Michael Kiwanuka at Glastonbury Review: tech trouble fails to spoil the conscious-soul party

Saturday evening Pyramid Stage set a keen reminder of the singer-songwriter’s unique blend. Lianne La Havas helps out.

Michael Kiwanuka

by Andy Fyfe |
Published on

Deep into Glastonbury Festival is a slot that artists of a certain stripe covet almost as much as a headline. Early Saturday evening marks a spiritual midway point of the weekend: everyone’s found their festival lope, already seen at least two of the best things in the world ever, but they’re maybe feeling a little peaky. What they need is something uplifting: good time vibes that are restorative and energising before the long Saturday night unfurls itself.

In the past it’s worked for Van Morrison, singing about Avalon sunsets as the sun slowly dips towards the actual Avalon horizon; or when Brian Wilson inspired one intrepid punter to don swim shorts and ride a surf board across the hands of the crowd; even perennial ’90s festival favourites Dodgy introducing Ray Davies onto the stage to sing Tired Of Waiting before blasting through Staying Out For The Summer.

This year the spot falls to Michael Kiwanuka and his unique blend of ’60s French cinema pop and deep soul spiced with a hint of Afrobeat. And he almost pulls it off to perfection.

Walking on to the slinking Brazilian pop of Golden Boys’ Berimbau, Kiwanuka kicks off with the gently acoustic Hard To Say Goodbye, which slowly morphs into a spaghetti western fuzz before segueing into the driving, upbeat You Ain’t The Problem, the already enormous crowd roaring out the “la-la-laaa-la-la-la” chorus hook.

Just two songs in, and this uniquely blended music of a British-born son of Ugandan parents is making a timely positive case for immigration and community beautiful enough to give Nigel Farage an aneurysm. And it goes on, songs beginning slowly before building and winding into guitarist Michael Jablonka’s Ernie Isley-like solos, bringing rock energy to soul music yet entirely devoid of macho posturing.

The messages that run deep through Kiwanuka’s music chime fiercely with the audience, too. That the injustice and paranoia reflected in Black Man In A White World still have to be vented in 2024 is shameful, but it’s a quiet rage that Kiwanuka shares with many of his musical touchstones, from Nina Simone to Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron. Like them, Kiwanuka knows there’s no better way to deliver a devastating takedown than by cloaking it in irresistible, funky soul: if you can keep them dancing, the message will sink in. And the fact he can turn his struggles with anxiety and mental health into something as exquisitely spine-tingling as Rule The World – with Lianne La Havas guesting on vocals – testifies to the subtle power of his songwriting.

As majestic as Kiwanuka’s performance is, it never quite hits that Saturday evening sweet spot. Trying to start Solid Ground he decides his Prophet 5 synth is out of tune, and in spite of a restart after attempting to adjust it, the synth remains stubbornly not to his liking, and Kiwanuka finally abandons the song just a few bars in. His sweet, blushing apology testifies to a good upbringing, as does the sheer guts he has to make the decision to cut a crucial song at a crucial moment during one of his biggest ever performances.

But that’s Kiwanuka in a nutshell: singular, fearless, bold, and uniquely, upliftingly groovy.


Hard To Say Goodbye

You Ain’t The Problem


Black Man In A White World

Rule The World (with Lianne La Havas)



Final Days

Solid Ground

Cold Little Heart

Love & Hate

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Picture: BBC/Glastonbury

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