Kano: 'Africa Express is random and surreal. Wicked, though'

The London MC and actor on this year's Africa Express, which features 80 musicians on one train as it makes a string of stops across the UK

Born Kane Robinson in Newham, east London, Kano is a grime MC and actor. His fifth solo album is out this year.

When did you first get involved with Africa Express?

The first one I did was in Liverpool, years ago. I'd worked with Damon Albarn before on one of my records; we had a good relationship. He said: "Look, it's a gig – just something we do." He told me they'd been to a few different countries and done it, hundreds of musicians coming together from West Africa, the UK, all over the world, basically bridging the gap between African music and European. He said: "Don't expect to have a time slot. Don't expect to perform one of your own songs necessarily; just jump on. Have a laugh. Expect the unexpected." I couldn't imagine what kind of show it was going to be like, but I enjoyed it so much.

What happened next?

We took over a stage at Glastonbury – I remember doing a broken-down version of my song Feel Free, with Damon on the piano and a guy called Scratch beat-boxing – and then we went to Nigeria. Ten days in Lagos – that was one of the most exciting things I've done. To jam with African musicians, but in their territory… We performed in Fela Kuti's Shrine with his son, Femi. One of the maddest gigs I've ever played – Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers playing bass, me rapping over it. Random. Surreal. Wicked, though.

Which African artists are you particularly looking forward to this time around?

Spoek [Mathambo, a South African rapper], definitely. I worked with him at the last show in Brighton. I have fun performing with him, I hope people get to know him.

Have the Africa Express experiences you've had to date altered your way of writing or performing?

As an MC, I come from a background where the onstage experience is freestyle-based: you never know who's going to join you on stage, or what you're gonna do, or how long you can stay on. You kind of lose that, once you get on to recording albums and going on tour. Doing Africa Express has brought me back to that excitement – for the unexpected.

Are there downsides to the project?

No one would want to do Africa Express every day, put it that way. [Laughs.] It is stressful at times. Anyone who's been involved with it, they always come away saying it's the weirdest… best… worst gig they've ever done.

One of the project's aims is to show Africans as "equals with something to offer", to share ideas and open eyes "towards the new and changing Africa". How might it achieve that?

You know, it's not like an African musician is coming over here and trying to break the European market. The African musicians are doing their thing, playing their music on their own instruments in their own clothes.

It's not one of these gigs that's an event about Africa – with no African musicians, you know what I mean? It's not an event about Africa where you think: "Why is bloody Paul McCartney headlining? How did that happen?"


Interview by Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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