London-based polymath talks racism, Brexit, the UK music scene, and why he felt depressed for two months after finishing his new book ‘Natives’
“I think Brexit is going be terrible,” Akala starts out. “That said, the country did vote for it, and the problem is when you live in what is at least supposed to be a democracy, you live with the ignorance of the public. If people choose to believe what they read in the Daily Mail, or what they see on Facebook, can we legislate against that? Can we just say we don’t like the result and have a second referendum? I don’t know.
“I do think that if this ‘people’s vote’ happens and it goes to a ‘Remain’, there’ll be trouble,” he continues. “Bigger violence than people realise. Because lots of people who feel like they’ve never had a voice, feel like they exercised their voice probably for the first time ever… to have that turned around…”
Akala has been an important and somewhat unappreciated name in the UK music scene for more than a decade (he’ll tell you he’s not fussed) but has become, almost in conjunction with that, widely respected for his sharp observations on our social and political landscape. Born Kingslee Daley, the 34-year-old hip-hop artist, author, poet and scholar is speaking at his studio in west London, shortly after the release of his vital book Natives, which explores the relationship between race and class in Britain.
When the book was done, he experienced a “weird mix of euphoria and depression”. Soon after, he read a quote from fellow author Philip Pullman, who wrote of how no one prepares you for the “extreme melancholy” when you finish writing a book.
“I was elated and depressed for like two months afterwards,” he says. “That emotional experience was so extreme that anything that happened with the success or failure of the book was secondary.”
One thing he has felt vindicated, but also annoyed by, is the “complete cowardice” of the right-wing press to comment on it: “They’ve just ignored it,” he shrugs. “And I’m not saying I’m that important, but here’s a book that’s been on the bestsellers list for five weeks, written by a mere hip-hop artist… it’s the perfect chance for them to dismiss all my lefty bulls**t!
“With my friend Afua [Hirsch], they could at least say to her, ‘well you’re a posh black girl what the f*** have you got to complain about? You went to private school and Oxford’,” he continues. “And that’s what they did: they didn’t criticise her qualifications, her scholarly process.
“They can’t say that with me. And I think that’s telling – there is flattery in the silence, in a way. But I also think it’s sad because there’s a need to engage with people you disagree with. One of the difficulties with racism, in particular, is that people get more upset about being called a racist than racist things happening. It’s really difficult to have an adult conversation.”
Akala is a prominent voice on Twitter, often engaging with his followers and patiently explaining his views to them. One frequent topic of late has been how the media has jumped to link drill music to the recent spike in London street violence, something he brands “juvenile – the idea that teenagers will just listen to a drill track and say ‘right I’m gonna go kill someone’… like there are no pre-existing problems.”
“Rap is never blamed for kids staying in school and studying,” he says irritably. “I stayed in school partly because of Wu-Tang. If it’s influential, it’s all influential or none of it is. My problem is the hypocrisy of it. The whole thing is tired and trite, and the conversation always focuses on the black guy in front of the camera.
“Fine, criticise the music, but 50 Cent has sold 11m albums… did he sell all of them to black guys in Queens? There’s a bigger conversation to be had about how a man can boast about shooting people and selling drugs and become a millionaire from it. Let’s have the bigger discussion of why we only think it’s a problem if certain people do what they have to do to get rich.”
In previous interviews, Akala has criticised modern hip-hop and called it “gravely ill” during his Hip Hop History talk at the Southbank Centre in 2013. Now, he’s a little more positive, hailing the likes of Kendrick Lamar and J Cole for “pulling us out of those dark ages”.
“I don’t see pop artists or other genres having something to say in the same way as Stormzy or Dave and others have been,” he says, referring to hip-hop, grime and rap music in the UK. “They’re being dismissed as these little hoodlums when actually a lot of it is quite profound.
“When I first started out, journalists were obsessed with finding the middle-class source, and when my sister [Ms Dynamite] was at the top of her fame, the Daily Mail did a double page spread basically saying ‘come on, she’s not really black, is she? She’s too intelligent’. To have a young rapper from the road, who in any way is an intellectual equal to someone who went to Eton, is in of itself an admission of defeat for them.”
The treatment of black artists in the UK has a lot to do with the internal dynamics of class, he suggests, noting the hostile reaction from parts of the mainstream media when said artists find success via their own paths.
“The clocks aren’t going to be turned back,” he adds. “And for a lot of people in Britain, that’s what’s scary. We’re living in a country where Stormzy has more influence on their kids than the Daily Mail.”
He also believes the music industry underestimates how younger generations consume different genres: “There’s still this weird idea that people who listen to rap don’t listen to anything else.
“It’s the stupidity of marketers who still compartmentalise music,” he says. “I went to a Dead Weather show a few years ago, and about five [white] people asked me what I was doing there,” He leans forward, recalling the conversation and grinning at the sheer irony of that question: “It’s a f***ing blues show for a start.”
Compare that to somewhere like Jamaica, he offers, which pays little attention to the boundaries imposed by what’s on trend: “Celine Dion is a goddess… go to the wickedest ghetto, at a dancehall rage, and if you play Celine Dion in the middle of a soundclash, you’ve won,” he says, beaming.
He plans on returning to Jamaica more frequently this year, particularly as he begins work on his next album, which he says will feature heavy Caribbean influences: “Grime and even hip-hop has not utilised reggae in the way jungle did,” he says, “and I feel like that’s kind of what I wanna do on this record, have a very British-Jamaican-American hybrid. Tell the story of the Caribbean diaspora in Jamaica and America via that soundscape.
“In the UK, a lot of people are conditioned to like what they’re supposed to like.. Luckily, what I’m loving now – and I don’t think I got it before – with streaming platforms, it’s sort of democratised the music industry…” he offers an ironic smile. “It’s so contradictory that all this is happening in a Brexit, resurgent racist time. It’s headed for a clash.”