Its 6.45, 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 was stripped of furniture. I managed to unearth a stool. The fact that I was accompanied by hundreds of others only goes to show 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 that 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 tackles 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 again warns parents of the young children in the room (of which there were a surprising amount), as the Jim Crow laws and lynching are 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 becomes clear. Modern-day Hip-Hop wasn’t constructed in a vacuum. Instead, it’s the product of thousands of years of evolution. Of the more recent examples, Ella Fitzgerald’s scat was the most revealing. Akala illustrated that if you put an English accent and a 140bpm on it, it would essentially be grime.
Somehow, 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 90’s represented the “black CNN and much more” he explains. Rap in this era was a world away from the 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” rues. 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 laments. A bunch of powerful corporations now control the business, and play 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 genocidal tendencies of police. “Raise your hand if you’ve heard of these people” he asks. Barely anyone recognises the victims. In the 80’s, he explains, it was the MCs of the Hip-Hop community that informed the black community of these atrocities. Of course, the rich, white, old men who run the industry would never allow such lessons to be extolled today.
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, demonstrating his undoubted musical skill alongside his enlightening intelligence, 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. My white, middle-class, Oxbridge educated friends left the Southbank centre debating black history and the influence of Hip-Hop.
Hip -Hop isn’t dead explained Akala, it’s just gravely ill. I can think of no-one better than Akala himself to nurse the art back to health.