We’re still talking about his home when he flashes a cheeky smile. “We did have a picture of Bob Marley, and that Malcolm X ‘by any means necessary’ poster in the window. That was the household I grew up in.” Akala’s parents were more than aware of the importance of promoting black history (he was sent to Saturday school to learn black history alongside his “Eurocentric education”) and it makes sense that seeing pictures of freedom fighters who promoted resistance through music and books (Malcolm X famously read up in prison which underpinned much of his civil rights politics) had a big effect on the young would-be rapper. Growing up in Camden in a “normal” council house, Akala was surrounded by inspirations for the person he was to become. His mum is “half English, half Scottish, born in Germany, brought up in Hong Kong”, and his dad is Jamaican, so it’s not surprising that he is obsessed with populations, migrations and histories. He attended a mixed school, did well academically, and got his musical education via his uncle who was a sound system DJ. He made his artist debut as a four-year old with a lisp. “I said, ‘You’re now tuned into Mitht Mathter Dee,’” he says, laughing. “My stepdad was a soundsystem MC, my real dad had a sound system. My house was James Brown, Ray Charles, and reggae music.”
While the music that reflected his cultural community spoke to him, it was still distinctly part of his dad’s generation, and the moment he found himself – the moment that would change his musical life – was when he discovered Wu Tang Clan as a teen.
“‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’ by Raekwon was the first album I bought for myself,” he says. “It was incredible – Shakespearean language, going to prison, rapping about ancient history. We always knew black men were not this one dimensional, ‘yo fam, I’ll kill you’ thing. We always knew we liked sci-fi and reading and all that. Wu-Tang had ODD, the crackhead, Ghostface and Raekwon, the drug dealers, and GZA – who barely even swears – in the same group. So Wu-Tang were great because they were the full range of black men.”
What followed was Akala dipping his toe into music and slowly establishing himself in the UK hip-hop scene. Part of a crop of artists (including Lowkey, Mic Righteous and Immortal Technique) credited with pushing through an era of “socially conscious” British hip-hop, Akala was nominated for MOBO awards and his 2011 “Fire in the Booth” was met with huge acclaim in the underground scene.
Now, he’s moved onto new passions and he tells me about his fascination with comics as he sits on the sofa excitedly flicking through his own graphic novel/comic book, Visions. “So, the first stuff I got into was probably Brian K. Vaughan’s work,” he says, going off on one about the finer details of the comic book world. “Then I got really obsessed with Alejandro Jodorowsky.” Akala’s own comic deals with his interests, and references, nothing too surprising if you know him – a semi-autobiographical journey into magical realism, Visions begins with him smashing a television with a teapot, then takes us through altered states of consciousness, reincarnation, hallucinations, and themes of indigenous spiritualities and ancestral memory. It would be a lot for a song (or even an album) to grapple with, but a format built on hyper-imagination lends itself well to an artist who understands the link between imagined realities and escapism. When I question him on what it is that speaks to him about the genre, he looks me straight in the face and shrugs: “That’s the role of fantasy art. You get to become someone else.”