Michael Mwenso's music destiny appeared after his mother was deported from their home in London to her native Africa.
The two had immigrated from then war-torn Sierra Leone when he was 4. By all accounts he was a happy child who dove early into music. But at age 12, Mwenso moved in with his godfather when his mother was deported due to murky immigration issues following the death of her husband, Mwenso's stepfather.
Soon after, he said he was introduced to “Afro-American” music by the man he characterized as “a very unique English man” from Norfolk county “who loved black culture and music.”
“He had already been a fan of and seen a lot of these musicians before I started living with him,” said Mwenso, who with his band The Shakes perform a multimedia show at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana on Thursday. It's part of the "Harlem 100" tour, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
“He had dropped out in the sense of supporting the music and going to gigs, but once I came into his life, it kind of re-launched the love that he had. Now he had a person he could go see Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and people like that. It was a very unique relationship,” said Mwenso.
He also dug into James Brown videos and tapes around that time, and eventually met the Godfather of Soul, who become an instrumental part of his life. Brown took to the teen and would invite him on-stage whenever he would play London.
“I was very blessed to be able to witness him as a performer and as a human being,” said Mwenso. “And having the experience of being on-stage with him was quite a blessing.”
What did the much older Brown see in the budding musician?
“There weren’t that many black kids in 1998 that were into James Brown,” explained Mwenso. “He hadn’t seen any young person come to him and tell him about his music and who he was.”
But Mwenso said that reaction came also from other American black musicians visiting London.
“Whether it was B.B. King or Cedar Walton, they all were surprised this African kid living in England knew a lot about their music and who they were. That was the normal reaction, but James Brown was supremely shocked. I not only knew about his music, but I was able to perform his songs in a way that was connected to him and what he did,” said Mwenso.
He didn’t believe England was the defining attribute for Brown’s astonishment, saying Brown was sad that similar aged black children in America were losing touch with the soul, blues, and jazz giants.
“I remember when he first saw me perform, he said he couldn’t even find a black American kid who knew about James Brown the way you seem to know,” said Mwenso.
He said the sadness extended to all the jazz and blues musicians he met.
“That their audience had cultivated in a different way,” said Mwenso. “Now when they looked out at the audience, it was something somewhat different than when they started.
His new heroes’ reactions had a profound impact on him too, realizing they were dealing with a level of loneliness from being separated from their culture and people as they evolved into their artistry.
“I realized something could happen to the culture that was sad,” said Mwenso. “That some of these great artists were so far removed from black people, even though they were the people that also curated the music for the experience of black people.”
The Harlem Renaissance was focused on the intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, New York, spanning the 1920s. Mwenso’s 100th anniversary show commemorating this creative period of black American history has roots in his childhood. That is when he took an intense interest in the Renaissance itself, as well as the history of enslavement of Africans in America.
“It was an incredible period that always thrilled me. Then when I started getting into the music and people of that time, I started to realize it was quite a unique time in the culture, and something that maybe had never happened before,” said Mwenso.
“The music has such a certain quality of life to it,” he added. “When you listen to Fats Wallers’ music or Mildred Bailey or Teddy Wilson, it has a certain understanding of what you can feel what the world is going through.”
And when he moved to Harlem from London, he wanted to know more about the Renaissance.
“The last nine years of living in Harlem, I’ve gone deeper into what it was and what was happening in that time. So now that I have the blessing of doing this Harlem 100 tour, it has connected in a certain way, because all the bands lived in Harlem, so it’s very personal to us,” said Mwenso.
It’s apparent this Brit is deeply entranced by American history, especially its history with those of African descent. It fits the narrative that foreigners, and especially Europeans have a firmer grasp of that history than do its own citizens. Mwenso pushed back a bit, saying the African aspect of American history is deeply shrouded in mystery.
“So for me to be on this tour and go out to all these small towns, it has been revealed to me that it’s important for this group, Mwenso and the Shakes through this project Harlem 100, to continue to let people know about the greatness of the Afro-American. Because it is still shrouded not only in the history, but their culture and music is still shrouded in mystery. And people still do not know who these people were, or what they did.
Michael Mwenso & the Shakes perform a multimedia show at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana on Thursday. It's part of the "Harlem 100" tour, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.