Akala has already been talking for three hours by the time I reach him and awkwardly ask about the possibility of an interview – for one hour in a presentation on black history and its distortion by white supremacists over the centuries, and two more in the bar afterwards to a crowd of students and scholars hanging on his every word. To his credit, the rapper and historian is as eloquent and patient with me as he was at the beginning of his talk.
Akala’s real name is Kingslee James Daley, though he chose the name Akala upon his entry to music in the mid-noughties: a Buddhist term meaning ‘Immovable’. In spite of the name, his career has taken many different twists and turns, beginning in music with typically harder-than-thou grime before morphing into an energetic scholarship on African history and post-colonialism via the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, which draws comparisons between populist Shakespearean wit and contemporary hip-hop through talks and events. Now best described as a conscientious hip-hop artist, he can talk in great detail about white people taking picnics to lynchings and still imbue the room with a sense of light-hearted matter-of-fact, and can postulate that explorers from Mansa Musa’s kingdom of Mali reached South America in the 1300s without being sensationalist. There is a sense of energy in the room when he opens his mouth to speak, and it’s contagious.
What with his interest in racism and the hangover of colonialism in British culture, I wonder what Akala makes of last term’s Union race controversy and accepting an invitation to speak on their platform. He has a clear conscience.
“Someone wrote us an email complaining that I was speaking at the Union, and perceived speaking at the Union as an endorsement of institutionalised racism, of the presentation of the ‘Colonial Cocktail’ or whatever it was called, with the black person’s hands. It’s Oxford University, and what I found fascinating was that the person who wrote me that email was a student at Oxford.
“Are you saying that only the Union is institutionally racist, but the University as a whole is fine? I found it a little bit hypocritical – or politically naïve at best – for someone who is using Oxford University as a platform, presumably to further their career, presumably going to put Oxford University on their CV, to tell me as an outsider that I should only speak in one part of the uni and not another.
“I will take a platform and never compromise what I have to say, or my position. The Oxford Union’s YouTube channel is probably quite popular; there’s probably thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people all over the world who are going to see me talk explicitly, and very clearly, with references, about Pan-Africanist history, about white supremacist distortion of black history on the Oxford Union’s platform.
“To me, that is the bigger issue. In no way is that an endorsement of the ‘Colonial Cocktail’, of any of the historical institutionalised racism of the Union or the University as a whole. Malcolm X came and spoke here. Do you think that means he didn’t understand the history of British academia’s relationship to white supremacy? Of course he did, which is why he quoted Hamlet. I don’t know if people remember; he came here and he used Hamlet [to illustrate] African-Americans’ right to defend themselves.
“So for me, I will use pretty much any platform I am given to not compromise what I have to say. I’ve been on MTV; I don’t agree with Viacom. I’ve been on Sky; I don’t agree with Rupert Murdoch. I’ve been on the BBC; I don’t agree with the promotion of Saudi Arabia as a British ally. So for me, it is about using platforms without compromising yourself.”
And given his clear interest in race at Oxford more widely, what does he think of the Rhodes Must Fall movement? Can student activism achieve real results?
“The history of student activism, in South Africa, in America, it’s been very inspiring. We’ve seen it in some of the repression South African students are facing – obviously I stand with them and I acknowledge their campaign. Just the title alone tells me ideologically where it is coming from and obviously I agree with them: that mass murderers, just because they became wealthy, just because they became ‘legitimate businessmen’, just because they had scholarships named after them…it doesn’t mean they should be worshipped.
“See, the funny thing about British culture, and English culture in particular, is that the English do have revolutionary, progressive traditions, but propaganda and imperialist success mean most British people don’t identify with Thomas Spence [the eighteenth-century Radical advocate of common land ownership], or Thomas Paine, or the Levellers or the Diggers [the progressive and radical English Civil War-era movements] or Gerald Massey; no-one’s taught them who those people are. So people think English culture is just about being Cecil Rhodes. But Cecil Rhodes is a particular representative of a particular strain of thought.
“But I do believe students, particularly in an elitist university like this, who are potentially the future rulers of the country – or elite bankers or lawyers – have a role to play in shaping the future of culture, and if they’re engaged in student activism, and they carry that with them into their careers, they can make genuine differences to people’s lives.”
Perhaps cynically, I mention the lyrics to ‘Absolute Power’, a song in which Akala expresses doubt as to how long youthful idealism remains once a comfortable life in a highly-paid job beckons. Aren’t we, Oxford students, going to sell out the moment we graduate and simply maintain the system he rails against? Isn’t hip-hop just a fad to white teenagers?
“Well, I was probably just in a moody mood that day,” he laughs, “and in a pessimistic mood. I’m not generally a pessimist but I do think that I see that behaviour.
“And I think even for me, being honest with you, as a human being, when you’re not broke any more, when you’re travelling around the world – and I’m not saying I’m rich, by the way; I went to school many times of the week not eating food, so I have been poor – I’ve, as an adult, never had to worry about being able to afford to eat. So I mean in that sense, it’s hard to maintain your revolutionary fervour when life’s not shit.
“So even for me, who came from that background, it’s difficult on a day-to-day basis to constantly remind yourself how the world is and to try and engage with justice. If you’re from a background where you’ve never even experienced that, to even understand that it exists is very challenging.
“To me, you can’t love hip-hop and not black people. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to idealise black people, and think they’re paragons of excellence and wonderful and there’s nothing wrong with them; the point is, I love Muay Thai. I practice Muay Thai on a daily basis, that means I love Thai people. Does it mean I think Thai people are perfect? No. But it means I have enough respect for their culture to learn the commands in Thai: nueng, sorng, sarm, see, ha [1,2,3,4,5] and that an ajahn is a Thai master, [and] you know I have a little bit of respect and engagement with the people.
“What I see often in hip-hop is a divorce in what created hip-hop – racialized, ghettoised experience in America – and wanting to love the music, and that was what I was putting out in that song.”
Though perhaps he is being generous here, it would not be a misrepresentation to associate Akala with disillusionment with mainstream politics. I ask what he thinks of Jeremy Corbyn, and what he thinks the Labour Party’s divisive new leader might achieve.
“Mr Corbyn seems like a genuine guy, he seems like a nice guy. But politics ain’t about nice people and being a person with good intentions. Obviously I would prefer a Britain led by Jeremy Corbyn to one led by David Cameron; that’s a given. But I also think those of us who consider ourselves progressive should not be naïve about what the cult of personality can do. The cult of personality, even in music, is dangerous. The cult of personality, even in Pan-Africanism, has been dangerous.
“To me, he is one individual, probably with a good heart, probably with good intentions, but the British political system is what it is, and he better than anyone knows there’s going to be limits to what he can achieve. So those who consider ourselves progressive have to continue to engage and not think that just by voting for who we consider the progressive leader, that’s our obligation done and Britain’s going to fundamentally change its nature as a society. But, like I said, he does seem like a very decent individual.”
A cult of personality seems like a good point from which to mention fame, and Akala’s relative reluctance to embrace it. His raps reference cultural icons and historical figures that would decribed at the very least as high-brow. Sun Tzu, Plato, and obviously Shakespeare are all name-dropped in bars. Is this intellectualism a conscious decision? I suggest that it would never be found in hugely mainstream hip-hop.
He disagrees. “I don’t know, I mean Wu-Tang were fairly mainstream in the 90s and they were a mix of Shaolin, Nation of Islam, Five Percenter, Pan-Africanist, aliens-came-to-Earth kind of philosophy in a really unique way. [They used] all of those kind of old Shaolin movie samples. So I think if there’s a lowest common denominator then there must be a highest common denominator.
“I genuinely don’t want to be Kanye West famous. I’m not saying that to downplay myself, I just can’t imagine… it’s already like – not being arrogant – that the level I’m at now, I go to the shops in my pyjamas ‘cause it’s early in the morning and I want some bread, and I’ll walk to the shop and someone will say “Can I have a photo, bruv?” And it’s fine, I’ll take the photo, but the point is, I’m in my pyjamas, bruv! I ain’t brushed my teeth yet! I don’t really have a choice in that.
“I’m still gonna make music and wherever it goes is wherever it goes, but I’m comfortable with where things are at now.”