More Than Conscious: Akala on Hip Hop and Beyond
London rapper Akala is increasingly known for writing books, appearing on Question Time and lecturing on Shakespeare. Ahead of his performance at Doune the Rabbit Hole, he assures The Skinny that making world-changing music is still his first love
It's a curiously overlooked fact that hip-hop has overtaken rock as the most popular style of music on the planet in the last few years, at least if streaming statistics are anything to go by. And yet, the genre continues to be under-represented when it comes to critical recognition and award allocation. The reaction to Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize win from some quarters, for example, demonstrates how far rap artists and the wider scene still have to go to be treated respectfully.
Akala has become one of hip-hop culture's most prominent ambassadors in the UK over the past decade, serving as a conduit through which middle class commentators and consumers purport to try and better understand the music and the struggles it gives voice to. In many ways he subverts many of their preconceived stereotypes: he runs workshops on Shakespeare, regularly appears on BBC programmes like Question Time and Frankie Boyle's Political Autopsy, has lectured and answered questions at universities around the world including Oxford, and has just released a research-heavy memoir on race, class and the British empire.
Whether he's speaking at 'elite' institutions or dropping freestyles, Kingslee 'Akala' Daley, now 34, always goes by his rapper tag, even though it's been five years since his last full length studio album and three since his last mixtape. As the London emcee lightly puts it: “I've just been really busy with other things. I've still been touring and music is my first love. I'm probably going to do another full-band type thing next year – at least that's the hope.”
Other than a DJ and live drummer, Akala is leaving his full band behind for upcoming sets – including his slot at Doune the Rabbit Hole festival near Stirling in July – but it's difficult to imagine him fully returning to the electronica-oriented route of his earliest records. Describing himself as an “old soul,” Akala draws heavily from reggae, funk and garage, reflective of the wide array of cultures and experiences that moulded him and giving his most recent studio LP The Thieves Banquet what he describes as a “smoothness and warmth and energy.”
'Scottish audiences are the perfect balance: rowdy without being troublesome'
But while he naturally identifies mostly with his Jamaican heritage and culture, he also has more than a soft spot for Scotland due to his mother's background. In his new book Natives he describes a childhood trip north of the border as having a “profound impact on his life and thinking.” It perhaps hints at why he's enthusiastic about making the trek up to Doune – even if he's the only major hip-hop artist on the bill.
He says: “For me, Scottish audiences are the perfect balance: rowdy without being troublesome. They're passionate and it's always a pleasure to get up there and perform. I think at festivals like that as well you really need to hit them short and sharp. I'm aware they won't all know me – you don't have the same history or relationship or even trust. You have to hit them as quickly as possible.
“Is it difficult for hip-hop artists? I did the festival circuit when I came up, but it's a weird situation. I think with a festival, the ticket price can certainly be prohibitive to poorer audiences and that can be difficult for a working class hip-hop scene. But with UK hip-hop as a whole, you've got to remember some of the producers come from places like Peckham or Tottenham or Hackney – this is one of the few means of exposure to an outside audience.”
Campaigning for this exposure – particularly for artists from working class and minority backgrounds – remains one of Akala's real passions. His political activism and community work arguably invokes the tenets of hip-hop's inception, seeking to empower young people to articulate stories about their own lives and society around them. Although radio play has not always been forthcoming, Akala says he's encouraged by the way rappers and grime artists like Stormzy and JME, for example, have chosen to use their platforms.
“It's interesting,” he says. “These guys are the only real musicians on mainstream popular platforms trying to critique the state – what Stormzy did calling out the government for Grenfell [at the BRIT Awards] was amazing. It's kind of ironic, too. The pro-free speech right somehow didn't think he should have used his free speech in that way.
“We saw a reaction with Stormzy being told by the Daily Mail to show gratitude for what Britain's given him. But he made his own money and the Daily Mail should respect that. He's the archetype of social mobility. This is a country proud of free speech, so surely a multi-millionaire putting their freedom and career on the line should be admired. It just exposes the hypocrisy.”
Over the past few years there have certainly been examples of hip-hop returning to its social justice roots. On a global level, hip-hop has been used to vocalise struggles in Iran, North Africa and China, where it was banned this year. Stateside artists such as Rapsody, Brockhampton and Joey Bada$$ have tackled issues around LGBT rights, women's rights, class and white nationalism on the highest stage.
For Akala, who has been making virulently anti-establishment music since Tony Blair and George Bush were in power, you might think these developments would serve as vindication. Although Akala doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a “conscious rapper,” some of his most recognisable tracks and freestyles are equipped with direct messaging around aspiration and using rap in an empowering way – such as his legendary Fire in the Booth verse on Radio 1. But he says he's become more balanced in his reflections with age.
“As I get older, I've had to review my own opinions of hip-hop and the extent to which it was a radical critique,” he says. “Compared to reggae, which was anti-establishment and class conscious, hip-hop has been more ambiguous. Post-black power, it certainly has echoed the civil rights struggle and so on, but that's not been the central voice.
“Other than Public Enemy and other spurts, it's been politically ambiguous – a mix of anti-establishment rhetoric and socially conservative politics – which is of course aided by what the industry is willing to promote as part of that. One of the contradictions of hip-hop is artists not controlling the means of production of music.”
Akala doesn't do anything by halves: Doune festival goers can expect a full visual show to accompany his multifaceted set, which is typically interspersed with rousing interludes and spoken word poetry. Over a decade on from his debut record, he's still creating music that seeks to educate and inform as well as entertain, and he says he's not the only one.
“We might not be at the point of counter-culture that we had in the 70s with reggae and jazz, but as things have gotten worse for people – and it's so obvious there are problems – it's hard for artists to justify ignoring them,” he says. “And to be fair, record labels recognise there's money in rebellion: Rage Against the Machine and Bob Marley generated a lot of money for these people.
“It's the same for me. You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist on a major label that hasn't had major radio play but can sell 2,000 tickets at a show. I've not been on a top radio playlist since 2005 yet I can, but there's very few. Artists who have something to say can be very successful, contrary to popular belief. That's the role of art – it should be social commentary and tell us something about the world.”
Akala plays Doune the Rabbit Hole, 13-15 Jul, Cardross Estate