Like the soul greats he grew up with, Jordan Mackampa makes music to tell truths as much as entertain. His searing songs are documents of his life as an outsider, his sound a melting pot of cultures that stretch from his birthplace in the Republic of Congo to a hip hop-obsessed childhood in north London to teen years spent immersed in indie-rock in Coventry.
From his breakthrough in 2017 with the protest song Battlecry to this autumn’s acclaimed What Am I, hailed a modern take on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Jordan’s powerful message music has grown rapidly in scope and scale, soaking up new influences and becoming more complex.
A debut album due in March, produced by Dani Castelar (Paolo Nutini) sees Jordan scaling fresh heights, adding sumptuous strings, gospel backing vocals and grime influences to his contemporary soul fused with his Congolese roots.
“The Congolese influence is there in the rhythms, in the swing and syncopation that ties the tracks together,” says Jordan. “It’s a sound I’ve heard at home for as long as I can remember.
“Having grown up in North London for most of my early life, I feel a spiritual connection to grime and hip hop in a way that consciously affects the way I perform and think of myself as a musician. I love the fiery energy that makes any MC feel as though they are the best in the room.”
Featuring Nutini’s regular string players and a bevvy of brilliant backing vocalists, the album addresses subjects including Jordan’s struggles with his faith and, on Foreigner the racism he faced on moving to Britain from the war-torn Republic of Congo at the age of one.
“My whole life I’ve never felt like I fitted in,” says Jordan. “Growing up in Edmonton, there were very few black families. I didn’t look like anyone else. I wasn’t allowed to play with the other kids.
At school no one understood me because French was my first language. I learnt English very quickly, but if I spoke it at home, my mum would tell me that I was losing touch with my culture.”
At his primarily white primary school, Jordan suffered such anxiety that he would stand outside the classroom, not wanting to be watched walking in.
“I was always first in to school, but last to class,” he recalls. “I hated being the centre of attention.”
Already his ear for music was obvious. Watching children’s TV shows, he would sing back the theme songs without missing a note. By four, he was mimicking his mum singing in church and, at home, entertaining her with renditions of Motown, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston songs.
At eight he was writing poetry and by 12 setting it to songs written on an acoustic guitar. Out of his mother’s earshot, he was also falling for hip hop, sneaking in to the living room to listen to Jay-Z, Wu Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliot and more.
Moving to Coventry for secondary school, Jordan shone at music and performing arts. He joined a youth club where he became the go-to guy to lay down vocals for local DJs and rappers before studying music at Northampton University.
In 2016, he released his folky, DIY debut EP Physics, from which the song Yours To Keep took off on Spotify. By 2017, he had moved on by adopting the funky rhythms of his Congolese roots and influences from indie and grime, resulting in the sunny, 2018 single One In The Same.
Performing One In The Same at festivals resulted in a revelation – the once smartly dressed singer abandoned his suit jackets, trademark fedora and shiny shoes. In his everyday clothes – t-shirts, trainers, a now omnipresent beanie – he felt a new-found freedom on stage.
“I call it the day I chose to change hats,” laughs Jordan. “I was at a festival in Germany and decided I didn’t want to wear a crisp, white shirt anymore. It was hot and I was tired of changing. What I realised was that I no longer needed a stage persona. I had to be the real me.
“That goes back to my love of grime – artists like Skepta, Little Simz, Wretch 32, Ghetts, Kojey Radical… too many to mention. I love their honesty and attitude. They encouraged me to ignore what other people thought and ultimately believe in myself.
“That gig was by far the best I’d ever played. I had never felt as comfortable on stage. It was as though I was starting over, as a new man and a more confident musician.”
The new Jordan was finally ready to record his debut album, but first he had to find the right producer. He met Castelar the pair hit it off straight away.
“We’d talk about music for hours while eating incredible tapas,” says Jordan. “Dani encouraged me to do what felt right. He taught me to ignore rules and go with my gut.”
The first fruit of the pair’s collaboration was this summer’s upbeat love song Under, built on funky bass and backed by sassy female harmonies. In fact the song was three years old but Jordan had never previously been ready to record it.
“I played it at gigs and people really connected with it, but I put it on the back burner. In retrospect, I can see it’s because I knew where my sound should be headed.”
This autumn came What Am I. The groove-based, gospel-tinged beauty called for change in times of turmoil and described society’s problems as stuck on repeat.
“I was listening to depressing news reports, wondering when will we learn,” says Jordan. “I couldn’t stop thinking of What’s Going On. Of course it’s a classic, but it could have been written for today.”
Perhaps the album’s most affecting song is Care For Your Mother, in which Jordan imagines his offering advice.
“The lyrics are the words I wished I’d heard from my dad,” says Jordan. “My mum taught me how to iron and tie my shoelaces. But I’ve always wondered what lessons my dad might have given me.”
The bossa nova-tinged Magic may be the most in debt to Jordan’s roots while the gorgeous Eventide is a love song to an imaginary couple who only have eyes for each other in a crowded place.
Next single Parachutes is about being true to yourself.
“Often people put up a façade,” says Jordan. “You can sees it when they act differently around you than they do other people. If I was stuck on a plane without a parachute I’d have to jump because I the pain I’ve already experienced wont be as bad.”
Hence the beanies. Jordan now owns over a dozen in a multitude of colours.
“It’s not a gimmick,” he says. “They just make me comfortable. You won’t see me on the street without some kind of headwear, but I’m definitely more comfortable now, performing with or without one, than I was 2 years ago.”
For more information on Jordan Mackampa, please contact:
Shazila Mohammed: Shazm@grandstandhq.com
Nick Javier (tour): Nickj@grandstandhq.comFor tour dates and more visit: www.jordanmackampa.com/