Tanya Hawkes on poet, journalist and acclaimed rapper Akala...
Akala is a lyrical and musical library. He can rhyme a Shakespeare sonnet over Grime at 140 beats per minute, smiling all the way through. He sings about children who are victims of war in Yours and My Children, surrounded by laughing kids and a steel drum band. He tests the audiences during a TED+ talk to see if they can spot the difference between the great Bard’s quotes and the lyrics of Eminem and Dizzee Rascal. They can’t. The language and subject matter are too similar
Hip Hop artist, rapper, poet, educator: Akala runs the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, reminding the young participants that William Shakespeare had no formal education and that Shakespeare, just like Hip Hop artists, talks about conflict, love, murder, power and wealth, reflecting the issues right back at society. Both bought oral history and entertainment to masses of poor and oppressed people, and both produced clever and intricate wordplay with huge popular appeal.
If it wasn’t for Akala I wouldn’t know the real meaning of Hip Hop: “Hip means to know; Hop is a form of movement. Hip and Hop is intelligent movement,” according to KRS-One, another thoughtful rapper back in the 80’s and 90’s. Nor would I know the original five elements of Hip Hop: DJing, MCing, breakdancing, graffiti and knowledge. I do now and so do the readers of the Huffingdon Post.
The complexities of debate on the authenticity of hip hop are in the lyrics of MC’s and the essays at universities. Academic commentator Greg Tate said of Hip Hop, “the No1 issue on the table needs to be poverty, and no-body knows how to make poverty sexy” Household names of Hip Hop like Eminem and P Diddy, make the escape from poverty sexy. The narrative of poor kids who make it in the music business to become stars is the lie filtered to the public every time a mainstream Hip Hop artist pulls up to the red carpet in a limousine. And while that fictional aspiration is sold to us all in nearly all aspects of our culture it hurts more when it betrays the roots of a movement like Hip Hop.
Akala brings back “knowledge,” the fifth vital element of Hip Hop. It underpins the lyrics, music and visuals of all of his work. The video to Find no Enemy scans across a small book case containing Mother Courage and Measure for Measure. The sparse room has half finished paintings stacked against the walls as symbol of ongoing creativity and other band members on drums and guitar play a blend of Hip Hop and rock guitar.
Other artists break out of the stereotypes of their genres. And they focus on social and political issues too, but how many of them really get past the vague, angry anti establishment rhetoric.
Dizzee Rascal captures the music industry with:
Everybody wants to be famous/ Nobody wants to be nameless, aimless/
People act shameless/ Tryna live like entertainers
But his presence at the Brit Awards and his displays of wealth contradict him.
Contrast this with the humility of Akala:
And it may sound like I'm bitter but in fact truth be told I am quite the opposite,
I wake every day and I'm overwhelmed just to be alive and be like no one else
And the sheer weight of the thought of space is enough to keep my little ego in place
In Find no Enemy Akala takes the audience on journey through the brutality of African American history and beyond:
That blood soaked word rappers still use,
All it really shows is we still self abuse,
That was the word that was used to kill Kelso Cochrane and Emmett Till
To the negative strereotyping of Hip Hop by the British music industry:
Call it black radio, don't make laugh, so is black music all about tits and arse?
You don't represent nothing, you're just pretending,
When was the last time you ever played Hendrix?
Subtly self reflecting throughout:
And I can talk with my comfortable mouth,
With my comfortable clothes in my comfortable house.
What I love most about Akala’s work is his obvious love of people. Like a modern day Frank Owen he genuinely likes and respects his peers, yet despairing of their denial of oppression. He carries the burden of knowledge: the knowledge of how societal privilege works to uphold existing power structures.
Frank Owen was the main character in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – the famous socialist novel by Robert Tressell. Owen, a painter and decorator debates constantly with his fellow workers who simultaneously complain about, and yet defend, their bosses; bosses who would make them homeless and destitute, without conscience. Yet Owen loves them, fascinated by their ability to ignore their obvious powerlessness.
Akala, critical of a music industry that elevates Hip Hop by inflating beyond comprehension the salaries and glamour of a few whilst powerfully denying a voice to so many others, says: to my real fans, I share your pain/they can keep the charts all I want is your hearts.
Tanya Hawkes works for PLATFORM and lives in rural Wales.
Previously in the rebel music series: