‘The Medium and the Message’ with… Akala

Akala’s success as a rapper is something of an anomaly in the UK. While many have chased deals and major label recognition, or co-signs from bigger artists, he’s actively ignored all of these and carved himself his own path to global success.

He may not enjoy the same chart success or radio play as some, but he sells out tours both at home and abroad on a yearly basis, has lectured at Oxford University and has some of the most memorable freestyles from a UK artist of all time (including four spectacular performances on Fire in the Booth and two epic F64’s).

Aside from being an incredibly talented rapper and songwriter, Akala is well-known for his political and historical knowledge. He regularly appears on television to discuss foreign policy, racism and current affairs, which he also covers in his music. In fact, one of his stand-out bars from the 2014 Fire In The Booth cypher referred to the time he “dun off the EDL guy with one line”, a reference to a televised row between himself and Tommy Robinson, who was leader of the English Defence League at the time.

Akala’s latest release is a look back over the last 10 years of his career and came out just a short while ago. It’s available to buy via his website or iTunes. To promote the album he’s embarking on a tour, which began in Dublin and is also pausing at Comicon to reveal his new graphic novel later this week, as we reported on SBTV News. I caught up with him to discuss how his honesty, authenticity and intelligence supplemented his obvious ability and helped him tap into a global audience, which became an incredible and dedicated fanbase.

You’re known as Mr. Fire in the Booth. You’ve done four so far and the reaction to every one has been crazy. What’s the difference for you writing a freestyle or writing an actual song?

Akala: Well I don’t WRITE them per se, that’s not my approach to Fire in the Booth or in general. I only write stuff when I’m approaching something like a poem. When I create a Fire in the Booth or when I create a song I sit and listen to the beat, figure out what the beat wants and then repeat stuff over and over to myself until I’ve memorised it. Once I’ve memorised it all I create the whole thing in my head until it’s finished.

That’s a technique I first learned from Biggie and Jay Z, and I thought they were lying at first until I tried it for myself, but now that’s how I work.

I think Fire in the Booth has been a great platform for UK rap and grime. It’s a platform that has showcased rap at its purest, unadulterated by marketing and so on. It’s all about the raw art of MCing, so yeah I do prepare for it slightly differently but there’s a crossover. I’d like to think that all the people who support and like my music have some sort of appreciation for the art of MCing but being a good rapper is very different from being a good songwriter and getting the right structure and arrangement and hooks is a very different craft from just being able to rap.

Usually when I’m writing a song it’s usually in the context of an album, and when I’m writing an album there’s a lot of thought that goes into the feel, the musical references and influences and all of this goes into the process of writing an album but not into a Fire in the Booth. I want to present the narrative in the best possible way, with the best bars, the best hooks and sick beats.

Are Fire in the Booths a bit more fun? They definitely allow you to show off and be a bit more cocky with it…

Akala: Yeah I think so. The thing is with rap is that it’s a sport. Rappers compete to be the best rapper around and I think that Fire in the Booth is a competitive platform. Everyone who goes in there should want the fans to say that their shit is the best. Music isn’t so much about that. There isn’t a hierarchy of the best musicians ever in the way that there is with the best rappers. Freestyles definitely allow me to indulge the more arrogant, swaggy side of my MCing persona.

You mentioned Jay Z and Biggie as early influences on the technical side of your MCing. Who else influenced you?

Akala: A lot of the Jamaican stuff definitely; Super Cat and Bounty Killer. Bounty Killer is probably one of my top 10 MCs ever, including American MCs. I think over here a lot of the sound system stuff really influenced me. Smiley Culture, for example. He was the first MC to get into the UK charts with a British accent. You think of Big L, Big Punisher, those multi-syllabic rappers were definitely a big influence on me. Then on the more aggressive side, DMX was one of my favourites too. His first two records are still of my favourite hip hop albums ever made. I know that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure because he talked about a lot of unsavoury shit, but what DMX was able to do was to communicate a certain passion and energy, almost create a theatre character, he was very influential with that.

A while ago there was a graph published of rappers’ vocabularies and it turns out that DMX actually had the smallest vocabulary of any rapper. There’s no denying he knew what he was doing with his limited vocabulary though…

Akala: Yeah I saw the study actually!

Miles Davis said that music is as much about the notes you don’t play as the notes you do play. If every rapper was like Inspectah Deck or Immortal Tech then it would all sound the same. The beauty of rap is that you can have someone like 2Pac or DMX, who are both relatively simple, being put in the same category as Immortal Tech. Rap isn’t about how clever you sound or how big the words you use are, it’s about how believable you are, what kind of stories you can tell, how much passion there is in what you spit. X is one of my favourite rappers for all those reasons.

You’re an artist who’s never been given much daytime radio play or exposure, other than ‘Shakespeare’ back in the day.

Akala: Yeah that’s the only one!

…but it hasn’t stopped you developing a global support-base. How have you developed your following without industry backing?

Akala: Yeah, I’m doing my second headline tour of Australia in December. I’ve just done that show in KOKO that was sold out. We’re not short of people who are willing to pay to see what I do, which begs the question of the way the mainstream music industry works. It doesn’t really bother me, I think I’ve been able to cultivate a decent fanbase and a decent living independently by sticking to my guns. I reckon if I’d given up 5 years ago and made some kind of corny pop tune on a beach with bare gyaldem I’d have suffered.

I love women as much as the next man, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a real lack of originality in that stuff. There’s plenty of music like that around, but for someone like me that would be weird. I think continually putting out music that I put my heart and soul into is what’s done it.

When it comes to my live show, there’s a great deal of detail in that too. Most rappers come over and spit over a PA track. We’ve mastered our drum tracks and every other instrumental track separately, and then we’ve got a live drummer over it, and a DJ, and visuals, and costume changes. It’s a show! It’s more than just me rapping over some beats.

Putting serious thought into how things are presented in the live arena is one of the reasons why people keep coming to the shows year-in-year-out and, like I said on my Fire in the Booth, that’s why we keep selling more tickets each year, but I haven’t been on the record in a decade!

You grew up around the theatre, your step-dad was stage manager at Hackney Empire, right? Has that made its way into your live show at all?

Akala: You know I’ve never really put that together but yeah I guess it probably was! I was watching theatre productions regularly from all over the world from the age of about 5, so in terms of how you put something together on the stage it probably was a big influence. Obviously it influenced stuff like Hip Hop Shakespeare.

And you get all over the world too, you did a show in Addis Ababa not long ago…

Akala: Yeah I did Sudan, New Zealand, the Philippines, India…

So there’s a global appeal to your message and your music, what do you think that is?

Akala: I think we live in a globalised world and a world where the internet gives you access to everything. We were number 3 in the Deezer Chart in Afghanistan recently, and we get emails from Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands regularly too. Our digital team update us on where people are listening to us. We live in a digital world where artists can be bigger outside their own territories than they will in their hometown. I sold more tickets for my show in Melbourne than I will for some of the dates in my UK show. If what you’re doing is from the heart and soul then people will respond to it no matter where you are.

Of course there are other things which have nothing to do with music, such as the political benefit of speaking English. If I spoke Swahili, it wouldn’t be as easy for me, but the legacy of the British Empire and American dominance around the globe means lots of places speak English. That’s beyond my control, and an accident of history, but thanks to that I can reach a fairly large percentage of the globe.

Recently there’s been a political shift among a lot of rap and grime artists, what do you think is driving this?

Akala: We have an affinity for black America, the whole world has an affinity for black America. Whether that’s Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, black Americans are one of the most culturally visible groups of people in the world.

America’s far from the only place in the world where there’s police brutality, but they’re a rich country and they tell us they’re the home of democracy or some crap. So when people see women, children or high school caretakers being shot dead by the police in America there comes a point where as a human being you’d like to say something. Also lots of these artists are young black men themselves, at an age where they might be thinking about having children. Maybe they’re thinking, “What if they do me and my kids like that?” I don’t know what each artist’s individual motivation is, but I definitely think it’s beautiful to see. The internet has given us a certain amount of freedom and that means artists aren’t afraid of speaking out because their label might drop them. And then if you’re an independent artist like I assume Skepta and Stormzy still are, you don’t have to worry about your label at all.

If you could name one message that you try and get across in your music more so than anything else, what would it be?

Akala: Knowledge! It’s a cliché and I’ve made it a cliché with ‘Knowledge Is Power’, but it’s definitely that. It’s about making sure you question everything and you don’t just accept everything that you’re told by those in power. I don’t want people to say “Akala said it, it must be correct.” I want people to do their own research. It’s about self-sufficiency in education. If we had a world where we were all equipped to be leaders, we’d have a much better world. People often say I should do politics, but my whole thing is that we should ALL lead. A leader is a manifestation of what a group of people want and the way we see it at the moment, in a sense of hierarchy, is a major problem.

I have one form of intelligence, but I can’t paint for shit. I’m pathetically bad at painting and I draw like a two-year-old. I have a form of academic intelligence but I don’t see that as being any more valuable than someone who can paint or sculpt or engineer or something like that.

A lot has been made in the media of society in this day and age being a “post-knowledge” society…

Akala: Well yeah, just look at Brexit. People googling, “What is the EU?” the next day, people who were complaining about migration but didn’t know the difference between migration and asylum. The reasons put forward by the Leave Campaign were bullshit. There were very valid criticisms, but they weren’t what was put forward.

It’s crazy because we have the internet and people can google this stuff. They can get a copy of the constitution if they want thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. You’re more able to get information now than ever, but we also have fewer people than ever with an interest in doing it.

It’s not just a UK thing, either, in the US we’re seeing the same thing happening with Trump.

Akala: Yes of course, although in many ways Clinton is just as bad as Trump. If you look at her foreign policy experience, they have very similar interests. Are America going to stop bombing people if they elect a Democrat? Probably not.

I think Trump is very exemplary of how human culture is at the moment, where politicians are marketed like brands. It’s not about what’s the best quality or who cares more about the issue, it’s about who markets their product best and that’s all that matters.

You’ve been referred to as an “artistic polymath”, which is someone who has a wide range of knowledge, but is it fair to say you aren’t an artistic polyglot? You don’t change your language when you move into other artistic spheres…

Akala: Yeah definitely. It’s about finding a balance. I’ve been lucky that I grew up reading a lot, but also growing up where I do has meant that I sound a certain way. Even though I’m well-spoken, quote-unquote, and use big words, I don’t speak in Received Pronunciation. There’s nothing wrong with people who do that but I do think that there are a lot of us who change the way we speak or dress or how we wear our hair in order to fit in with what intelligence looks like.

I grew up in Camden where you have a lot of poor kids and rich kids and it didn’t take me long to realise that the rich kids didn’t know shit. They weren’t smarter than me they were just rich. But that’s because I grew up in London and I paid attention. If you grow up surrounded by other poor people then maybe you’ll think that rich people are inherently better than you.

When I did the Oxford University lecture I didn’t wear a suit. Everyone else does, but I just thought what the fuck am I wearing a suit for!? For a young person growing up, me putting a suit on makes me less relatable. If I go to an award ceremony or something I’ll fling a suit on, but when I’ve got a message to get across then how I look is also part of the message. So when I’m wearing a hoody but lecturing at Oxford University it says to young working-class people that these people aren’t any fucking smarter than you, they’ve just had better chances in life and that you don’t have to try and be like them to succeed. In my lifetime I’ve seen some progress in that direction, in that when I was young you would never hear regional accents on the BBC, but now you can hear Scottish, Welsh and other regional accents in the BBC because there are so many different ways to speak English.

What’s next for you?

Akala: The tour kicked off in Dublin, we’ve got the dates in Australia coming up, I’m working on a new EP and I’m also working on a comic. It’s different to the one I did in 2014 which was an illustrated poem, but this is more of a comic format. There’ll be a new Akala album in 2017 too. I’m always working, always grafting, always trying…

 ’10 Years Of Akala’ is available now via iTunes and his personal website.