This week’s #ThrowbackTuesday is rapper, poet and journalist Akala.
Brought up in London’s Camden Town, and a son to Jamaican and Scottish parents, Akala is a powerful and insightful artist – and truly one of a kind.
I remember this interview very well, and felt the conversation could have gone on all day!
Akala is informed and articulate on so many issues.
He’s opinionated, yes, but he’s also got ideas, and plenty of them.
He drops knowledge about everything from Jamaican history, to Shakespeare, to the Wu Tang Clan.
He’s the kind of musician and artist you don’t see so often these days – fiercely independent, outspoken and intellectual.
To say it was an honour to have Akala on the show would be too much of an understatement.
He captures so much of what is truly great about this city.
He’s got both Scottish and Jamaican heritage, he’s a brilliant and engrossing conversationalist – and above all, he’s talented as hell.
We kicked off with a discussion about his own personal history growing up in Camden Town.
But in typical Akala style, he immediately took the queue to break down the inequalities in London.
Akala spoke about education, gang culture, street violence and how all that feeds into his art.
When it comes to schools and teaching he’s got a lot to say.
It comes as no surprise that Akala was a smart kid from very early on, gifted in maths as much as he was in language and the written word.
I can totally imagine him at the back of the class, provoking the teachers with his unwanted questions!
He even tells me that some teachers were annoyed that a young mixed-race kid would excel in academic subjects.
If one thing is true about Akala, though, he doesn’t settle for stereotypes.
He’s got his own mind, and his art and music demand the same awareness and depth of thought from his audience.
You probably know his name, and if you grew up in Britain it would be hard to miss this guy.
Akala received a MOBO award in 2006, and since then has been a consistent leading light in the UK’s hip-hop scene.
Like his defiance of the education system, Akala has shunned the mainstream record industry.
He says it’s actually helped him find his audience, rather than lost him record sales!
For Akala it’s all about integrity. He is the prime example of someone who has kept their artistic identity AND became successful.
In many ways, his career history is a kind of how-to on keeping it real as an artist.
We talk a lot about that, and how he managed to get airtime and play on the BBC’s Radio One, which is basically unheard of for independent musicians in the UK.
Whether it’s football, education, or the music industry, Akala’s big beef is with political structures that are there to cement power.
He riffs quite a bit on how history is rewritten, and he draws on examples from British history and the UK’s own relationship to slavery.
What I love about Akala is how his views are powerful, maybe even a little dangerous, but he’s so articulate and so well-read that he just commands authority.
It’s not just political ranting. It’s nuanced and provocative.
Akala’s one of these guys that thinks on a historical level.
He sees the big picture on everything, takes nothing at face value.
He even says he’s surprised when he sees something truthful in the mainstream media – it’s so rare it’s shocking!
Some things to definitely watch out for are Akala’s take on Jamaican history and Rastafarianism.
He has strong views on the way Bob Marley was represented in a documentary that came out before the interview.
He talks about his experiences of the racial divide when visiting Brazil, which is fascinating, and the complex history of fascism and imperialism in that part of the world too.
When he comments on something, or has an opinion, he goes deep, and I felt a full episode could have been devoted to each of Akala’s opinions!
He’s also very self-aware, and that makes him all the more compelling as an artist and as a human being.
He talks about how much he has changed from the angry young rapper back in 2006, and how he has developed as a thinker and a writer from even his mid-twenties.
Despite his passion and often revolutionary politics, he’s very much a poet – sensitive, approachable and worldly.
I wouldn’t say there are contradictions in Akala – he’s too congruent for that, and his integrity is impeccable.
But he’s definitely complex and his intelligence is subtle and far reaching.
You kind of feel like you’re getting cleverer just talking to him, and I think that’s part of his appeal as a rapper and writer.
His audiences clearly don’t feel like they are being patronised.
He treats his listeners and readers like he wants to be treated – with respect, and as independent minds.
When he told me how angry and aggressive he was as a younger man, I almost couldn’t believe it.
The guy sat across from me was one of the most relaxed, warm and self-assured guests we’ve had on the show.
But it’s his journey from anger and frustration to insightful and and powerful artist that makes Akala so unique.
I highly recommend this interview, it’s a London Real fan favourite, and it’s also one of mine.
Akala is as informative and knowledgeable as he is entertaining, and I can’t ask anything more than that from a guest on this show.
Click here to watch a classic interview with one of London’s most important creative artists.