Many musicians find creative freedom working alone in the seclusion of their room, but for Mercury nominated singer-songwriter and producer Dave Okumu, the most fruitful moments in his career have occurred in crowded rooms. “In my teens I was already on this journey where I was reflecting on the significance of relationships,” Okumu explains, sitting in his South East London studio. “I want to learn how to connect with people and how to communicate because this is what life is about.”
Okumu is the youngest child of eight siblings, born in Vienna, Austria, to Kenyan parents. The family later moved to London when he was 10. Growing up in a musical household, Okumu recalls being introduced to 80s funk and soul by his older sisters and being taught how to play guitar by his brother.
His career took off in the mid noughties’ with the Mercury nominated art rock trio The Invisible. Beyond the band, Okumu also developed a reputation as a producer, session player, and musical mentor with the encyclopaedic knowledge and calming attitude to coax the best out of a cavalcade of artists including, Tony Allen, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Jessie Ware, and his hero Grace Jones.
Okumu released his first solo record Knopperz in 2021; an instrumental concept album based on pianist Duval Timothy’s 2017 album Sen Am. It was friend and mentor Lexxx who sparked the soul searching that kicked off his next record after he told Okumu that he was trying to explain who Okumu was but struggled to summarise his vast catalogue.
“There are all these ways into these aspects of who I am and I felt like he was saying, it would be so cool if you could find out how to say who you are in a comprehensive way”. Okumu took on that challenge and in response devised his sophomore release I Came From Love, a tapestry of Black experience that explores ancestry, the legacy of slavery, what it means to exist in an unjust society, and Okumu’s own family history.
The album writing and demoing process began in January 2021 at Lexxx’s East Sussex studio The Barn, while early recordings were completed at Okumu’s studio with Tom Skinner on drums, and Nick Ramm on keys, and Aviram Barath on synths. On I Came From Love, Okumu calls on a star-studded array of guests, including Eska, Kwabs, Wesley Joseph, Robert Stillman, Anthony Joseph, Byron Wallen, Raven Bush, and Grace Jones.
Okumu was certain he didn’t want to make a standard producer record full of features, but he also did not want to be tied down working with a set band. To aid his vision, Okumu decided he wanted his backing band to change with each record. The musicians were also asked to adopt an alter ego to help them express themselves and their ancestry, and access parts of their personality that they might not otherwise bring out.
Rather than release solely under his name, Okumu has chosen the moniker ‘Dave Okumu & the 7 Generations’, which Okumu sees as “my actual ancestors, the ancestors of others, my musical ancestors, and my descendants”. Sonically the album hits a kaleidoscopic frenzy of notes, rocketing through bass heavy rhythms, neo soul-tinged cries and frenetic spoken word passages.
One of the key stories that influenced I Came From Love was the life of Priscilla, a young girl bought at a slave auction by Elias Ball in South Carolina in 1756. In the opening song ‘2 Things’, over haunting choral voices, Grace Jones quotes Ball’s memoir where he claims you should do two things with your money, “buy land and buy young slaves”.
Okumu’s search into the past continues on ‘7 Generations’ where over a sorrowful, electronic landscape that transitions into a rumbling, skittish dance track, Grace Jones declares we should “feel the resilience of seven generations.” Elsewhere on the record, ‘Blood Ah Go Run’ tackles the horror of the New Cross house fire in 1981 that killed 13 Black teenagers in South London. The lyrics reflect the Black community’s feelings of the time, crying out, “Blood ah go run / if no justice no come.”
The album creation led Okumu down some unexpected paths. One such path began with ‘My Negritude’. When unable to clear a sample of CLR James reading Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Okumu turned to British poet Anthony Joseph. The collaboration proved so fruitful that it led to the creation of another song, ‘Scenes’.
After a very busy period, Okumu is hoping to take a brief break before getting back to finishing the next Grace Jones album. Despite the need for rest, the call of the 7 Generations rings loudly for Okumu.
“I hope that listeners will feel like they're part of the 7 Generations and when I perform on stage that every member of the band is part of the 7 Generations,” he adds, “That's really what the idea is about and that's why it's not just Dave Okumu. It stands for more than that.”