Interview: Freedom, A New Jerusalem - Jon Scott
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Distraught and dismayed by the brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in his native Nigeria, solicitor turned singer/songwriter Jon Scott’s latest EP emphasises the need to unite and bring harmony, almost serving as a prophecy for recent events in his homeland.
“What is significant to me is, as us lawyers say, that ‘not only should justice be done, but justice should be seen to be done.’”
Despite acknowledging the fact that he relocated to the UK at around 18 years of age, Scott was quick to add that “I don’t think I ever left Lagos as such, or should I say, I don’t think Lagos ever left me”. It became clear talking to him why his upbringing plays such an instrumental role in shaping his musical influences, his political outlook and the steadfast connection he feels towards Nigeria to this day. Having grown up in quite a middle-class family, Scott had the good fortune of living out the fantasy that most Nigerians of his generation had; as Afrobeat pioneer and legendary political activist lived down the road from him.
“Fela always went around in his underpants, that was his thing, and his wives went around bare-chested, so it was a good place for a young boy to be,” he joked before continuing to reminisce, “He would wave at you and say hello to you, he would say ‘alright small boy? Watch what you do there!’ Sometimes he would say ‘you like?’ He was so charismatic, but my mother didn’t like me going around there because she didn’t like the fact that they smoked dope, she didn’t like the fact that there were these bare chested women there and she thought that if I was hanging around there I was going to grow up as a ‘bad lot’. I wasn’t allowed to get too close, but that didn’t stop us kids hanging around his compound listening to this amazing music coming from all over the place.”
Although growing up so close to an icon of Kuti’s stature whilst being able to listen to his band’s rehearsals was of course a great source of inspiration for Scott, he cites other key influences from his childhood that led him to becoming a musician, some of which came from within his own family. His aunt owned a record shop in Lagos where he would pass the time over school holidays, indulging in a variety of different artists from The Rolling Stones to King Sunny Ade. His mother would unashamedly show off her amazing high-pitched singing voice and play records from his father’s wide-ranging collection that included the likes of Mario Lanza, Plácido Domingo and Sam Cooke. Although he quipped that “it must be something in the water” that led not only him, but also his cousin, Seal, to the music industry, perhaps the greatest factor that guided Scott towards music came from his former schoolmates.
“I went to secondary school at St Gregory’s College in Lagos [with] the most successful schoolboy teenage band probably in the history of the entire world, and that is not hyperbole, a band called Ofege. They were 14 or 15 or something like this, they wrote their own songs, they got a big record deal and they were a massive hit in Nigeria. I was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of the lead singer, a lovely guy called Melvyn, and it was great watching him sit down with the guitar and start to craft a song,” said Scott.
“For me it was magical, to sit there with him at the boarding school, during break times or even sometimes during study times [when] we would sneak away to a classroom where he taught me to play the guitar as well. I remember sometimes during the holidays they started playing these songs on the radio by this band called Ofege and they said these are boys from St Gregory’s College….it’s very difficult to explain it, one minute you are sat in there with your mates chatting about stuff, mucking about on the guitar and a couple of months later they are all over national radio and doing gigs, and the girls loved them which was always an incentive.”
Yet, at that age Scott presumably saw music mostly as a useful tool to attract members of the opposite sex and probably did not envisage his role in music as one that would address serious issues much like his former neighbour Fela Kuti did. Yet, on his latest EP, Freedom – A New Jerusalem, Scott finds himself trying to make music with a timeless message as he has realised that man’s inhumanity to one another is an ever-present issue that constantly must have dissenting voices to speak up against it. Whilst Scott dedicates much of his time towards delivering these messages through his music he also does so in his work as a commercial litigation and commercial property solicitor.
“I believe frankly in what I refer to as the politics of fairness. It is about having a voice and being able to articulate a line of thinking, and that is another similarity. As a lawyer you need to be able to develop an argument and try to get your point across in the best way for somebody to be able to understand what you are trying to say, that’s the whole point of being a communicator. If I am telling you something and I am sounding highfalutin and you are not getting my point, I am failing what I am trying to achieve and I think that is a confluence there, because, you know, it is about communicating, I have got something to say and here is what I am saying to you,” explained Scott.
“A key element of being a communicator is not that you bash people over the head with your superior position, it is if you are able to persuade them to your way of thinking and even if they don’t agree with you at least they get to listen.”
One just has to listen to Scott’s music to realise that whilst there are themes of protest, he is not preaching and this tone that he presents presumably comes from years of honing his skills of argumentation. The title-track of the EP was initially brought about by President Trump’s declaration that he was going to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. After putting the song on ice for a few years, the rise of the BLM movement inspired Scott to return to the song and introduce a section of Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Scott feels that the release of the EP is so timely as its lyrics are particularly applicable to the aforementioned troubles in Nigeria with the EndSARS protests, adding that “like the chorus says every man and woman should be free, every man and child be free, sing it loud and sing it now, tell it all across the whole world, let them know now we will sing songs of freedom”.
Whilst there are similarities to be drawn between Scott’s career in music and his legal work, he does point out that Jon Scott, the musician, and John Palmer, the solicitor are in some respects quite different. “I think that they couldn’t really be the same person because, you are applying different mind-sets, as a musician you have less constraints on how you express yourself, as a lawyer there are guidelines, set positions, precedents, ways of expressing yourself, whereas as a musician you have artistic license to do what you like and to say what you want to say the way you want to say it.” Although he is of course passionate about his career as a solicitor, he labels being on stage as one of his favourite things because unlike during his day-job he no longer has to be 'proper'.
It is not uncommon at his practice at Akin Palmer LLP to seek alternative creative outlets as another colleague of his also works as an author. Scott, however, indicates that his decision to combine careers in both music and law is not merely the exercising of his creative muscles but rather that it has a theological basis that comes from the ‘Parable of the Talents’ in the gospel of Matthew. He says that “I have been blessed with the ability to write songs, to listen to something and turn it into something else in my mind and so not to use that talent, would be an atrocious, unforgivable thing.”
Though some other tracks on the EP have a more pertinent message such as Water Is Wet which illustrates how short life is and in light of this we should stop and smell the roses, as well as A Beautiful Country which speaks of a utopian vision that we can reach if we show tolerance and understanding to one another, Suzi Walker meanwhile is a far more whimsical track about teenage unrequited love that shows off Scott’s capacity to not take himself too seriously. Scott’s influences are made particularly obvious on Suzi Walker and A Beautiful Country where echoes of Stevie Wonder and Prince’s style can be heard in the composition. Scott also cites Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye and Ghanaian afro-rockers Osibisa as key influences and gives a special mention to Donna Summer, teasing that “her voice does things to me”. Whilst often fun and upbeat, Scott has one message that he ultimately wishes to get across in his music. He pleads his listeners to use his music as a springboard for us all to have ‘an honest dialogue without a fear of recrimination’.