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10 Years of Akala: A Celebration of Conscious UK Hip Hop

As he marks a decade in the game with an album and tour, Keakie dives into the career of Akala

22nd Oct 2016

Credit: Instagram

We can hardly believe that it has already been 10 years since Akala burst onto the UK scene with his raw debut album “It’s Not A Rumour”.

In the years following the release of that project, he has established himself as one of the most recognised, respected and revered polymaths in the country. Known as a rapper, poet and educator, he has gone one to release an additional 5 albums, several documentaries and a wealth of lectures and speeches ranging from a historical deconstruction of the word ‘hip hop’, to an analysis of cultural appropriation in modern Western culture.

Album & Tour

His new album and subsequent tour, Ten Years of Akala, serves as a celebratory project. The album a unique concept; a 20 track collection of songs picked by the artists fans as songs that give the most ‘power to the people’. The tour will see the poet fill venues in the UK, the US and Australia.

When quizzed about what fans can expect from the tour, he said. “what we’ve always prided ourselves on is having a level of production that is two or three steps beyond the size of the venue we’re playing. We’ve mastered all of the music and the individual elements separately so it gives a really phat sound. We’ve got a drummer, a DJ... We’ve got full visuals for the whole set. Costume changes. That kind of real theatrical, showmanship energy.”

Roots and Views on the Politics

One common thread that has run throughout Akala’s entire career has been a drive to connect and understand his roots. The artist is of mixed ethnicity. His mother is Scottish. His father is Jamaican. That Jamaican influence can be seen on his new release ‘Giants’, a track with a higher reggae influence than the majority of his earlier works. One would wonder why he has stayed away from reggae in general over the past decade, and in a typically rebellious fashion he said that he has avoided reggae because it would have ben the “most obvious thing for me to do.” This track does however fit in the wider context, with a rise in interest in Caribbean culture in the UK at the moment following a summer dominated by dancehall influenced tracks, from Drake’s “One Dance” to Spice’s “So Mi Like It”. Moreover, Akala himself is set to release a BBC4 documentary, “Roots, Reggae and Rebellion”, later this month.

In a hip hop climate where the likes of Lil Wayne and ASAP Rocky have chosen to deliberately stay away from political issues, Akala takes a contrary stance. When asked about the relationship between art and politics in a recent interview with Varsity, Cambridge, he said in his typically eloquent manner, that “Art is political. If we talk about politics as the science of managing human affairs, there’s nothing that isn’t political. The price of rice is political. How much it costs for a pint of milk at the corner shop is political. Everything is political. It’s not just what happens down in Westminster. One of things I really wanted to communicate to my generation really, particularly to young people who feel politically disenfranchised, is the sense of their own political power. Because they might not choose their leader directly, or feel that they have a stake in what goes on in Westminster, it does not mean they’re not engaged in politics. Opening a soup kitchen in your local neighbourhood is a political act. Helping out the homeless is a political act. All of those things are forms of political engagement. Choosing to make music that questions the dominant culture is political. Choosing to make music that reinforces it is also political. Artists can choose to engage in progressive politics, or to pretend that they’re some sort of apolitical norm – which I don’t believe that there is.”

One cause for frustration on the part of the ‘Find No Enemy’ MC, is that it would seem that many of the important issues that he spoke about 10 years ago are still prevalent and unresolved today. He stated “In many ways, ten years later the issues are the same. I feel equally cynical about the state of the world – it’s a constant fight and a constant negotiation.”

He has a point, the release of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War this year betrays some interesting revelations he shared on a 2006 track titled ‘Bullshit’. He continued “It’s almost Groundhog Day. We have a situation where these big international problems exist, we contribute to them, and then we’re shocked by the consequences.”

The Changing Dynamics of the Music Industry

Though many of the political issues that dogged the culture 10 years ago are still the same, Akala is happy about the changes that have been made to the music industry. He has spoken at length about how social media and the internet have redistributed and democratised talent, resulting in a more colourful and diverse musical landscape. One that is not solely dictated by major labels. He points to this disruption as a major contributing factor to the rise of grassroots led music genres such as grime.

Sharing his thoughts on the role of the internet in the rise of grime, he said “when I started, there was no YouTube – people forget that … had these not come to exist, it would have been virtually impossible to do what I’ve done, or what Giggs has done, or what Kano’s done, or Wretch 32, or Skepta, or any of these guys…”

He makes a really interesting point. The music that would at one time have been rejected by those at the top of the music business because of unfavourable projected record sales and radio play how how been given a real chance through the rise of online radio platforms, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and viral trends on the internet. Major UK MCs such as Big Narstie are not new names in the industry. Narstie himself has been on the scene since 2003. The major difference, Akala contends, is that over the past 12 - 18 months social media has allowed his music and personality to reach mass audiences independently of radio plugging and label backing. The music industry has effectively been forced to listen to what is popular on the internet. Whereas as Akala puts it, “when the music industry had complete control, they could ignore us, not play us on the radio – I know for a fact that ‘it’s just too black’ is something that A&Rs said very commonly [about grime].”

He further credits the success of many UK artists over the last few years to finding their own UK based voices. He says that for quite some time British rap was following rather than leading, and was hence seen as a cheap gimmicky interpretation of American hip hop. The championing of the British sound through organisations such as SBTV and GRM Daily have seen the authenticity of British culture really come to the forefront, and this is causing it gain respect in the US and worldwide.

This year Skepta, Stormzy, Giggs, Yungen, Krept & Konan and more have charted with their projects. Skepta and Giggs both doing so with independent album releases. This all points towards a really interesting and dynamic music landscape in which artists have more power to maintain their artistic authenticity while also reaching mass markets and profiting from their art.

Nuanced Views on Cultural Appropriation

One of the major memes recurring through culture in recent years has been the idea of cultural appropriation. From Miley Cyrus’ twerking saga in 2013, to Kylie Jenner’s cornrows backlash in 2016, a great furore has been made based on the argument that white society takes ideas from black culture without providing full credit.

Akala puts the debate on cultural appropriation down to an “ignorance of history”. Explaining his point, he says that “Cultural exchange has always occurred. People have always borrowed from other cultures. The problem comes when people borrow and then try to play down or deny the source of the borrowing.” It’s a complex issue. He continues that “the biggest music in Jamaica is fucking country music. In Jamaica, you will go to the ghetto of the ghetto of the ghetto and the baddest man on the block will be playing Celine Dion. Loud. Like it’s Bounty Killer.” By that logic, you could argue that cultural appropriation goes both ways. But he suggests that this is one of the reasons that Jamaica has produced so many great songwriters. The debate between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation rages on.

Into The Future

Akala has hinted that this moment may mark a wider departure from music from the artist. He said that in the next 10 years he will be “60% writer, 30% educator, 10% hip hop artist”. With his Royal Shakespeare Company he will always be active. He has stated that there are many books that he wants to write, and a lot of education work that he is incredibly passionate about and wants to do. One such project is his plan to build a learning foundation centred on the philosophy of getting the absolute most out of each and every student. He believes that this is created by building a fluid environment in which the teachers are learning from their students as much as students are learning from teachers.

Rounding off his reflections on his career to this point, he says “in the last 10 years what´s been really pleasing for me, and especially in the last couple, has been to see MCs be successful on their own terms. And I hope it inspires future generations to kind of stick it out and be like, cool it might take me 10 years of work, but I now have a job for life in some ways. It´s not like the people who support me, who come to my shows are there because I’ve been on Radio 1. I haven´t been on Radio 1 in a decade. They’re there because they are to some degree genuinely fans of what I do, and I hope that shows young artists that, in the long run, hard work, the graft, integrity actually pays off.”

“I put my heart and soul into my art, it’s not just something I do because I wanna make money. I wanna make art that I really fucking love, and hopefully other people do to”.

Shout out to Akala.

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