Akala: ‘We Live in a World Where Might is Right’
The British MC discusses politics, profiling and the role that artists need to play in the world today
In an article titled “Notes on the Hip-Hop Messiah’ which featured in The New York Times in 2015, renowned American journalist and writer Jay Caspian King discusses the legacy of hip-hop’s biggest redeemers–artists that helped push hip-hop into the mainstream and changed its landscape every time the genre found itself in a rut.
Hip-hop has always been, and will always be, a voice for the voiceless. As we saw in the mid-Nineties, it can act as a force of nature in breaking down racial, cultural and political barriers. According to King, the hip-hop messiah, be it Rakim, Tupac, Eminem or Kendrick Lamar, has significantly shaped and in turn been shaped by the expectations that the title places on him.
For the past 10 years, Akala, whether he admits or not, has been establishing his claim on the very same title. The London-born MC’s work with The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company–a project that he launched in 2009– has expanded on the ethos laid down by the gatekeepers of hip-hop culture such as KRS-One. Hailed by many as one of the most important British artists of his generation, Akala has been at the forefront of putting UK hip-hop on the map.
We caught up with the British MC before his second tour of India–where he’ll perform alongside DJ Cheeba and Selectah Si Chai– to chat about his politics, the similarities between UK’s grime movement and the Indian hip-hop scene and the role that artists have to play in the world today.
It’s been 10 years since your debut album It’s Not A Rumour released, and the issues that you spoke about on it (and your subsequent albums) still exist. Have you become more cynical, or beaten down, over time or do you still harbor the energy and hope that’s so essential to being a politically conscious artist?
I was always cynical about the state of the world. That’s why I started talking about the issues that I felt needed to be addressed in the unjust world that I found myself in. I think any politically aware person knows that the world can be a pretty awful place and that there are no guarantees that political gains are permanent. You have to constantly organize, protest and raise the consciousness of people and even then terrible things can happen. We live in a world where might is right. We live in a world that’s not bound by morality– claims to morality by states are often just claims to bolster their own power. Despite the recent political developments across the world, I’m not despondent about the state of the world today. There have been some encouraging developments as well. But, at the same time, there’s a certain amount of privilege to that. I have a degree of comfort that allows me to feel that sense of hope. I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t have that comfort, if ‘the boot was directly on my neck’, I’d feel differently about the state of the world today.
In 2012, the London Metropolitan Police was widely called out for using Form 696 to discredit and dismantle cultural events organized by young black and Asian kids. In India, with the growth of our hip-hop movement, a similar kind of profiling has occurred where kids belonging to lower income communities are rarely granted access to the venues where rappers from their own communities are performing. In your opinion, how detrimental is it to a cultural movement when such kind of profiling exists and what can we (the Indian music scene) learn from the experiences of the grime and UK hip-hop movement?
Unfortunately, the idea that poor people are undesirable is pretty universal. However, popular culture is often driven by the cultures of those who are marginalized. I mean, the record labels, the media, etc. like to cherry-pick parts of this culture but they don’t want to actually deal with the people. Hip-hop and reggae are tremendously popular across the world, but, that doesn’t mean that the African diaspora that produced them are popular in those countries that celebrate that culture. So, what you’re seeing in India is pretty typical. It’s reflective of the larger society. It’s like thoughtcrime. The artists and their audience are penalized for the possibility that something might happen at the event. In the U.K., this logic was never applied to football matches during the heyday of British hooliganism, and it isn’t applied to music festivals where a number of sexual assaults are reported every year. I mean, if a bunch of rich kids trash a venue or do something like this, they’ll pay and be forgiven. Their whole community will not be stereotyped. The crime is not the crime, the crime is poverty. Someone’s background is not a good indicator of their morality.
Given the current political climate around the world and the strength of the ‘respective’ bubbles we find ourselves in–what role do you think do artists and cultural movements play in this climate? Do you think now is the time that artists can take a leading role in creating dialogue between the different sides?
Definitely. I mean, if you take a look at someone like Public Enemy, they were a group that for the first time managed to tell White America and White Britain what exactly it was that Black Americans were going through. We, as the Black community in Britain, could relate a lot to what they were talking about–whether it was segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration or unemployment. Public Enemy, through their music–with its infectious energy–managed to convey their anger and frustration to a wide group of people way beyond just those who could relate to it. Artists play a tremendous role in getting people to see things differently, and that’s true for the current generation as well.
Akala will headline a three-city tour this March alongside DJ Cheeba and Selectah Si Chai as part of Diplomats of Sound’s IMM|GR^NT property. Details below.
March 30 2017 at Summer House Cafe, Mumbai
March 31 2017 at Euriska, Pune
April 1 2017 at Bandstand, Delhi