Five singers stand at the lip of the stage, sweet gospel harmonies filling the west London theatre. “Suck your, suck your, suck your mum,” they intone as the crowd hoot and whistle, “Yeah I said it – suck your mum!”
SYM is a track from Kano’s Mercury-nominated 2019 album Hoodies All Summer, just one on which the east Londoner – one of the UK’s most compelling artists, playing live tonight for the first time in 18 months – upends expectation. “Suck your mum” is the most reflex of playground taunts. He gleefully rubs low culture against high, paying tribute to the church and to the schoolyard.
Kano, though, is bringing the disrespect to a system deserving of it. Dressed in an uncharacteristically baggy DMX T-shirt, the grime MC takes the mic, running through a shopping list of British failures of the Windrush generation. A dextrous live drummer and a multi-instrumentalist work feverishly to his right while a hyped-up crowd release 18 months of pent-up emotion in front of him, the vast majority unmasked. Negative lateral flows and vaccine passports were required on the door, so fingers crossed. This gig is in aid of War Child, the charity aimed at alleviating the suffering of innocents in conflict. Before Kano’s set, a spokesperson says War Child are down £2.5m on their expected fundraising because of the pandemic. This is the second occasion this year in which this deep-thinking rapper has staged his emotional repertoire for a good cause. The last was June’s Glastonbury live stream, where Kano pretty much stole the broadcast with his energy.
His commitment does not falter all evening as he measures out anger, joy, humour, shock and mischief, as well as more subtle feelings: disappointment, teeth-sucking indignation. There is reload after reload tonight, when the track and its response are so fiery they demand to be reprised.
“Run it again!” he hollers midway through a strobe-lit Pan-Fried. His early rapid-fire hit Ps & Qs sends everyone nuts – twice. 3 Wheel-Ups, from 2016’s landmark LP Made in the Manor, is another jubilant “reload ting”. The vibe in the moshpit is seriously pre-pandemic.
Kano at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
With little new material to showcase – not a criticism, just an observation – the set is mostly a bonsai, all-in-black version of his triumphant all-in-white 2019 set at the Royal Albert Hall. There are no guests. Across town, another gig is under way in regrettable symbiosis with this one: Gorillaz at the O2 Arena. Kano, a frequent guest on Gorillaz tracks, might have been there had he not been playing his own show.
One vocalist who would have absolutely lifted the roof off this venue is, unfortunately, over there instead – beloved Jamaican dancehall star Popcaan. Kano’s Popcaan collaboration Can’t Hold We Down is nonetheless one of the highlights of the night, paying tribute to Kano’s Caribbean roots: everyone sings along to the canned Popcaan hook.
Over his last two records, Kano has been determined to tell a multiplicity of grime stories – those adjacent to the ever-present and necessary street stories: about people having barbecues, people raising a toast, people just being people. On a day where the August weather cooperated, his track T-Shirt Weather in the Manor – about how nice London can be in the sunshine – could not be more apposite. As the gig spills out on to the pavement afterwards, a Caribbean oil-drum grill is doing brisk business, perhaps the most time-honoured of pop-up eateries.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Trouble drives home the randomness of violence. The singers repeat, again and again: “we don’t want no trouble”.
But, as Kano tells it, trouble finds young black men when they “touch the road”, their mothers frantic with worry about what might happen to their sons, or what their sons might be forced to do. In the middle of the track all hell breaks loose: the soundtrack to a stabbing. It could happen anywhere, suddenly, no matter the weather. Kano demands that you not look away.
One key element that does absolutely carry over from Kano’s Albert Hall performance and the rest of the 2019 tour is the music, and the many fine players fleshing out these tunes. A four-strong horn section and a four-strong string section swell the ranks, bringing artistic ambition, islands vibes and a pulsating sense of community.
If the strings are awkwardly stuffed away behind the band, the horns roam freely, as they would at carnival: the tuba blasting the basslines, the trombone shouting the hooks. The din is cleansing. Kano’s message, though two years old, is evergreen: stop the violence because it “don’t make money”. The system is rigged. But as the brass, strings, singers and percussion die down, Kano smiles: “It’s a new day,” he offers.