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.