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Michael Kiwanuka: class struggle

Mercury Prize-winner Michael Kiwanuka talks to Dan Carrier about the importance of music education

26 November, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Michael Kiwanuka performing on stage

HE scooped the prestigious Mercury Prize this year, sold albums across the world – and now singer Michael Kiwanuka is helping nurture a new generation of talent.

The Kentish Town-based artist is a patron of the Young Music Makers, a weekend music centre based at La Sainte Union School in Highgate Road, Parliament Hill Fields, and has been running songwriting workshops.

He is now promoting the YMM’s bursary scheme – with the hope that donations will help improve access to music for those who can’t afford lessons.

Currently YMM offers 14 bursaries and want to increase the number.

The singer, whose hit albums include Home Again and Love And Hate, became involved with Young Music Makers in 2016 and has previously taken a rock and pop workshop.

“Music education for young people is amazing – but because it is so fun, it is often seen as an extra curriculum subject, a pastime,” he said.

“I was fortunate in the respect that playing the guitar was the same for me as skateboarding or football might be for others, but because it was something cultural, I was supported.”

The singer grew up in Muswell Hill and went to Fortismere Secondary School. He recalls how his teachers encouraged him.

Michael at the Royal Albert Hall with some Young Music Makers

“Fortismere was a big influence,” he says. “I had access to the music rooms during lunch break, and I was able to do my first ever live performance. The Christmas concert was the big thing to get into. That was a good experience. It meant you get used to the pressure of auditions and playing in front of audience.”

It helped him come to an early understanding of the importance of providing that base for young people to explore their talent.

“It gave me direction and purpose,” he said.

“I am not that academic and a bit of a daydreamer and procrastinator. When I found music, I knew school could be fun. It was a way to express myself. Fortismere played a role and that is why I am so passionate about musical education.”

His current course at YMM focuses on songwriting.

“Songwriting is such a weird thing,” he says.

“If you ask me – how do you write a song? I would say I don’t really know. You think about your emotions, what is going on in your life, words start to come, ideas start to come. In a way, it is the same part of the brain you used when you were playing as a kid – you start to imagine, to day dream and think of melodies. It can be hard to make this a topic for a classroom, so I start it off by being very practical. I get them thinking – we use word association games. We think of a topic – say, let’s write a song about being together ­– what does that word mean to you? It may be being united with your friends. It gets kids thinking, expressing themselves and put it to music.”

He has watched as access to lessons has been whittled away, and private tuition has become the preserve of the well off. This is a situation that must not be allowed to continue and should not be normalised, he says.

Photo: Alexander Kellner

“It is something we are getting wrong as a country. Music can be underestimated as a profession, as a skill and as a craft,” he said.

The knock-on effect to other parts of personal growth are all too often ignored, he adds.

“There are so many layers to it, and when I realised how far you could go, how big the world is, with just 12 notes… There are not enough hours in the day to understand and discover it,” he said.

“You invest, study and research, you learn about performing live, learn to teach – there are so many nuances that you can take with you into other disciplines. This is underestimated. When push comes to shove, and you have tough budget decisions in schools, music is pushed to one side.”

Offering bursaries helps stem this tide of inequality.

“If you want to start a band, you need instruments,” he says. “If you want to play electric guitar you also have to buy an amplifier. It is stacked against you if you do not have the money. We miss people who are so talented, who could do so much for our country, because they do not have the resources and environment.

“Music becomes exclusive. We live in a very uneven world.”

Above all, he wants the opportunities he sees being offered at YMM to be massively expanded.

“I am passionate that everywhere, everyone around the country, rich or poor, black or white be given an opportunity to try an instrument. YMM is an amazing way to do it. My aim is to bring that reach further, and bursaries are a great way to help as many people access music and nurture their talents for their enjoyment, and the enjoyment of all.”

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