Akala: “I don’t enjoy explaining that black people are human beings”

The rapper and activist on knife crime, the myth of meritocracy and getting stopped by the police. 

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In late 2017, the rapper and political thinker Akala was driving in London, on his way to a meeting, when a police car pulled him over.

“Gang members drive cars like this,” the suspicious officer claimed, before an embarrassed colleague took him aside. She’d recognised Akala, whose activism, as well as five albums and 15 years in the music industry, has earned him public renown.

“The whole mood changed completely,” he recalls when we meet. “I got a sense of white people’s interactions with the police. Suddenly I’m not just any old black guy – what you could call class privilege, being a public intellectual, kicks in.”

Dressed in khaki green, with a black beanie hat over his dreadlocks, Kingslee Daley, 35 (whose stage name, Akala, is a Buddhist term for “immovable”), reflects on the experience in his recording studio just off Ladbroke Grove in west London.

The officers later asked Akala how he’d solve gang crime. They’re not the only ones. The rapper has been praised recently for his nuanced commentary on Channel 4 News, Good Morning Britain and Question Time, particularly regarding youth violence in Britain.

After a record 285 deaths from stabbings in England and Wales in 2017-18, the political class has been consumed by an inconclusive row over police cuts. But Akala – who first saw a friend attacked, by a meat cleaver to the skull, when he was 12, and carried a knife himself for a period – brings an informed perspective. The focus, he argues, should be on social factors, not race.

“Believe it or not, I don’t actually enjoy having to explain that black people are human beings,” he says. “That the kinds of black kids likely to fall into violent crime come almost exclusively from a very particular set of circumstances, obviously. And those circumstances are the same as the white lads in Glasgow or Liverpool who are likely to fall into violent crime.

“[I don’t enjoy] having to explain in the 21st century that simply you being black is not a predeterminant of your behaviour or your future or your aptitude.”

Akala has been vocal about this country’s ills ever since his first album It’s Not a Rumour (2006), whose song “Bullshit” laments everything from “black boys killing each other” to police pulling him over “five times a day” to the “weather in Britain”. Only now are people “finally paying attention”, he says.

A week after he was stopped by the police he completed the final draft of his book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Published last May, it’s a meticulous study of the history of structural racism in Britain, interspersed with the hip hop artist’s own story.

Born to a British-Jamaican father and a Scottish-English mother in 1983, Akala was brought up by his mother in a council house in Camden, north London, “in the clichéd, single-parent working-class family”, he writes.

Yet that’s not the whole story as “culturally, I had a really rich upbringing growing up in the Hackney Empire”, where his stepdad was a stage manager. He also attended pan-African Saturday school.

“I benefited massively from a specifically black community-led self-education tradition that we don’t talk about very much because it doesn’t fit with the image [of black families],” he says. A teacher gave each student a piece of paper listing their rights if stopped by police.

By contrast, Akala’s state primary school put him in a special needs group for pupils with learning difficulties and English as a second language. He felt punished for being a “know it all”.

Akala nevertheless achieved ten GCSEs, including A*s; and his ten siblings each secured eight or more GCSEs. He took maths a year early, and attended the Royal Institution’s mathematics masterclasses. But at 13, while travelling to the sessions, he was stopped and searched by police.

“I was in the top 1 per cent of GCSEs in the country. I got 100 per cent in my English exam. Year Nine, my friends start cutting each other up…” he says.

Having felt the impact of white privilege and class division, Akala doesn’t want stories like his used “as evidence” that Britain is a meritocracy. “Me and my siblings disprove that because we had to be in the top 1 or 2 per cent, to ‘pull ourselves out of poverty’,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s impossible for you to be successful if you’re born into a poor background in Britain. I’m saying the gargantuan effort it requires, and the hurdles you have to jump over, just make it incredibly unlikely.”

When speaking to schoolchildren or prisoners, or writing lyrics, Akala’s message is always to work twice as hard. “My analysis of institutionalised racism is not ‘oh, this is an excuse to fail’ – quite the opposite. The earlier you’re aware of the hurdles, the easier they are to jump over.”

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a lesson he learned from his “gangster uncles”. Family members and friends who were “organised criminals”, in and out of prison, would reward him after school for his knowledge. As a six-year-old, Akala was interested in the history of evolution, and they’d hand him a fiver to say the word “australopithecus”.

“They thought it was hilarious that a little kid could pronounce that word,” he laughs. “They thought me being clever was cool, and that was really, really valuable.”

The paperback version of Natives: Race And Class In The Ruins Of Empire is out now on Two Roads, available at Waterstones or Amazon.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers