Writer and rapper Akala has spent the last four years working on books and touring, though for many he's become more known for his razor-sharp state-of-the-nation political commentary on TV. He talks to Jesse Bernard about knowing when to speak up - and when it's OK not to.
The last time Akala and I met was in 2016 at his studio in Ladbroke Grove, where he spoke about the relationship hip-hop shares with theatre. Since then he has released a book (Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire) while working on another one, become a prominent voice in the UK through his discourse on the socio-political climate, and, of course, he’s still working on his music. Today, he’s in good spirits as I meet him at Hunger studio, down the road from where he grew up in Camden. There’s still a lot we don’t know about Akala – born Kingslee Daley – and what makes him tick. But those who know his music will have a greater sense of what drives him and his values. Akala’s career is centred around his ideals but like the rest of us, he wants to buss a leg on a Friday night. He hilariously recalls a moment this summer where he went to a party in Hackney: “People are coming up to me, asking me deep philosophical questions in the middle of the dance. ‘Like fam, I’m trying to grind my missus down right now.’”
It’s been some years since Akala last put out new music – he released his sixth album, 10 Years Of Akala in 2016. But he’s about to start working on a new one. Although he’s a million miles away from the person who recorded “Roll Wid Us”, the same sentiment has remained throughout his career. The only difference is that the mediums have extended beyond music – into theatre, education, literature and public speaking. Sound, and the clever use of it, has been a driving force in Akala’s career, from creating the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company aimed at combining theatre and the practice of hip-hop, to using rap as his own platform for telling stories about Blackness, Black people and the politics surrounding it.
He doesn’t want to be a mouthpiece for all things race and politics though. In truth, he gets more than a hundred press requests a week and turns down more than the few occasions we publicly see him – Good Morning Britain effectively had to beg Akala to appear on the show for his interview with Piers Morgan. But Akala says that part of being responsible with knowledge is understanding which platforms are best to share it. He’s also aware of where his own knowledge falls short and admits to it. This adds pressure when you’re one of the most disruptive voices that UK hip-hop has produced.
Akala’s voice sounds good. It’s the commanding but inviting tone in conversation which makes his arguments so compelling. But on wax it’s the razor-sharp flow and cadence which slices through the beats he rides. There’s been a rise in UK rappers being a lot more expressive about their political opinions in recent years. This is especially the case as the UK scene has become increasingly popular, and social and political consciousness has risen, whether that’s on a record or publicly. But since the beginning, Akala’s voice has been the loudest. And it’s a powerful thing.
Writers write about who they are, so who are you now in 2019?
That’s a good question actually, I don’t really know. They say the more you know, the more you don’t know, right? I know a lot about five or six subjects. I remember reading my whole adult life, and I never went uni. So when you study eight or ten hours a day in preparation for a book for four or five months, you find out new stuff about things that you already knew a hell of a lot about. I wouldn’t call it an intellectual crisis, but it’s forced me to be much more considerate of people I politically disagree with – within reason – particularly about economics and how the national economy should be run. I’m more certain about things I knew lots about, and less certain about everything else. And less keen to give my opinions on things where I don’t know what I’m talking about. Someone once said, “Intellectuals pay no price when they’re wrong,” and it really stuck with me.
What does that mean for you?
I can have whatever trendy opinion I want. It has no effect on public policy, and it won’t necessarily cost me anything if I’m wrong in the same way it’ll cost an architect if he’s mistaken. If an artist puts out a crap album or a book nobody wants to read, [they] get to go again. That was a wise insight that I found quite humbling. So I feel a bit wiser than I was at 25. But what these last ten years have taught me is that I’m nowhere near as important or smart as I thought I was ten years ago. I don’t mean that in a kind of fake humble way, I mean it in a good way. I’ve achieved a lot. I’m not being overly dismissive of that. At the same time, for some people that would make them more sure of themselves. Ironically for me it’s not done that. It’s sort of had the opposite effect. Like I said, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
Do you feel like that is partly because you’re known for your work and that’s how people see you and they don’t get to see the “real” you outside of work?
Partly, but also I think I’ve tried so hard to present the best part of myself because I felt a responsibility to do so. There are whole parts of my life that I just don’t talk about. I mean I never talk about sex in my music. It’s not as if I don’t fuck, right? Rappers talk about fucking so much that it’s just become a bit clichéd. I don’t know if it was conscious, but it’s not something I’ve spoken about. And I think there is a bit of this sort of Judeo-Christian thing where it’s vulgar. But there’s nothing more natural and normal than having sex, right? But yeah, I don’t talk about it. My friends, my cousins, my uncles, lots of them were very, very naughty. I decided at some point in my early 20s that I didn’t want to rap about that stuff no more.
You mentioned responsibility earlier. Does it ever get to you when people perceive you as a talking head that just talks about race?
Well, the funny thing is I don’t actually do many interviews. And this is one of the ironies about me, without being arrogant. The few that I do seem to resonate with loads of people, and [these interviews] keep getting shared year after year, and so it seems [like I do a lot]. My office gets more than a hundred press requests a week. I do maybe five interviews a year. People keep basically giving the public the impression that Black boys are bad and they’re going to kill you, undifferentiated by their experience, by their background, by family, by the quality of their education. You have a responsibility as someone with the knowledge that you have and the type of person [you are] to use some of these platforms sometimes. With the Piers [Morgan] thing, his team were emailing me for two years before I went on there, I’m not desperate to be on TV. I think lots of people are desperate to be on TV. So they’ll see someone like me on TV and it will resonate with a lot of people and they’ll assume that’s what I want. 99.9 percent of the requests to come on television I say no to – precisely because I can’t control it.
So what’s your relationship with music like at the moment? Am I right in thinking that you’re working on a new album?
I haven’t started yet, but I’m going to start in November. I miss it, I miss it badly. I mean I’ve spent the last four years touring and writing books, and I just really miss being in the booth. I miss the process of writing for music. I feel that the discipline of writing a book is so hard, you do so many drafts. It’s so meticulous. I’m hoping to bring some of that process back to music, not that I was lazy before. There are very few songs where I’ve written ten versions of the hook and decided which one I like best. Whereas I kind of want to try that kind of a strategy now. In fact, Rod Temperton, one of the greatest songwriters of all time, mentored my friend for a bit and played him all of the other nine versions of ‘Thriller’ that didn’t make it. And that’s how he used to work. I’m not suggesting I’m going to be Temperton but I do think writing a book gives you a new discipline where even if the first idea’s banging, you might go beyond that. I’ve learned the power of drafts.
It sounds like the writing experience has given you patience.
I’m confident this is going to be the biggest album I’ve ever done. It’s going to be well-thought-out, even when it comes to video releases. I also think the UK scene is in a much better place, so people are much more willing to invest in it. I feel like 2020 is the perfect year for me to… I don’t want to say come back because I haven’t been gone but come back to MCing in a very big way. I’m really excited about it.
Akala is one of our cover stars for HUNGER issue 17, Listen Up, available here.
19 November 2019