The British funk outfit’s third album supercharged their popularity and chart sales, nullifying the cat cries of cultural appropriation.
As he made his way to the stage to accept his band’s award for Best Album at the MOBO Awards in 1997, Jay Kay saw an opportune moment to deliver a key message, aimed squarely at Jamiroquai’s critics.
“I think this award is important to us because we’ve never denied that the music we do is of black origin …people have said that we’re trying to plagiarize something that we love and you know… we’re trying to flatter the thing and do it properly…and this year has been so good
“We’ve performed with Diana Ross, Gil Scott Heron and I met Stevie Wonder the other night and he seemed to approve of what we’re doing, so if we can put paid to all the ‘white guy doing the black music bit’ and just get on with it and enjoy it, it’d be much better!”
Born, Jason Luis Cheetham, Jay Kay as he came to be known, has always had a strong sense of who he was, even though others may have been irked or confused by the various contradictions he presented publicly.
From his earliest albums, he’d spoken articulately and sung songs about the fragile state of the earth, yet he is owner to an eye-watering collection of vintage and luxury cars that he doesn’t mind fangin’ about in for leisure or for videos.
Jamiroquai takes part of its name from the ‘Iroquois’, a Native American Confederacy, and Kay has often favoured performing in sacred cultural headwear and printed garments, despite not having any Native American heritage. And, as a white man, with huge success in making funk, soul music whilst sounding remarkably like his hero Stevie Wonder, he has been accused of blatantly ripping off black music.
Such was the weight of the endless comparisons and criticism from press that Kay approached a chance meeting with his idol with some resignation in his heart, as he told Paper in 1997.
"I said to him, 'I'm that guy you must keep hearing about; the little white guy who's copying your stuff,'" Kay recalls. "He [Wonder] started humming 'Virtual Insanity' and said, 'No, man, you're doing it.'”
Encouraged by this seal of approval, Kay ventured further saying, “Let me do a cover of ‘Golden Lady’." He says when Wonder agreed, he was ecstatic.
“I ran outside and punched the air like 50 times and then sat in the corner in tears." Wonder explained his belief of a greater power behind creativity. "Music is something God has given us as a gift that we can all enjoy. In fact, I have a song I never released that I was thinking would be perfect for [Jay]."
Of course, Jamiroquai is more than just the magnetic Jay Kay. Its membership is comprised of a crack team of incredible musicians featuring, on Travelling Without Moving, the bossin’ bass work of Stuart Zender, the shiny guitar licks of Simon Katz, didgeridoo player Wallis Buchanan, crisp percussion vibes via Sola Akingbola, groove maestro Derrick McKenzie on drums and, of course, co-songwriting keyboardist Toby Smith who passed away in 2017.
This band are the highly polished engine that deliver the energizing rhythms that elevate Kay’s dance moves, expertly following his fluid, melodic singing and allowing him to fly as an entertainer.
For all his talk on ‘Cosmic Girl’ of ‘magnetizing …some baby Barbarella’ or ‘spend the night together / wake up and live forever’ on ‘Alright’, there is a serious side to Jay Kay.
On a Carling Homecoming documentary special in 2002, he revealed his proudest songwriting moment:
“The best song I’ve ever written in terms of [being] ahead of its time is ‘Virtual Insanity’ ‘cos that was released on the same day that Dolly The Sheep was born…”It’s a wonder man can eat at all / when things are big that should be small’ …
“The whole idea of genetically engineering them to taste, look, feel better and then doing it with humans as well, ’Now every mother can choose the colour of her child’ …and its not a million miles away from it, and I just think it was very much ahead [of its time].”
Although his critics mightn’t like to admit it, his understanding of humanity’s lack of will to change in a song like ‘Virtual Insanity’ is telling.
It seems this grinning Cheshire Cat in the Hat is the one having the last laugh as he compels us to dance to a song about a not terribly far flung dystopian future as he sweetly sings, ‘Now always seem to, be governed by this love we have / For useless, twisting / our new technology / Oh now there is no sound, For we all live underground.’