Akala: "Hip-hop is a modern day minstrel show"

Akala’s "Hip-Hop History Live": an exploration of black history like no other I've seen before.

Its 6.45 on a Friday evening at the Southbank Centre. The race for a chair is on. As the Clore Ballroom fills up, I set off, searching every room, every corner to retrieve a seat. Every nook and cranny of the Southbank has been stripped of furniture. I managed to unearth a stool. The fact that I was accompanied by hundreds of others only goes to show rapper Akala’s growing popularity.

The setting was a strange one. Following the farcical dash for seats, a remarkably mixed audience sat down in the ballroom for this free event. A corporate, sharp, yet colourful space, the Southbank had the feel of a university open day, as every fan politely sat down in front of a makeshift stage. Hardly the typical hip-hop venue.

Yet what followed was far from typical. Opening with a passionate volley of the sort of conscious rap he has become renowned for, Akala embarked on an ambitious history of hip-hop. Presented with both spoken word and rap, each as absorbing as the other, the MOBO award-winning rapper began with ancient African history, and finished with modern day hip-hop. By far the coolest lecture I’ve ever been to.

In his “intellectual beat-down” of accepted opinion, Akala launched a tirade against commonly held misconceptions. First, Chapter 1, “Africa in History” bemoaned the omission of ancient Egyptian history from ‘black history’, quoting the likes of Herodotus to explain that the ancient Egyptians were of course, black. He goes on to explain the technology that Africa possessed, how it had “Swahili houses built in Elizabethan times”, how three quarters of a million books survive from Timbuktu. It was clear from the start that Akala has done his research as he urges us to respect ancient black history.

The lecture-cum-performance then became darker, more poignant. Chapter 2 tackled the “Maagamizi”, the title of a track in Akala’s new album, meaning “human-caused disaster”. Colonialism was such a Maagamizi, “the African holocaust because we paid one hell of a cost” as the track explains. Disturbing too were parts of Chapter 3, “African survival in the New World”. Akala warned parents of the young children in the room (of which there were a surprising amount) that his material would be disturbing, as the Jim Crow laws and lynching were explained.

A more obvious musical history then began to emerge. Akala plays us black jazz from 1936, Ella Fitzgerald’s scat, clips of Mohammed Ali teasing journalists with short, snappy rhymes and the main thesis of the entire performance quickly became clear. Modern-day hip-hop wasn’t created in a vacuum. Instead, it is the product of thousands of years of evolution, borne of the struggles and cross-cultural character of black history. Of the more recent examples, Ella Fitzgerald’s scat was the most revealing. Akala observed that if you put an English accent and a 140bpm beat on it, it would essentially be grime.

Akala’s passion intensifies even further as he moves on to the “Golden age of Hip-Hop” in Chapter 4. Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, and the entire hip-hop scene from the mid-80s to the early 90s represented the “black CNN and much more” he explained. Rap in this era was a world away from its modern MTV equivalent, as MCs addressed issues of real importance to the black community.

That all changed in the mid-90s, as the final chapter “The Art and Politics of Power” laments. Quoting a Mos Def track, Akala reminds us that “old white men is running this rap shit”. “Hip-Hop is a modern day minstrel show” he said. A handful of powerful corporations now control the business, playing down to the lowest, most misogynistic, racist stereotypes. In one moving moment, after a touching mention of Trayvon Martin which brought applause from the audience, Akala lists the names of a series of unarmed African Americans killed by the police. “Raise your hand if you’ve heard of these people” he asks. Barely anyone recognised the victims. In the 80s, he explained, it was the hip-hop MCs who kept the black community informed about such atrocities. Of course, the rich, white, old men who run the industry would never allow such potent resistence in their “product”.

Refreshingly, Akala also rejects the acceptance of the ‘N word’ amongst the black community. It’s a racist word, with a racist history. Full stop.

After finishing with a short jam session, complementing his intelligence with undoubtable musical skill, Akala received a standing ovation. I have never seen anything like his performance, and doubt I will any time soon. Brimming with intelligence, packed with talent, it was never boring, nor patronising. It was relevant, insightful and immensely entertaining.

“Hip-Hop isn’t dead”, explained Akala, “it’s just gravely ill”. I can think of no-one better than Akala himself to nurse it back to health.

Akala: Bold, blunt and brutally honest. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder