There's a revolutionary energy reverberating through speaker boxes and live music venues across the UK. The polar opposite of the junk food-quick fix of manufactured black pop, this is audio gastronomy that nurtures, energizes and heals, and it's being spearheaded by two very different London vocalists: Mpho Skeef and Eska.
You may have heard Mpho's (pronounced "Mm-po") voice on Bugz in the Attic's "Booty La La" or the Phuturistix collabo "Comin' At Ya," but she'll be pushing the boundaries further into '80s electro-funk, jazz and techno when her solo debut is released later this year. Meanwhile, Eska's future-earth-mama soul sounds have driven numbers by Troubleman, Nitin Sawhney and Ty, and received raves from the BBC and crowds at the London Jazz Festival. Raising their voices above the scene's sublime, fusionist den of jazz, soul, reggae, calypso, dance, broken beat, hip-hop and African folk, meet British soul's new first ladies.
XLR8R: What are you about as an artist?
Mpho: Expressing myself [and] the things I experience, and the cross-pollination of cultures that's unique to London.
Eska: I am about communication, confronting limitations and stereotypes. My greatest motivation is if someone says it can't be done.
Tell us about the scene you've come from.
Mpho: As artists we're different but we have the same references: Soul II Soul, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson.
Eska: It's a scene that makes room for exploration. People constantly try out new sounds, morphing and exchanging concepts, dreams and desires.
Who are the musicians/collectives you work with?
Mpho: Bugz In The Attic, Ty, Eska, Jade Fox...
Eska: IG Culture, Attica Blues, Reel People, Mpho Skeef--a whole global network of MCs, dancers, artists and journalists who look at the world differently.
How does your work differ from the mainstream?
Mpho: We merge sounds, we can't be categorized. We're aware of sales figures but it's not the primary objective.
Eska: In the UK it's about nourishing one solo act, not the musicians who support the act. It's never about strengthening a movement. As a scene we work together, constantly switching between support and lead roles depending on the project.
Both of you have hits in the broken beat scene, yet you're not broken beat artists...
Mpho: Broken beat is a great way of getting your voice out in clubland. It's about breaking up the whole Carnival, dance music, Afro-vibe and putting it back together in a new way. But if you're a good vocalist you can ride over anything.
Eska: Over the past two years I've been privileged enough to make some tunes with broken beat producer IG Culture. There are many places I have traveled where people of all races are expressing themselves in these kind of mutated rhythms.
You've both approached your debut releases via non-conventional routes. How is that working for you?
Mpho: I'm working with Documented, a government-funded record label. It's not much money, but I have full creative control and I don't have to pay back my advance. Their concept is to take an artist from a place where they're doing their thing to a place where people have access to hear them.
Eska: My album's still very much in the making. I worked out my tunes on the road, often playing them when they were half-formed. I needed the spotlight to think through my musical ideas. That's a little weird I guess, but it worked for me.
What's most challenging about building a musical career in the UK?
Mpho: Making opportunities out of what looks like closed doors. Keeping yourself inspired, staying humble and ensuring you continue to treat everything as a learning experience after years of making music.
Eska: There hasn't been a really successful black English artist for 15 years. The UK music industry is unsure and ignorant about black music–for years it's been an outlet to serve successful African-American artists. Black artists are only now acquiring the determination to create music for their communities without feeling they have to "de-black" to such an extent you wonder what on earth their music has to do with who they are as black people. Now there's a thriving community of MCs, rappers, musicians and producers taking initiative and making it happen for themselves.
How would you recommend each other to new listeners?
Mpho on Eska: Eska is a big musical hug: warm, re-energizing and, at times, unexplainable.
Eska on Mpho: This sister comes from South African musical royalty. Her music reflects her cultural diversity and aspiration. She is a roots version of Sade but of her own space and time.