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.
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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State