Akala: an alternative hip-hop history

Spoken-word artist Akala – rapper, poet and academic – recently paid a visit to Young Hackney Concorde to give a talk about the history of hip-hop. We may have been expecting to hear about Roll Deep and Ruff Sqwad but there’s no doubt we got something deeper – a unique history of UK urban music that took in everything from Kingston sound systems to the Empire of Mali.

If you visit his website, currently advertising an epic graphic novel ‘The Ruins of Empires’ you would have quickly realised that Akala’s talk was going to be more involved than a simple roll-call of SBTV regulars.

His talk went on a journey back through time from hip-hop to rock, soul and jazz to Congo Square New Orleans, then further back on the slave ships that brought African culture to America; to the griots, poets of the great West African empires of the middle ages – ‘A griot was a praise-singer, a genealogist, a storyteller … they were the first rappers’.

Having travelled a thousand miles of history, the talk wound its way back to London. Although brought up in Camden, Akala has a long-standing connection with Hackney. His step-dad used to be the stage-manager at Hackney Empire, and he would stand in the wings and watch the performances. Which meant that, by his own reckoning, he’d seen more plays by age 12 than most adults see in a lifetime. Perhaps this explains his multidimensional talent – as a lyricist, literature and historian.

Throughout the evening, scheduled for an hour, but lasting twice as long, he mentioned books we need to read, or artists we need to discover. Insisting that we should look deeper into the past, question what we know and think about the larger narrative of power, money and control.

For example, it would be natural to place the origins of Grime at the door of early American rap pioneers such as Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan right? But Akala says this misses the influence of UK artists.  And plays into the hands of the musical establishment, who, historically, had a vested interest in marginalising UK street culture: ‘There was a time when UK MCs weren’t even popular in the UK [yet] the music industry was happy to support black artists from overseas because they weren’t dangerous.’

So, he encourages us to start filling in the missing half of the story. We should learn the names and achievements of artists such as Duke Vin, who built the first Kingston-style sound system on these shores and helped to set up the Notting Hill Carnival. Invited to travel to this country and work in the post-war Britain of the 1950s, he and fellow artists such as Count Suckle found that, far from being welcomed by the ‘mother country’ they faced prejudice and exclusion from the outset. As they often couldn’t get into night-clubs or bars they were obliged to create their own scene. From reggae and ska there was a natural crossover with early hip-hop. Akala urges us to ‘Look up Smiley Culture on Youtube’ if we want to find the point where toasting first had an impact on mainstream culture in the UK – a starting point for his own musical development: ‘I didn’t learn to rap watching American artists – I grew up rapping over a sound system.’

And we should see the wider picture, Hip-hop is not just social commentary. It is an artform that came out of the poorest neighbourhoods of the US and UK, created by the marginalised and exploited; it has a political edge. He calls on us to research the life and legacy of Marcus Garvey and the pan-African movement, which has its roots in the UK.

The theme of the evening is clear: knowledge is power, and if unchallenged, the powerful will always write the version of history they want you to hear: ‘As UK MC culture becomes more well-known, it’s important to know where it came from … without these people and the struggle they put in, Grime culture wouldn’t exist  …. if you write people out of history it’s easier to write them out of Britain’s future’ ‘

Two books Akala wants us to read:

When We Ruled by Robin Walker http://www.whenweruled.com/

It’s Bigger Than Hip-hop by M.K Asante https://www.amazon.co.uk/Its-Bigger-Than-Hip-Hop/dp/0312593023