Nathan McIlroy chats to MOBO award winner Akala…
In the lead up to the gig I could think of nothing to ask Akala that wasn’t already explicitly clear in his lyrics so like a true music journalist I used my imagination and asked anyway.
The interview took place shortly before he took to the stage supporting Billy Bragg at The Picket in Liverpool as part of the Leftfield in Motion tour.
It was interesting to see the reaction from a Billy Bragg audience as the two men share many parallels as folk bards, albeit with different deliveries.
Flanked by a live drummer, Akala bounded onstage and ran through a half hour set which gradually had everyone waving hands and bouncing on one knee like ketamine casualties. I like to shed inhibitions with some light refreshment before I bust my moves but I was bone dry so I solemnly stroked my chin instead, ruminating on superlatives that could express my enjoyment. (Note to self ”â see NME’s amazing use of language, copy and paste)
The gig was the ”Ëfucking greatest’ as was Billy Bragg’s set. Despite my disappointment at leaving early to get my last train, I was lucky enough to hear a stirring version of ”ËNever buy The Sun’ in the city which stood up to Kelvin Mackenzie and his ilk. A freak hormonal imbalance that enveloped me that night may have even induced a tear or two.
To be slipped into Michael Gove’s suggestion box”Â¦
Louder than War – What do you think of the British education system?
Akala ”â ‘I think we have an education system that is largely based on preserving the social order in our country and that means that working class kids have to be given a particular set of goals and the rich kids have to be given a particular set of goals. The same for women and men, non white and white people etc. People have to be directed into certain paths. It doesn’t always work but that is generally what the school system is geared to. They’re not gonna mention, for example, that Africans and Arabs ruled Spain till 1492. As if it just didn’t happen. I mean they brought to us the guitar and the numbers we count with every day. That was never mentioned in school and it’s never going to be because it’s a bit more difficult to hate people from that part of the world when you know your favourite instrument was brought to Europe by them and that you count with a number system they brought.’
Louder than War ”â Do you think they pick and choose parts of history to suit the British?
Akala ”â ‘It’s not just about the British because the average working class, white, British person has been on the receiving end of the same social system and that’s the irony of the whole thing. Poor, average, working class, white people are being taught to worship a system that’s dumped on them too. What did people in East Glasgow gain from imperialism? There’s a part of Glasgow where life expectancy is 53. That’s lower than Iraq but nobody talks about it. For me I was lucky enough to go to a school where every walk of life was represented. Every race, every creed and every monetary bracket as well. There were kids in my school whose parents were millionaires and there were kids in my school who sold crack at 11. Now I’m 27 and apart from five exceptions that I can think of, all of my working class friends are raising kids pretty much how their parents raised them and all of my middle class friends are doctors and lawyers.’
Louder than War – Did your own schooling influence you in getting involved with the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company?
Akala – ‘I see how your start in life is hard to get over and what I try to do with Hip Hop Shakespeare, as with everything I try to do, is to teach people that it’s cool to be educated. It doesn’t mean you’re a dickhead which can be the general feeling.’
Louder than War ”â (Like a dickhead I interject at this point to mention a recent trip to see my first Shakespeare production which resulted in a swift exit at the interval followed by a bout of shame for my philistinism.)
Akala ”â ‘Ninety per cent of Shakespeare’s audience at the time couldn’t read or write. It was probably a poor production. There’s some that you’ll watch that are done in a classical sense that are very good and there’s others that are not. It’s like anything; there are rap albums that are shit. The idea that every Shakespeare production is going to be good just because it’s Shakespeare”Â¦it’s silly. Some actors can’t act, they don’t have passion and they can’t understand the textbook.’
Louder than War – I read that you were exposed to the theatre at a young age?
Akala – ‘I grew up in a theatre called the Hackney Empire and my stepdad was the stage manager there. That was basically Britain’s leading African ”â Caribbean theatre. All the productions there were not all African ”â Caribbean but basically led. You had probably two shows that marked my childhood the most, one called Sarafina! which was about apartheid and the other one was called Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame and it was about Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Bob Marley and I saw that literally a hundred times as a kid.’
Louder than War ”â Did you get to see the Fela Kuti musical?
Akala ”â ‘I haven’t which is shameful because my friend Dele Sosimi (former keyboardist/musical guru with Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80 band and co-creator of Femi Kuti’s Positive Force band) is the musical director so he’s gonna cuss me when I see him but I’ve heard it’s great. Fela has become a legend in death. That’s what always happens, great people come along and we kill them and then say weren’t they great.’
Louder than War ”â There are lots of literary references in your songs and as you’ve already said nobody should be ashamed of being educated properly and reading is a major part of that. Are there any books you’d recommend to David Cameron?
Akala ”â ‘No’
Need I say more”Â¦
Akala’s ”ËLife of Rhyme’ documentary has been nominated for a CND award for ”ËBest Factual Programme’ and features interviews with Linton Kwesi Johnson as well as British rappers such as Lowkey and can still be viewed on 4od. He started the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company in 2009 and visits schools regularly to discuss the parallels between rap and poetry and the snobbery that often overshadows the merit of both.
In a world where mainstream Hip Hop is vetted before distribution by millionaire moguls whose main premise is to shift units and endorse brands, he is a true ambassador of the art form striving for the acceptance of the real thing.