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: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem