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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear