Akala: the versatile rapper

Akala, born Kingslee James Daley in 1983, is a UK-based rapper, poet and academic. Growing up in a musical family, he was lyrical from a young age. He released his debut album “It’s Not a Rumour” in 2006, which earned him best hip hop act at the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) Awards. So far he has released six albums including “Knowledge is Power and “The Thieves’ Banquet”. His songs like “Fire in the Booth”, “Find no Enemy” and “Malcom Said it” are among his famous tracks. He performed alongside musicians like Damian Marley, Nas and Christina Aguilera. Also an educator and activist, he is recognized for his lectures concerning racism, black history, inequality and injustice. He tackles real social and political issues through his artistic works like his novel and plays. Through his Hip Hop Shakespeare Company and British Council’s project - Horn of Africa Leadership and Learning for Action (HOLLA), Akala came to Ethiopia and performed along with young Ethiopian hip hop artistes. The Reporter’s Meheret Selassie Mokonnen sat with Akala for an interview before his performance. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Tell us about the project that oversaw your performance in Ethiopia?

Akala: The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company has been on for a while. It looks at Shakespeare’s lyricism in hip hop. We have done many projects like this one in Ethiopia. We worked with the British Council, and it was a residency in Khartoum, Sudan working with young people from Addis Ababa, theater groups from Juba and Khartoum. We brought them together and used the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company model and methodology as a way for them to create collaboration shows in Khartoum, Juba and Addis. We have got many similar projects like this. One is in Zimbabwe starting next month. We have done works in Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and some in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and many places. Continuously, the company is doing workshops in educational stuff in the UK every week.

My performance in Africa Jazz Village incorporated a selection of my own songs. The youngsters from Addis performed a show inspired by Shakespeare’s poem. They also used some old traditions of Amharic poetry. Ethiopians have hundreds of years of recording their own literature. I am very excited about history. I love history. I think it is important for local artistes to be drawn towards that too. They are very confident and strong with really good ideas and poetry. We do two things: one is educational workshop residency and and the other is called peer leader program. We are constantly trying to find ways and means of developing a solid artistic base where artistes can earn a living doing educational work and at the same time develop their art. We can do this with only the most talented people because of the nature of what it is.

What kinds of music did you listen to growing up and who are the musicians that inspired you?

I was lucky I grew up in a very musical family. My step dad was a theater stage manager and a DJ. My real dad was a DJ. My earliest musical influences were primarily Caribbean. My family is from Jamaica. They immigrated to the UK. I grew up hearing conscious roots reggae like Dennies Brown, Gregory Isaacs, obviously Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. As I became a teenager I picked my own music which was primarily hip hop. I can mention Public Enemy, KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan, Immortal Technique, Nas and others. I had a very musical upbringing. I was always inspired to write lyrics, songs and poems very early because of the level of lyricism I was accustomed to growing up. As I got old I started listening to a wider range and I went back and discovered Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Harlem Wolf Pack. I immerse myself in researching music so that I would have a wider palate.

You used to play football for West Ham United's youth team, and you also had a restaurant. What triggered your transition to music?

I always wanted to make music. But, when I was growing up UK hip hop didn’t have an industry yet. We only had some talented rappers. When I come to other countries and I do mentorship programs, I try to explain this to people. Many people don’t understand even though Britain is a rich and developed country, it’s only during the past ten years that UK rap has been a viable carrier. Before that the idea of a British rapper making money and actually being able to sustain himself was completely ridiculous. No one could do it. So they didn’t really last ten years. Now lots of us have been able to create independent successful careers, mainly because of the internet. It was the shift in perception and opportunity that made it a viable career rather than just a hobby.

I was always rapping and making music but the change in technology helped. In the UK for a long time we didn’t have the confidence, everyone wanted to be like Americans. All the ridiculous imitation was rapping about American stuff in American accent. Once we found our own voice, sound and style, many of us, myself included, have a fan base in the United States. Maybe 10 to 15 percent online followers will be people from the States. I never think we supersede the American hip hop industry. I don’t think many people imagine a stage where the names of UK rappers will be put alongside the big American rappers. We might not be pop stars in the same way. But, if you look at online forms you can see that names of UK rappers are starting to come up. So, it is good.

Besides being a rapper you are an educator. Records has it you were an ‘A’ student as well. What was your upbringing like and using education as a means of survival?

I grew up in London where we have some stereotypes of different communities. In some ways my upbringing was very stereotypical in other ways completely not. My dad and mom split-up. We didn’t have too much money. By the UK standards we were very poor. Growing up things like violence are very normal. Young boys stabbing each other, gun fights and sometimes shooting. People outside have a perception as everything is wonderful, streets are paved of gold. This is what my grandmother thought before she came. But, in reality London is a very violent and difficult city to live in if you are poor.

I had parents and influences that always encouraged me to be educated. There was these challenges of drugs, gang violence, racism and classism. I was lucky in many ways. My education and my community helped me to negotiate with those parts. But, I made many mistakes like most while growing up. This is a very big thing in the UK and they talk about teenage gang and violence in the media. I think it’s very important people have a more realistic narrative of what life is like especially as children of “immigrants”. You cannot just come and become Puff Daddy. I am not saying there isn’t more opportunity than perhaps other places in the world, there is. But the opportunity is close but far. You can’t necessarily attain all you can see around you. This creates frustration and resentment. The street I grew up on is called council houses. Government accommodation, social housing for people that don’t have much money. The very next street had Ferrari, Lamborghini and million pound houses. George Michael lived just at the top of the hill. The proximity between wealth and poverty is real. Last year two million people used what we call food banks. There are areas, particularly in the north, that are very poor. This is all part of growing up.

In your music and also while you share your views about mainstream hip hop, you often criticize the issues that are mostly raised. How do you describe hip hop?

Hip hop is primarily a continuation of African old traditions brought to the United States and the Caribbean by the descendants of the enslaved Africans from the traditions of the Timbuktu, Yorubaland and Ghana. The problem is sometimes when we talk about the music of African diaspora, the mainstream discourse is almost like it just popped out of a vacuum. Like Jazz just happened, hip hop just happened. As if the people of African heritage did not bring any culture to the Americans with them. Only the Europeans brought culture. But if we know the history of that region, we know it is a very sophisticated region of many different empires.

Even in Timbuktu they had a university 800 years ago. So, understanding that history we know the music. The attempt to interrupt the culture by slavery, colonialism or racism was not successful. The music is the production of this resistance. I don’t have a problem with some rap being about materialism, selling drugs or killing people. Because this is a reality of a neighborhood like The Bronx where hip hop comes from. But, the reality is 90 percent of the people are not killing anybody and are not selling drugs. They are going to work, going through normal stuff or trying to send their kids to the university. For me what I am interested in is making hip hop a realistic picture of the African-American or black British experience. My criticism is about an industry that only promotes one particular image of blackness or black people.

Sex, sexism, drugs, violence and Champagne popping. These are things that exist. But, they are not a genuine representation of the whole picture. It is like looking for a key hole, you are not seeing the whole door kind of thing. Some of my favorite rappers rap about this kind of stuffs. But, they are so skilled with their word play. It is like a Quentin Tarantino or Francis Ford Coppola movies. There is a space for that. Nobody criticizes them for making films about the mafia or violence. Because there are a range of films about so many other things it is just a small picture. What I am concerned with is why aren't rappers challenging their government’s foreign policy or rap about serious political issues, even in the West where we are told there is no censorship. We cannot get that on the radio and mainstream TV. The last group to have this kind of mainstream push with this kind of political content was Public Enemy 20 years ago and to a degree someone like Kendrick Lamar today.

But, in that gap we don’t really have much mainstream content challenging or speaking against injustice and if we look at who owns and controls hip hop that shouldn’t be surprising. For me hip hop was always about this mission. The very word hip in hip hop comes from verb hippie, which means to open your eyes and see. It is a term of enlightenment as my great friend and scholar MK Asante says. Rap taught me things about history, word play or words I didn’t even understand when I was listening to Wu-Tang. I had to go to the dictionary to find meaning to words they were using in their rap. Harlem used to have what they call street corner preachers. In the African American tradition there are poets, preachers and educators that would stand up and preach on street corners about different things. Marcus Garvey came out of this movement. There is always this tradition of poetic oratry as a force of education within the African diasporic tradition. To me the best hip hop is a continuation of that. I have always tried to use my music to pass on what I have been lucky enough to receive.

Considering the place mainstream hip hop has, do you think those kinds of music with deep message get wider acceptance?

In my own country I am not on the radio in the daytime because of what I speak about. I am not saying this to be arrogant, it is now proven that I am one of the most successful UK rappers ever. There has only been ten or fifteen people who can sell the level of live tickets that I can or more. Some have been very successful to twenty-five thousand people. That is fantastic but, we have got into a certain level now where year in year out we are selling thousands of live tickets but we can’t get in the daytime radio. This is what makes the big deference. The radio never plays, even in the UK where we have supposedly free speech, the radio will not play a song speaking out against the war or foreign policy. These are challenges you face in every society.

If you are not saying something that is “radio friendly” or to whoever is in charge of the radio playlist – no matter how popular you are – you are not going to get on the radio. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious appetite for intellectual questioning and politically challenging hip hop. I can say there is because, if there wasn’t I wouldn’t have a career. Over ten years we have been able to create a really strong fan base because people are tired of songs about Champagne. I love beautiful women as much as the next guy. But, the music is so uncreative that I watch a TV and I’m bored looking at beautiful women. I can predict what every single video is going to be. How can something be so unimaginative it makes a man bored of looking at gorgeous women? As we see in Lamar who is widely successful. And Jacob, he didn’t have any features on his last record. They are the only two mainstream hip hop artistes really with anything social to say. They are still not on the promotion level of the other pop artistes but, they have been successful. There is always definitely an appetite for this.

What are your thoughts about Ethiopian hip hop?

To be honest I am not an expert on Ethiopian hip hop. I worked with rappers from Addis. One mostly raps in Amharic, very good flow, use of word play and syllables. Another one raps in English, but she is trying to find her own self within that. More of the Ethiopian music I have seen is the traditional. The venue I played at is owned by Mulatu Astatke. His album “Sketches of Ethiopia” is an album I listen to all the time. I know that was inspired by Miles Davis. The challenges for Ethiopian hip hop artistes, which is the challenge for hip hop artistes everywhere, is to find one’s own voice. You can be influenced by American or UK rap but if you reflect that you will never be successful or original. Whereas, if you can take hundreds of years of traditions of Ethiopian music, take different languages of Ethiopia and the challenges of this society and package it in a way that is unique, creative and original you have a really genuine brand of Ethiopian hip hop. This is what I like to see.

How do you perceive the concept of raising awareness about critical social and political issues through music? Or music in relation to activism?

It has always been essential. The most famous example is probably the African-American civil rights and black power movement. We look at the role that all the artistes played from Jimi Hendrix speaking against the Vietnam War and Muhammad Ali as a poet and a boxer. Also Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. There is this tradition of outspoken artistes in a climate that is very difficult and where they may be killed for what they say. In the apartheid struggle in South Africa there is the role played by Miriam Makeba, the independence struggle in Zimbabwe and Thomas Mapfumo. In post-independence Nigeria, the role Fela Kuti played in being a critical outspoken opponent of Nigerian military regime that eventually killed his mother comes to mind.

It is the same in the class struggle in the UK during the industrial revolution. Poems and folk songs have been used to communicate complicated ideas very easily and quickly and also to unify people and get them to think about issues. This is one of the reasons music is heavily sensitive in the world. Today it is not old style censorship. It’s not if you say that we are going to kidnap and kill you. The new way is promoting much music that isn’t saying anything and drown out a few critical voices - which could have been Bob Marley or John Lennon. It is a very complicated situation for powerful interests. Bob’s or Rage Against the Machine’s message makes a lot of money. But, in many ways it is critical of the very system that allows it to make money. On the one hand the system promotes those like Bob that makes hundreds of millions of pounds and on the other hand it promotes ideas that may undermine the larger interests like arm companies or colonialism.

Make no mistake, music is like everything else in the world owned by huge corporations. The company that owns 40 percent of the music industry is not a music company. It is a French waste management company called Vendee. Music is a tiny part of what they do. Understanding this in context and difficult negotiation going on between the role art plays in society, I think art, particularly music, has a very central role. There is also a space in music that allows people have a good time, to party or since life is difficult to let out some steam. I am not one of those saying all music has to be like Immortal Technique’s. One of the reasons Bob was a fantastic artiste is he made serious musical songs, love songs and the song “Jamming” just to jam. This is a brilliance of an artiste. We can’t have every song about the same subject, even if that subject is a critical politics. This is boring.

You lecture about African history in different venues. What do you mainly focus on?

The most recent lecture I did was at Oxford University, Oxford Union, about African history. Looking at the ways – in which Ethiopia was obviously a part of – of Gonder, Axum and lots of ancient sophisticated empires and states. It was looking at the ways in which African history had to be functionally distorted so that racism, slavery and colonialism could be justified. Besides, Africa was this backward uncivilized continent that Europeans brought civilization to. This, of course, is nonsense. But every empire finds a way to justify itself. I was looking at that history and the reality of what was going on in Africa from 1500 all the way back to ancient Nubia, Egypt and all of those things giving people a broad sort of overview, which I was lucky enough to study.

How do you describe yourself and the things that inspire you?

As an artiste and social entrepreneur, I wrote a graphic “The Ruins of Empires” novel in 2014. We are trying to turn it into a play. I always try to encourage young hip hop artistes to think of themselves as writers, and rap is one form in which they work. This way the opportunity is larger. One might write a play, film script, poetry or do journalism. I am not good at playing musical instruments. I play a bit of guitar. My understanding of the electricity of putting different musicians in a room, picking up what is right is intuitively good. But I don’t have formal knowledge of music theory. I rely on other people to help me create a sound scopes. It is also about having the intelligence to pick people more intelligent than you. Because you can’t be great at everything.

Are you a revolutionary?

I wouldn’t say so. I think this term is easily used. Revolutionaries are created by the circumstances of their life and period of history they are born in. It is not like waking up and saying I want to be a revolutionary. If you are in Apartheid in South Africa in 1989, the repression is so strong and the very nature of your environment creates that decision for you. You don’t have a choice. As much as there is certainly injustice and challenges in the UK, and it’s not a perfect society by any means, it certainly is not Apartheid South Africa, or America in 1964 or today. You never know whether someone is revolutionary till they are put in a very difficult position. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years. Many people in America are still in jail from 1960s civil rights movement.

I would say I try to have a revolutionary leaning. In my music, I try to promote ideas for the betterment of society and for the challenge around power. It is irresponsible for me as a music artiste who has quite a good life, successful, not struggling on the day-to-day basis of my personal life, to use the term. We will see. The real revolutionaries are in places like Haiti even here in Ethiopia, America and UK dedicating their lives to changing people’s lives day in day out putting up with police brutality and direct repression by the states. Every society has problems and injustice. Ethiopia has injustice, history of monarchy of empires and challenges. I try to promote these ideas, even though those people are demonized. When fighting for social change in your own time you are demonized. Then history looks back and says what a wonderful thing you did. In civil rights movements, they were called terrorists, imprisoned, beaten up, assassinated, dogs set on them.  

Because now we see racism was stupid, everybody says they did a great thing. At the time if you are fighting against slavery, they had some guy who said any African that rebelled against slavery was clinically insane. In UK's class struggle, if people criticized the government, they were imprisoned, killed or transported to Australia. Today everyone say how wonderful and democratic Briton is. They don’t tell you how many people had to shed their blood for everyone to be treated like equal human beings.

You speak highly of Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Sun Tzu and similar other figures. You incorporate them in your lyrics. What is the role of these figures in your artistic works?

I try to draw inspiration from as wide an area of people as possible. So the music will be as wide as possible. The wider set of influences are from ancient Chinese philosophy, to the civil rights movement, to African history and the feudal system in Europe. It is almost like being a painter. If you only have two colors, you can paint a beautiful picture but, not as beautiful as if you have every color available. It is important for artistes to read a lot, widely and try to use that inspiration in what they create.

It has been around a decade since you released your first album “It’s Not a Rumour”. How do you see your journey?

It has been a pleasure. I have always wanted to do things independently, which means a certain amount of struggle. But I relish these changes. Being able to have a career for ten years, tour the world, collaborate with great artistes and make six albums, I always have the feeling if you can make a living making art you should never complain. The vast majority of the world is in a far more difficult scenario. I feel honored and I am grateful to all the people that have supported me. I hope to continue.

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