Origins of Sound: Akala
All images courtesy of Greg Coleman
The journey of an independent artist is a weathered one, it’s often littered with an abundance of stumbling blocks that you don’t tend to attribute to a charting artist that’s signed. Not to say the path of the signed artist is easier, there are endless tales of labels making it difficult for talent on their own rosters to promote their art. Over the past decade, Akala has carved a space for himself not only in hip hop but in other creative arts spaces such as theatre, education and literature. Nevertheless, after recently returning from Zimbabwe to work on a creative educational project and soon embarking on a trip to Egypt to showcase his much talked about theatre production ‘Richard II’, it’s clear that being independent is a decision that Akala is yet to regret.
Akala’s vision for hip hop, not just as a musical genre, but as a culture, is quite clear and, perhaps, one that others should embrace. Whilst he hopes for more artists across the genre to embrace the theatrical element of the music, hip hop itself is theatre. Just the very existence of iconic rap groups such as Outkast’s flamboyance, Wu-Tang Clan’s infatuation with martial arts and A Tribe Called Quest’s Afrocentrism adhere to the parameters of theatre, particularly when one considers the characters and personas associated with the respective groups. More recently, Kendrick Lamar has been the embodiment of theatrical hip hop. Each music video, performance and album is an act that is a part of a wider story.
In 2014, Akala released ‘Ruins Of Empires’, a graphic novel that follows an individual through the course of human history. What’s particularly interesting about this is that Akala initially wrote it as long-form rap, before dividing it into scenes. Over the years, we’ve seen rappers propel themselves beyond creative limitations and explore unique ways of delivering their art. However, what we view as ‘art’ is subjective and often depends on audience, locality, class and often, race. There has long been a debate, a somewhat archaic one at that, regarding hip hop and its legitimacy as an artform. Akala’s ability to transfer his writing from rap to literature is a unique skill. It also proves, yet again, that the genre is not only an incubator of talent, but also that it exhibits the contributions the culture has made to wider society.
At this point, it occurred to me that to call Akala a rapper alone would be doing his career a disservice. To date, his career is a culmination of creative endeavours that have not only had an impact on the man himself, but those who also have the opportunity to experience it. We often sum up the lives of multi-disciplinarians as one thing that truly defines who they are. Leonardo da Vinci is considered to be the greatest painter ever, but should we consider him just that, after he spent years exploring science and the anatomy?
A rapper, writer, poet and songwriter Akala may be but, first and foremost, he is an artist.
“This year marks ten years since my first album so I’m doing an anniversary triple-vinyl collection, which will include three songs from each of my six albums, chosen by fans. So that’ll come out in September and I’ll be touring in October as well. In 2014, I wrote a graphic novel called ‘Ruins of Empires’ and I’m developing that into a theatre piece at the moment. I’m also thinking about doing a couple of videos for some old songs. I’m adding a bit of production to some of the songs off my first album so that they’re fresh for this vinyl. I’m also shooting a documentary with BBC4 and I’ll be travelling to Jamaica in May to work on that.”
How would you define these past ten years?
“Growth and evolution. When you listen to my first mixtape, before my album, I feel that a lot of people now are probably like, ‘rah, my man was independent from day one?’ In the long term, it’s probably the best way to go if you have the bottle for it. With all the new technology, the power is with the artist. I’ve stuck to my guns, made the music I’ve wanted to make, said what I wanted to say and now I’m at a point where I had six headline shows sold out last year. I performed at KOKO and if you look at who’s being booked there, you have to start asking yourself, why isn’t Akala given the same level of radio support? I think one of the reasons why I’ve done well is because of the spaces I’m in. Theatre is one of the spaces where we, as hip hop artists, haven’t explored enough because it’s such a narrative, storytelling form that it naturally lends itself to creative pieces in that world.”
What have you been feeling recently?
“Loving the new Kendrick Lamar, ‘untitled unmastered’ and I probably prefer it to ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ if I’m honest. Any time we’re critiquing someone like Kendrick, we’re critiquing from a stance that already assumes he’s in the top 5%. When I say there are things I don’t like about ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, I’m not comparing it to any standard record, it’s comparing it to ‘Aquemini’ or ‘Wu-Tang Forever’. I think it’s a great artistic statement but the new’s a bit more raw. He’s a genius, as an artist he’s really pushing the boundaries, his Grammy performance was like theatre.”
Do you find it difficult as an artist, putting on the supporter’s hat?
“Not at all, I think what’s difficult is that when you go to watch another artist perform and people are coming up to you, whilst said artist is on stage and asking for pictures. To me, it feels a bit disrespectful. But primarily, I’m still a fan of music. I love performances, I love new ways of being on the stage.”
How does the theatre aspect of performance fit into your overall artistry?
“A lot of people don’t know that I actually grew up with theatre, my stepdad was the stage manager of Hackney Empire and it’s only as you get older, do you realise how much that stuff impacts you. I saw some sick productions when I was young and did the lights for Slava Polunin’s ‘Snow Show’. Theatre is where you can take this to another level. A lot of theatre is subsidised because it’s considered art. So you can do things on a scale where you can have ninety-six musicians on a stage, you couldn’t do that shit at a gig. You can build a set the size of a pyramid and do shit that’s out of this world because of the economic support. There haven’t really been many musicians since Earth, Wind & Fire, Pink Floyd and The Who who have come into the theatre space and blend it with music. With writing, film, theatre, TV and all those mediums, I see a new way, as an artist who’s probably never going to get radio support, to push what I’m doing culturally.”
Were those other avenues you took reactionary or was it just natural progression?
“It’s stuff that I always wanted to naturally do but there’s a respect for intelligence and artistry in the arts world, so if you know you’re shit, people will fuck with you even if they don’t like you. Whereas in popular music, being a good musician won’t necessarily get you on the radio. Saying that, there aren’t that many famous musicians known for just playing, like Miles Davis. Popular music doesn’t respect the musician as much as it used to. I needed to think of a long term strategy to ensure my stuff gets out there, especially as I’m not on daytime radio. I guess I may have been able to do it quicker if I was on a few playlists.”
Which medium gives you the greatest sense of euphoria?
“They all do honestly. I still love the art of rapping but if I’m honest, writing a sixteen isn’t effort anymore, even with the FITB’s and F64’s. Now, I’m challenging myself to tell a story in long form, for example at thirty-minute rap. I don’t find songwriting and short-form stuff difficult anymore so I’m trying to pull everything into the hip hop world. I initially wrote ‘Ruins of Empires’ as one long rap but I divided it into scenes. I still love reading, watching films and performing but I’d like to better at playing an instrument. I don’t see all of these mediums as divided though, if you’re a good rapper then you’re a good writer. If someone told me that from early then I would’ve started writing plays back then but I wasn’t thinking that way. As a fan, I look at a lot of the big American rappers I grew up listening to with the theatrical stuff, especially with Kendrick now, imagine if Nas had been doing that. Imagine a play by Nas?”
That would be crazy.
“I know, right? The most successful musical in the last fifteen years in the US right now is called ‘Hamilton’, when it comes here it’ll be difficult to get a ticket.”
What’s it about?
“It’s about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America, and it’s created by Lin-Manuel Miranda but finally someone’s done it and it’s become one of the most successful musicals. Imagine if it was ‘Pac that did something like that? A lot of people don’t know that he went to performing arts school. So that next level where rappers are using their art to tell long form stories is actually where art rap comes from. The early west African griots were telling five hour stories from memory and they’d recite these frequently. That’s the place I’d like to take it.”
It seems like rap is often divorced from a lot of aspects of culture in places where it shouldn’t be.
“Theatre became this thing that posh people said belonged to them but every culture has it, it doesn’t have to be in a building. If you go to a village, the storyteller will be sat around a campfire and everyone will be engrossed, that’s theatre. Like everything, it became industrialised and a class thing.”
Combining all of these things together, what do you see for yourself.
“I see it quite clearly, which is nice. I’ve got a lot of opportunities coming way to do things they way I want them done, so I see a very clear path whether it’s in theatre, writing, film or music. I feel good about it all and in ten years, I reckon I’ll be in a great position because I took that long journey.”
Akala is performing at this year’s Soundwave festival in Croatia. For tickets and more info head over to www.soundwavecroatia.com.