Akala interview: Artists are an alternative source of power
Ahead of Akala's forthcoming shows on his UK tour, we revisit our chat with the rapper when he was in the midst of his 10 years Of Akala UK tour to talk a decade in the game, the state of UK hip hop and of course, Shakespeare.
Last updated: 6th Sep 2017. Originally published: 10th Oct 2016
It's been just over a decade since Akala's debut album It's Not A Rumour helped to win him the MOBO award for Best Hip Hop act at just 22 years of age- not least down to the lasting impression of breakthrough single 'Shakespeare'.
This wasn't the last time the bard would be referenced by the rapper from Kentish town. Three years later Akala's Hip Hop Shakespeare company began its journey across the UK, using bars from the likes of Jay Z, Eminem and more to educate and inspire a generation likely to find the archaic language confusing and tedious.
That's not all though. Akala's role as a race activist has seen him drop by a host of universities to speak about race in music and wider culture - his Guardian interview below is just a taste of his wealth of knowledge.
In 2016 10 Years Of Akala was released - a compilation album comprising of songs picked by his loyal fans with one or two new numbers thrown in for good measure. It's this album that has put the rapper back on the road to commemorate his decade in the music industry, and it was mid-tour when we caught him in typical fiery form.
You're on tour at the moment aren't you, how has gone so far?
Yeah I am. I'm in a bus outside the ABC in Glasgow, this is the fifth date of the tour and I'm really enjoying it. Good audiences, good vibes and I feel it's probably the most well produced show we've put together, in terms of how it flows and the visuals in terms of the set. Yeah I'm enjoying it.
Is there more of a personal feel what with the fans picking the songs that made it onto 10 Years Of Akala?
Yeah I mean obviously they've had a big impact, because they've been the people that have been with us and supported us through the years. I felt like I could have picked the songs and just done what I wanted to do, but I thought it would be nicer to have that collaborative sense. Luckily all the songs they picked I liked.
There are a couple I would have been disappointed if they'd made it over others and there's always going to be a bit of debate. Some people are like "bit gutted that didn't make it or this didn't make it", but overall I feel that it's a good representation of the music we've made across the last ten years.
There's a newer song on the album called 10 Years Grindin' where you speak about not getting radio play. There's almost some feelings of resentment shining through - has it felt like a grind these last 10 years?
At times yes. I think with the airplay thing, I'm not overly bothered. I explain it to people because, especially for young urban musicians, there can be a failure to understand the difference between success and visibility. If an artist is really visible and in your psyche, on the radio and on TV that can feel like success.
Even in my own career, when I was on the radio when 'Shakespeare' came out, and I had more exposure, at that point I couldn't have done a 27 date headline UK tour. One where the London venue being a decent sized venue like Koko, and most of the dates being sold out. Because I was on daytime Radio 1, because I was on MTV a lot of people would have perceived me as more successful on my first album, but the irony is that in the real world I'm much more successful now than I was then.
It's about understanding that artists have a lot more power now. Radio can help, TV can help but the internet has created a scenario where there are artists who have more followers on social media than television stations have viewers.
15 years ago that just wasn't the case, so to me the supporters have all the power because there's such a wide range of places to find the artists that they want to support rather than the narrow playlisting that has dominated the airwaves for so long. Definitely, there's been times where it's been hard work and where it's been challenging, but I wouldn't say I've ever wanted to give up.
I know everything's relative but I look at the jobs my parents had to do my whole life and not make very much money at all. Someone in my position, with my politics - spending my life complaining that I'm not on the radio, or that I'm not absolutely swimming in money would be absolutely contradictory. I'm doing absolutely fine and I'm one of the few people on the planet that gets to do what they love for a living. My take on it is to shut the fuck up and get on with it.
In the 10 years you've enjoyed in the music industry, what changes have you seen and what do you think has changed for better or for worse?
The value people place on music has been one disappointing change. Physical music like vinyl, a CD - not just in monetary value but the value that we place on them psychologically. A song that has taken a person sometimes a whole lifetime to craft is valued at 79 pence and a cup of coffee is four quid.
I get it and understand that that's how capitalism works in some ways, and I don't think it's just about the monetary value, in some ways there's just a sense now that music should be free without seeing the labour that goes into creating a decent album, let alone the money that it costs to buy equipment and rent a studio and all that so that's one change that I'd say is for the worse.
The flip side of that has been the fact that music is so wide spread now it has meant that there's other areas where the artist is compensated more than they would have been before. Touring is more healthy than it's ever been, especially independent artists. There's other revenue streams in the digital space and there's apps and there's all the different things that just didn't really exist before.
Music has always been in a to and fro, kind of push and pull scenario where there's moments of absolute genius in mainstream music and there are times where things are a lot more dumb and it's been between those two poles really since forever - certainly in my lifetime.
It doesn't feel like the period in the early 90s when I was just a very young child, when there was Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana and what felt like a really strong counter cultural presence in the mainstream. I think that's the last time where that felt like it was fully in the public psyche and maybe we'll come back to that now with the political climate being the way it is.
I feel like mainstream music has just become a bit safe in terms of the political messages even the way it sounds and the way it's mixed and what you would hear on the radio and see on TV has become a pit homogenised and pasteurised.
Does that mean that grime has become a bit safe and isn't really promoting political messages, where it perhaps could and should be?
Not really. The reason that I say that is because other than maybe Durrty Goodz, the founding fathers of grime if you like, the politics was not as strongly embedded as say hip hop, reggae or other forms of African music. Very early in hip hop's history there was an explicit attempt to politicise an entire generation. Reggae music from the very beginning almost, once it went from ska into reggae, and the rasta influence came in was an openly very political type of music.
Grime's evolution has gone from a Jamaican sound system and garage and jungle - a bit more of a party, a bit more jump up music - but now hip hop and other influences have converted it as a genre but I don't think that every artist has to be political and speak about history.
Wretch 32's last album spoke about ancestry and slavery, do you find that more appealing than albums from other grime acts?
There's a space for everything. My issue has always been that there was a point in the early 2000's, before artists like Kendrick and J Cole, came into the mainstream, that American hip hop became very one dimensional, flat and very stereotypical. I feel like grime in the UK, you have a really good balance. You have Skepta, Stormzy, and Wretch - mainstream people that have very different personalities.
I couldn't say a, that any of those artists are particularly negative, if you look at their social media following and things they have said. They're doing their own thing in their own way and that's pleasing to see, I don't think Skepta winning the Mercury over Wretch is anything to do with the content. That said it is nice to see Wretch more and more moving towards a political direction - but Wretch has always had that, you get that the politics is just below the surface.
He's not exactly in a bad position as an artist, he's got headline shows - in London he is at Koko in front of two and half thousand people, he's not struggling. I think what we now have is an actual healthy scene that is rounded and is representative from the Lady Leshurrs to the Little Simz's and everything in between - and that's fine.
I don't think everyone should rap like me and Low Key, that would be fake and boring. The great thing about hip hop to me is that it is multi faceted - you can have Mobb Deep and Common and Wu Tang Clan because they are so different personalities - we have space for all different personality.
You spoke about your reggae influence - you're fronting a reggae programme on BBC 4 that comes out in November and your latest song 'Giants' is very much dub influenced. Why haven't you explored the genre before and is it good to be back involved with a sound you've grown up listening to?
It feels like a homecoming almost. I mean I love reggae - 70s reggae is probably my favourite music ever even over hip hop, but I can't sing so I was never going to become a reggae artist. It's going to be really interesting making an album with those kind of ideas and samples in.
Away from music you've founded the Hip Hop Shakespeare company where you wanted to help people "hear and feel the words of Shakespeare". What is it we should be paying attention to in his plays?
Shakespeare created a, incredible stories, and b, incredible characters. It's the use of rhythm, the use of language and the use of songs. There are over a hundred songs in or alluded to within Shakespeare's plays and that is never emphasised - really he wrote performance poetry in the theme of a play. For me when we sit young kids down and say "read this, analyse this, what does it mean?", when we really should get them up on their feet and let them perform it and feel it and feel the rhythm.
I feel a lot of my inspiration is because I took my GCSEs the year the Baz Luhrmann version of 'Romeo and Juliet' came out, and because I grew up in a theatre I always knew Shakespeare was a genius, that helped. By contrast I think if I made you sit down and read the more difficult Wu Tang lyrics or take someone like Immortal Technique, tremendously complicated concepts in his lyrics, you would struggle. The reason why they're easily digestible, the reason why they're more relatable is because of the beat, because of the music, because of the rhythm, and because of the delivery.
If you were to sit down and read the lyrics you might be like what the hell's going on, what's post colonialism? I think it's important that we recognise the power of sonics and that is very deeply embedded in Shakespeare, he was a musician of words.
Do you think musicians have a duty to promote political messages and try and unite opposing groups of people when there is social unrest?
I think yes and no. I don't think musicians have any more responsibility than the rest of us. Artists are an alternative source of power, they can speak to and command the attention of a lot of people. Would it be nice if artists always tried to provoke a different type of consciousnesses and improve society and make us think about the world? Yeah absolutely. Is it realistic to always expect that? Maybe not.
I think sometimes too much pressure and emphasis is put on artists when really they are just a reflection of the society they are in. Just like the officials we elect, if they are shallow, materialistic and uninterested in education but they are able to sell 20, 30 million records then that is also reflective of society and not just the artist as an individual but its a bigger conversation about what is in the public consciousness full stop. Artists definitely have a role to play but I feel that role is sometimes exaggerated.