AKALA

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­tographs: Michael Cle­ment

When you’re talk­ing Re­nais­sance men, it doesn’t get more multi-hy­phen­ated than this rap­per-writer-war­rior-scholar.

Akala made his name as a Lon­don rap­per long be­fore the likes of Stor­mzy and J Hus made it com­mer­cially ac­cept­able. But de­spite six suc­cess­ful al­bums, it’s as a writer, lec­turer, doc­u­men­tary-maker and “war­rior scholar” that he’s gained the most wide­spread ad­mi­ra­tion. Si­mon God­dard ac­com­pa­nies him to Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity as he ac­cepts an hon­orary Doc­tor of the Arts.

The sound of a meat cleaver slic­ing into a hu­man head is sim­i­lar to that made by “chop­ping into a wa­ter­melon”. That’s how Akala re­mem­bers it. He was wait­ing for a trim in a North Lon­don bar­bers when a fight broke out be­tween lo­cal “naughty boys” out­side. One of them, Akala’s older friend, re­treated into the shop when his ri­val snuck in through the rear and sliced into the back of his skull. The at­tacker fled and the vic­tim was left with “fin­ger-thick” scars for life. “An­other cou­ple of mil­lime­tres it would have pierced his brain and he’d have died.” But it’s the wet, fleshy noise more than the bloody im­ages which still haunts him. “Like, fffttt!” he im­i­tates, “a re­ally hor­ri­ble sound.” It was Akala’s first ex­pe­ri­ence of street vi­o­lence. He was 12. “When you’re in a work­ing-class en­vi­ron­ment where that stuff is con­sid­ered nor­mal, no­body ever comes to talk to you about how you feel af­ter­wards,” he says. “So by the third or fourth time you see some­one get stabbed you just think, ‘Oh?’ Whereas if some­thing like that hap­pened here, peo­ple would need coun­selling.” “Here” is a sunny sum­mer morn­ing at Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity where less than an hour ago Akala par­took in the the­atri­cal pomp of a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony: a hand­some, dreaded 34- year-old look­ing highly amused in claret robe and tas­selled Tu­dor bon­net, watched by his proud mum Heather (who, equally tick­led, later ad­mits she couldn’t help blurt “Al­right, fam?” as his for­mal pro­ces­sion marched past), there to be con­ferred with an hon­orary Doc­tor of the Arts. That he’s now “Dr Akala” is no more po­tent a sym­bol of how far the boy born Kingslee Da­ley has come in the two decades since that grue­some af­ter­noon in N19. First emerg­ing in the noughties as a UK rap­per in the shadow of his Mer­cury Prize-win­ning big sis­ter Ms Dy­na­mite, it’s lat­terly as a writer, lec­turer, BAFTA-win­ning doc­u­men­tary-maker and “war­rior scholar” that he’s gained wide­spread ad­mi­ra­tion. Six al­bums down the line, while Akala can sell out Shep­herd’s Bush Em­pire you’re still less likely to hear him on the ra­dio than you are to see him on Ques­tion Time, Pe­ston On Sun­day or Frankie Boyle’s New World Or­der de­bat­ing pol­i­tics with an ar­tic­u­lacy and wis­dom so mes­meris­ing it makes you want to spring up and cheer the telly.

“Sorry to in­ter­rupt – I just wanted to say I think you’re bril­liant!” One of to­day’s gowned grad­u­ates has bat-flapped across to the quiet cor­ner of re­cep­tion where Akala is talk­ing to Q. By the time our in­ter­view is over we’ll be in­ter­rupted by an­other nine sim­i­larly agog mor­tar-boarded stu­dents froth­ing praise and grat­i­tude. Even the guy be­hind the uni cof­fee shop counter can’t help tip­toe­ing over to say how much he loves Akala’s “out­look on life”, now im­mor­talised in print as Na­tives: Race And Class In The Ru­ins Of Em­pire. Al­ready an Ama­zon best­seller (num­ber one in “Po­lit­i­cal Leader Biogra­phies”), Akala re­lates his ex­pe­ri­ences as a work­ing-class kid of mixed eth­nic­ity – his mum white Scot­tish, his dad black An­glo-Caribbean – as a lever into sharp so­cio-po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis of this coun­try’s en­demic racism, class dis­crim­i­na­tion and “col­lec­tive am­ne­sia” when it comes to ac­knowl­edg­ing a shock­ing colo­nial his­tory of geno­cide and slav­ery. A tough mes­sage, per­sua­sively writ­ten, ro­bustly re­searched, it’s as chill­ingly per­ti­nent a book as you could, and in­deed should, read in the year of the Win­drush scan­dal and Gren­fell In­quiry. To his right-wing op­po­nents, Akala is that most ter­ri­fy­ing of prospects: a brown-skinned coun­cil oik with brains. His Arch­way up­bring­ing was a not un­com­mon tale of monetary poverty in a sin­gle­par­ent house­hold (his bi­o­log­i­cal dad and later step­dad had left by his teens), ex­ac­er­bated when, aged 12, his mum con­tracted can­cer. As he writes in Na­tives, and as he raps in Cold from his 2006 de­but It’s Not A Ru­mour, there were freez­ing win­ter nights sleep­ing fully clothed be­cause they couldn’t pay the gas bill. But though it was cash-poor, his youth was cul­tur­ally rich, ig­nited by the free panAfrican Satur­day school he at­tended as an in­fant; staffed by vol­un­teers who taught com­mu­nity chil­dren about a le­gacy of Caribbean so­cial­ism and black na­tion­al­ism other­wise de­nied them by the (pun very much in­tended) white­washed state syl­labus. That it would have a last­ing im­pact on Akala was ev­i­dent from the child­hood draw­ing his mum still has framed on her stair­case: a Christ­mas tree with a Marcus Gar­vey UNIA flag on top. “That’s one of the lucky things I had ver­sus other work­ing-class kids, and other work­ing-class black kids in par­tic­u­lar,” he says fondly. “The way I was taught, black cul­ture was al­ways Marcus Gar­vey or Wal­ter Rod­ney or jazz mu­sic or Pub­lic En­emy. It was only when I be­came a teenager I re­alised there were other black boys who’d been brought up with­out that, to think be­ing black was about be­hav­ing in a par­tic­u­larly nega­tive, stereo­typ­i­cal way. So I never had the chance to in­ter­nalise that neg­a­tiv­ity.” Na­tives con­trasts this pos­i­tive ex­tracur­ric­u­lar

“I was hang­ing around peo­ple for whom ex­treme vi­o­lence was a likely re­sponse to a per­ceived slight. I had guns pulled on me. I had a guy come af­ter me with a ke­bab shop knife.”

ed­u­ca­tion – rad­i­cal com­mu­nity book­shops, the ben­e­fits of a step­dad who stage-man­aged Hack­ney Em­pire al­low­ing him to see free the­atre, a mum who played Fear Of A Black Planet on re­peat and whose idea of fam­ily view­ing was 1987’ s Man­dela biopic – with that of an in­ner-city school where his high in­tel­li­gence was con­versely clas­si­fied by a Dick­en­sian vil­lain of a teacher as “spe­cial needs”. Akala was, he says proudly, “a geek”, clever enough to sit, and pass, his maths GCSE a year early. His god­fa­ther had high hopes of him be­com­ing a quan­tum physi­cist. But life, and foot­ball, got in the way. His three best child­hood friends all went to prison. At 15 Akala him­self started car­ry­ing a knife. “From about 12 to 20, I saw a lot of vi­o­lence,” he re­calls. “Be­cause I was hang­ing around cer­tain groups of peo­ple for whom ex­treme vi­o­lence was a likely re­sponse to a per­ceived slight or dis­re­spect. I was in many sit­u­a­tions where I could have got killed. I had guns pulled on me. I had a guy come af­ter me once with one of those long ke­bab shop knives. So, yes, I flirted with it but then I came out very, very quickly.” Turn­ing his back on straight A’s and street crews, he hoped to make it as a pro­fes­sional foot­baller, first scouted by West Ham Un­der- 18s, then trans­fer­ring to Wim­ble­don. But even on the pitch his mu­si­cal des­tiny was al­ways call­ing. “I got sent off for rap­ping,” he laughs. “I was rap­ping DMX to my­self and the coach saw me and subbed me off. So I al­ways did want to be a rap­per, and kids to­day won’t un­der­stand this be­cause of peo­ple like Stor­mzy and Skepta, but back then the early noughties] be­ing a ‘Bri­tish rap­per’ was a ridicu­lous fuck­ing job op­tion. It just seemed im­pos­si­ble.”

He was 18 when his big sis­ter Niomi, Ms Dy­na­mite, won the 2002 Mer­cury Prize. The nepo­tis­tic con­se­quences of her suc­cess were both a help and hin­drance. Her in­dus­try con­nec­tions pro­vided in­vestors to start his own la­bel, Illa State, main­tain­ing a cre­ative con­trol he prizes to this day. But the me­dia’s con­stant fa­mil­ial com­par­isons be­came an al­ba­tross. “It was in­evitable,” he nods. “Maybe they thought I was bandwagon jump­ing. It felt like a lot of the press didn’t even lis­ten to my mu­sic and just thought, ‘Ah! It’s Ms Dy­na­mite’s lit­tle brother. He’s bound to be crap and only do­ing it be­cause of his sis­ter.’” Though 2006 sin­gle Shake­speare (“I’m sim­i­lar to Wil­liam but a lit­tle dif­fer­ent/I do it for kids that’s il­lit­er­ate, not El­iz­a­beth”) re­ceived mod­er­ate air­play, that all-im­por­tant cross­over hit eluded him. “My first three al­bums, I felt there were songs on all of them that if they’d been on a ma­jor la­bel, things would’ve been dif­fer­ent,” he muses. Late­com­ers have a ready-made crash course in 2016 Best Of, Ten Years Of Akala, from the lightning-lipped Com­edy, Tragedy, His­tory to the deeply per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal key works of Find No En­emy and the phe­nom­e­nal Fire In The Booth Pt 1, both shar­ing many themes and au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal scenes with Na­tives. Those in­spired to delve even fur­ther into his back cat­a­logue will find in­ge­nious Siouxsie sam­ples

( 2007’ s Free­dom Lasso), dystopian elec­tro hip-hop ( 2010’ s Or­wellin­spired Dou­bleThink) and the sound­track to his own graphic novel ( 2017’ s Vi­sions EP). The happy irony to­day is that it’s thanks to his grow­ing fame as a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist that more peo­ple are dis­cov­er­ing Akala’s mu­sic than ever be­fore. His next al­bum is sched­uled for 2019. “So hope­fully, this one, peo­ple will be ready to sit up and lis­ten.”

Even with­out mu­sic, Akala’s work­load is stag­ger­ing. There’s his the­atre com­pany, The Hip-Hop Shake­speare Com­pany, his talks and lec­tures in schools and prisons, his spo­ken-word mul­ti­me­dia per­for­mances and more books, cur­rently writ­ing a young adult fic­tion se­ries set in El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land. He’s just re­turned from Ja­maica where he made an­other doc­u­men­tary with Booker Prize win­ner Mar­lon James, and hopes to one day re­vive the script for “a street drama” com­mis­sioned, but never pro­duced, by the BBC in 2011. “I’ve been of­fered a few act­ing gigs here and there,” he adds, “but I’m more in­ter­ested in be­ing be­hind the cam­era. Film is some­thing I’d def­i­nitely like to do next.”

But 2018 is all about Na­tives, launched this May with a sold-out Q&A event at O2 Brix­ton Academy. Un­sur­pris­ingly ap­plauded by the lib­eral me­dia, he’s hu­mor­ously irked that Tory crit­ics have thus far left it alone. “They all cow­ered out,” he laughs. “I was dy­ing for some­one from the right wing press to ac­tu­ally of­fer a solid re­but­tal based on the ev­i­dence and none of them had the balls to en­gage. That’s a sim­ple fact. They did not have the min­er­als, they did not have the will to go, ‘I’m go­ing to read this and de­stroy his ar­gu­ment piece by piece with counter ev­i­dence.’ I would ac­tu­ally re­spect them if they did, but they didn’t.” He has, though, jousted with many an ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­nent be­fore TV cam­eras, main­tain­ing a su­per­hu­man cool even when con­fronted with the snooty splut­ters of Michael Gove and the thug il­logic of Tommy Robin­son. You won­der, well, how? “The Gove one was par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing,” he chuck­les. “In my head I was just fight­ing, say­ing, ‘Bruv, who the FUCK are you talk­ing to?’ That’s one of the hand­i­caps of grow­ing up a par­tic­u­lar way, when peo­ple talk to you rudely or pa­tro­n­is­ingly, our nor­mal re­sponse is to kick off. So I was fight­ing it, telling my­self, ‘Don’t be the an­gry black guy on TV!’ I fight it all the time. Re­ally, all the time.”

With­out wish­ing to drop a spoiler, Na­tives doesn’t end on a pos­i­tive note. It con­cludes that Bri­tish so­ci­ety is still run by the pri­vately-schooled and Oxbridge-ed­u­cated, happy to let the “chavs” rot in food­bank hell; that the pa­pers and po­lice are in­sti­tu­tion­ally racist (the phrase “black on black crime” alone: when did you last read about “white on white” vi­o­lence?); and that our im­pe­rial his­tory of racial in­tol­er­ance is so bad that the ma­jor­ity of colo­nial records have al­ready been se­cretly de­stroyed by the UK gov­ern­ment (Co­de­name: “Op­er­a­tion Le­gacy”) to keep us in per­pet­ual flag-wav­ing ig­no­rance. Akala, born in 1983, sees lit­tle hope for an Akala born in the wors­en­ing class divide of 2018. For Akala, now hon­oured by that same mid­dle-class academia, his doc­tor­ate sends out a pro­gres­sive mes­sage. “I see it as recog­ni­tion of learn­ing done out­side the academy.” The im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion and the power of knowl­edge, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing knives, has been one of the cen­tral tenets of his mu­sic. “I can re­late to a lot of young peo­ple grow­ing up in tougher cir­cum­stances in a very real way,” he notes.

“I used to be one of those kids. I got A’s, but I still car­ried a knife.” He’s par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about re­cent press hys­te­ria sen­sa­tion­al­is­ing Lon­don as a no-go black Stabopo­lis when in 2017 the Home Of­fice found the cap­i­tal ac­tu­ally less dan­ger­ous than West York­shire and Greater Manchester, while Greater Lon­don Author­ity fig­ures show only one out of ev­ery five stab­bing vic­tims in the cap­i­tal is black. “So you have to ask why the me­dia are push­ing this false nar­ra­tive?” he broods. But spend­ing most days, as Akala seems to, dis­cussing, lec­tur­ing, rap­ping or writ­ing about so­ci­ety’s prob­lems must surely take its toll? “It may dis­ap­point some peo­ple, but I make no claims to be some su­per-duper prin­ci­pled ide­o­log­i­cal ul­tra-Marx­ist poster boy,” he jokes. “All the time I think, ‘Fuck this! Let’s just go and lie on a beach some­where.’ And some­times I do that. But at the same time I’m very con­scious of the fact that I’m very, very, very fuck­ing lucky. I don’t re­ally have the right to just give up be­cause, in the scheme of things, my life has turned out quite won­der­ful.” “And also,” he smiles, “I’m ac­tu­ally a clown. I’m not that se­ri­ous in real life. Peo­ple prob­a­bly pre­sume that I sit around with my mates all day talk­ing about pol­i­tics. Some­times we do that. But most times we’re laugh­ing and I’m usu­ally the butt of the jokes. When you have a po­lit­i­cal opin­ion, peo­ple imag­ine that you walk around all day de­pressed. Of course I have a beer and re­lax, or when I’m in Ja­maica I have a spliff. I’m not that se­ri­ous all of the time. Be­cause if I was that se­ri­ous all of the time I’d want to jump in the river.” He stands up and, from nowhere, is im­me­di­ately swamped by more phone-wag­gling grad­u­ates queu­ing for self­ies and “big ups!” from the hon­orary doc. For now, “Dr Akala” may not have the cure for mod­ern Bri­tain and all its ills. But in his words and mu­sic you won’t hear a clearer di­ag­no­sis.

“I make no claims to be a su­per-duper prin­ci­pled ide­o­log­i­cal ul­tra-Marx­ist poster boy. All the time I think, ‘Let’s just go and lie on a beach some­where.’ And some­times I do that.”

(Above) win­ning Best Hip Hop Act at the 2006 MOBOs; (left) on Pe­ston On Sun­day, May 2018 – “I don’t want to be the ‘an­gry black guy on TV.’”

What’s up, doc?: Akala re­ceives his hon­orary Doc­tor of the Arts, Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity, 23 June, 2018.

On the cor­ner: “If I was se­ri­ous all the time I’d want to jump in the river”; (left) Akala’s new book, Na­tives.

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