Akala on Race, Class and his new book Natives
London rapper Akala is best known for his expansive hip hop records and BBC Radio freestyles. But his new book Natives is a reminder that he also knows a thing or two about how racism and classism works in the UK
There's a commonly-held view that Britain has moved past racism in recent years, with some commentators even citing mixed-race royal bride Meghan Markle as evidence we've reached a post-racial panacea. But the stats tell a different story: one in four people in Britain admit to holding racial prejudice and hate crime has soared in light of Brexit. As actor Daniel Kaluuya puts it: “Racism is more pronounced in America... it's not seen in England but it's felt and it's oppressive.”
Of course, nobody needs to tell that to Akala, who describes himself as half-Jamaican and half-Scottish and has been exploring issues of race in his music for over a decade. The London-born rapper, artist and educator reflects in the introduction of his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire that “it's easy for people just slightly younger than myself, and born into a relative degree of multiculturalism, to forget just how recently basic public decency towards black folks was won in this country”.
For him, the Windrush scandal, which revealed Caribbean Brits had been denied legal rights and even deported over generations, was hardly a bolt from the blue – it confirmed what he already knew.
“It's not a new issue,” he says. “Black people here have dealt with it since 1948 when our ancestors arrived. Clement Attlee [then Prime Minister] referred to the Windrush generation as an 'incursion' and identified ringleaders so no one further would come. There was hostility from the state from the start – it's just now it's become blatant.”
In many ways, Natives is as thorough a dissection of British racial relations as any you're likely to find. It's packed with eye-opening statistics and relevant case studies drawing from historical texts going back hundreds of years, a process Akala says was “difficult and emotionally challenging”. But it's also a vivid memoir on his own experiences of racism, from shameless police officers to aggressive primary school teachers.
“The book looks at how the state manages race and class," he says, "what it meant for young guys like me and how being aware of how social forces affect your life can psychologically help you. It's not just attacking the system and saying it's hopeless – it's saying what the pitfalls are and helping you adjust.
“We can't deny things have improved. Two years before I was born, 13 black children burned to death in arson attacks. It's hard to believe a government today wouldn't even acknowledge the death of children in that way. But some people still express so much indignation and believe Britain to be perfect – there's a tendency to pretend we all have the same opportunities in life.”
It's this conviction that drives Akala and encourages him to pose uncomfortable ethical questions throughout Natives. He's not shy in attacking myths peddled about “white genocide” and he attacks “absolutist free speech” by countering that “no one is owed the right to speak at any institution, left or right, including me”. But crucially, he keenly points out that he doesn't have all the answers, even if his unique background and depth of knowledge places him in a better position than most to analyse the relationship between race, class and the capitalist system.
He says: "I don't buy the idea that racism was invented to serve capitalism, but it has been very useful to it – relegating peoples into lower realms of humanity and working them to death for wealth. Maybe I'm wrong and capitalism has won – I'm open to being challenged by people I don't agree with, as long as it's based in sources and genuine disagreement. But I'm putting it all out there.”