are many ways to explore and talk about the state of society. I love jazz and I really do feel it's one of the best platforms on which to comment on social issues. But it's not the only one. Also I've never thought of myself as just a jazz musician. Composer has always been a title that is really important to me."

One last question before the interview ends. Is Kinoshi still intending to realise a Seed Ensemble project celebrating the music of Frank Zappa? It has been on and off for years, delayed by other projects and the pandemic.

"I got overwhelmed with so many working deadlines that I felt like I just couldn't handle it," says Kinoshi. "So it went on the back burner. But it's still floating around as an idea that could happen. I love Frank Zappa's music, from an ensemble perspective in particular, because he was not afraid to explore his sound. He had a really distinctive sound. I like how collaborative he was. He was just pretty much a genius in how he approached rhythm and harmony. And he wasn't afraid to have fun in the music, which is really cool."

P.S. At the time of writing, no YouTubes of gratitude have been posted. So, below, here is footage of another of Seed Ensemble performances.

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