Ezra Collective’s Mercury Win Highlights The Need For Cultural Investment

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Ezra Collective are a force to be reckoned with. The London-rooted group take the improvisatory power of jazz and fuse it with street sounds – live, they can move from Sun Ra to ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’ without missing a beat. Trailblazers for this diamond generation of UK jazz musicians, the band have smashed the glass ceiling – and last night, the Mercury judging panel saw fit to recognise their worth.

Taking the coveted trophy for their second album ‘Where I’m Meant To Be’, Ezra Collective also delivered one of the night’s most impassioned performances, an exhilarating blast through ‘Victory Dance’. When Clash spoke to the group on the red carpet before the ceremony, however, they were preaching a simple message – music is a blessing that should be bestowed on any child who has the appetite to learn.

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Onstage in his acceptance speech, drummer Femi Koleoso went one further. “Ezra Collective represents something really special because we met in a youth club. This moment that we’re celebrating right here is testimony to good, special people putting time and effort into [helping] young people to play music,” he said.

Continuing, Femi added: “Let me tell you something really serious – we’ve got something special in the UK. We’ve got something special by way of young musicians, so let’s continue to support that.”

His words were simple yet strikingly effective. Ezra Collective are ordinary kids who have done something extraordinary, but they didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Programmes like Tomorrow’s Warriors – who the drummer highlighted in his speech – have become a breeding ground for young jazz talent. It’s not just Ezra Collective – Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings have both gained Mercury nominations, and are part of the Tomorrow’s Warriors alumni.

It goes beyond this, too. Jazz may – in mainstream terms – be a niche genre in this country, but the technical skills it imbues are sought out across the creative spectrum. Just look at Femi Koleoso as an example – in addition to his role in Ezra Collective, he drums with both Gorillaz and Jorja Smith.

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Yet this is a fragile structure. Tomorrow’s Warriors are continually searching for ways to boost funding to enable them to bring these vital services, at a time when arts and culture budgets are being slashed across the land. In 2021, a report from the Labour party revealed that around one in seven music teachers had left the profession in the past decade, largely due to widespread cuts. Further to this, a report from Birmingham City University the very same year warned that A-level music education in secondary schools could disappear within a decade due to dwindling resources.

It’s an appalling state of affair. The powers-that-be in this country evidently see education as numbers and bar charts, facts and figures – not culture, and certainly not music. Earlier this year more cuts were mooted, sparking furious protest from the Musicians Union. As Gavin Williamson – Secretary of State for Education – once so cruelly put it, music simply isn’t part of this government’s “strategic priorities”.

On a personal level, I’ve seen first-hand the empowering impact that music education can have on young people. Despite growing up in a remote town in the Scottish Highlands, my secondary school had an excellent music department – it’s where I learned to play the saxophone, an opportunity that furthered my passion for music. It’s partly why I applied to Clash for an internship 16 years ago – those lessons undeniably altered the trajectory of my life.

With his humble yet staggeringly important words, Femi Koleoso has tapped into a crucial issue. A generation of young people are being denied the opportunity to express themselves, and the country is being left all the poorer for it.

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Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Aliyah Otchere