Akala: Forget What They Told You In School

In May, the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement shook the world - a grief-filled shake, brimming with injustice and pain that was long overdue. The US reacted with nationwide protests, as the Black community took to the streets to express their solidarity and oppose racism in America. This sent ripples across the globe, as people turned out during the global pandemic to demonstrate their support and their grief. Black boxes took over Instagram feeds, and people of all ages, genders and ethnicities, began re-educating themselves and questioning the ‘status quo’, all in the quest to become true allies and anti-racists.

From watching Netflix documentaries, reading about the Black perspective, sharing on social media and most importantly, having conversations, challenging and educating those around us, there has been a multitude of ways to learn. It has also become crystal clear that this is not just an American issue - societies across the world are waking up to systemic racism. The UK is no different, and one hugely important figure in the re-education of Britain is Akala.

he talks openly about facing racism and violence and feeling the disparity between the two identities he was born into

A passionate artist and educator, Akala has made a name for himself across a variety of media, all through his intense creativity and insightful observations. With a White Scottish mother and a Black Jamaican father, he has grappled with race issues from a young age. Often upfront about his childhood in Kentish Town, London, he talks openly about facing racism and violence and feeling the disparity between the two identities he was born into. Despite excelling in his GCSEs, Akala dropped out of college and was recruited by West Ham’s Under 18s. He went on to create music, discussing his experiences of gang culture and violence, having seen his friend attacked with a meat cleaver to the skull when he was just twelve years old. He carried a knife for a while and had family members involved in organised crime - offering a crucial perspective on issues of race and class in Britain. From his successful music career, Akala began speaking at events and educational workshops, going on to write Natives, a hugely acclaimed book on race relations in the UK. So part musician, part poet, part educator, part writer, Akala is the source of a wealth of information and education for the Black Lives Matter movement, having focused on the re-education of Britain for the last fifteen years.

Music first threw Akala into the public eye in 2006 at the age of twenty-three. His first studio album It’s Not a Rumour, received a MOBO award and the single “Shakespeare” made it onto the BBC 1 Radio playlist. “Shakespeare”, while extremely catchy, is a statement on the rap scene, and within the song Akala asks not to be compared to rappers, but instead to be known as the ‘Black Shakespeare’, who uses poetry to help the kids who ‘Feel like the world spat ‘em out and they chewed up’. This theme continues through the other tracks, with songs like “Stand Up” and “Bullshit” addressing the state of violence and racism within the UK. Now seen as ‘one to watch’ Akala soon released a mixtape with his sister, Ms. Dynamite, who has herself won the Mercury Prize, among other awards, for her music. Five albums and multiple mixtapes later, Akala has produced countless tracks which educate on BLM issues, as well as the themes of poverty, history and culture. His appearances on Charlie Sloth’s “Fire in the Booth” are incredibly powerful in educating on the Black perspective and serve as a well-rounded introduction to his art. “Part 1” in particular, reflects themes of popular documentaries like The 13th and clearly explains the British context.

helping them to engage with subjects that can feel unapproachable and unrelatable

Akala’s reputation as an educator led to high profile speaking engagements across the UK and you can find some recorded on YouTube. His work through the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company was showcased in a TED Talk, where he asked the audience to guess which poetic line was written by Shakespeare, revealing that a phrase such as ‘The most benevolent King communicates through dreams’ is not plucked from Othello, but in fact written by Hip-Hop group Wu-Tang Clan. The company, which was founded by Akala in 2009, aims to explore ‘the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists.’ With Ian McKellen as patron and collaborations with artists like Bashy, Lil Simz, George the Poet and Ed Sheeran, the company does incredible work debunking the perceptions of the arts and culture in the UK, working innovatively with young people and helping them to engage with subjects that can feel unapproachable and unrelatable.

He questions the eurocentric focus and white-washing of history taught in British schools

Akala is also concerned with ‘re-writing’ Black history. Just as we have seen a surge in feminist ‘re-writing’, with new books, music, film and other art forms emerging, Akala calls for the Black community to do the same. Never attending university himself, Akala challenges perceptions of ‘education’ and has since earned honorary doctorates from Oxford Brookes and Brighton University. His Oxford Union address was particularly thought provoking, focusing on the myths around Black history and uncovering truths of ancient Black civilisations. He questions the eurocentric focus and white-washing of history taught in British schools and educates on incredible events like the slave-led Haitian Revolution, as an example of important narratives which are left out by White historians. Akala’s arguments are always heavily researched, thoughtfully considered and eloquently communicated, and this has led to a number of interviews in which he has been applauded for his expertise.

One such interview was on Good Morning Britain, where Akala was interviewed by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on the subject of knife crime within the UK. As he advocated for measures in London to be taken, similar to those which had been successful in Glasgow, Morgan quickly turned the discussion on to matters of race. Akala’s rebuttal on why knife crime is not exclusively a ‘Black problem’ is evidence of his thoughtful argument: “You will never be called upon to explain that not all middle-aged white men are paedophiles, despite the fact that hundreds maybe thousands of them are convicted every year, because it’s obvious that not all middle-aged white men are paedophiles.” Morgan’s signature interruption techniques were left at the door, as he listened inquisitively to Akala’s calm and fact-based argument.

Akala’s experiences and educative abilities were combined in the writing of his acclaimed book Natives. Half memoir and half commentary on race relations in the UK, Akala’s combination of personal encounters with racism and White supremacy and his developed and well researched historical argument make for an eye opening and raw read. Reviewers praised his honest reflections and he was longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Nonfiction, as well as shortlisted for the James Tait and Jhalak Prizes. Previous to this, he wrote a children’s book dedicated to the power of Hip-Hop called Hip and Hop: You Can Do Anything. He continues to focus on changing young lives and using the power of education, speech and the written word to challenge the world.

Akala has a promising career as an author, but I for one am excited to see where else he takes his talents, what new forms and media he can create, and where he can continue to educate and to impact. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves and future generations, to change the way the world operates and to actively challenge prejudice and injustice wherever it’s found. In the UK, look to Akala as a place to begin.