The American hip hop and rap scenes are outstanding, but it’s also insular. There are so many established rappers on the scene right now, with so many up-and-coming young American rappers trying to break through behind them, that it’s hard for anybody outside the United States of America to break into the market. That’s a shame because it means American rap and hip hop fans are missing out on some great artists. The United Kingdom is especially full of exceptional lyricists, and the one performer that American ears need to hear more than any other right now is Akala.
Even in his home country, Akala is somewhat overshadowed by the success of his sister, known professionally as Ms. Dynamite, had a little over fifteen years ago. Akala is younger than Ms. Dynamite, but no matter what he does, the press treats him as if he were trying to follow in her footsteps. That comparison isn’t fair. Ms. Dynamite, for all her talents as a performer, rapped and sang about generic topics that exist everywhere in the hip hop scene. Akala raps about politics and history. His chosen topics have kept him out of the limelight, but they’ve made him one of the most outstanding speakers on black issues in the United Kingdom – and he ought to be one of the most outstanding speakers on black issues in the whole world.
The fact that Akala raps at all is a blessing. From his lyrical content, it’s evident that he’s not totally happy with what rap has become, or what it now represents. He frequently laments the fact that rappers market their wealth and possessions instead of their experience. He’s always been angry at the way that rap and black culture have been ‘sold out’ to music executives. It’s hard to disagree with that stance. Rap used to be a counter-culture, but it’s now gone so mainstream that it’s used as a marketing tool at online slots websites. We don’t know whether Snoop Dogg ever signed off on the use of his likeness on the ‘Hip Hop Slot: Pimped’ online slots game, but it’s there nonetheless. Other games like ‘Loaded’ use rap imagery and even rap soundtracks to try to draw people into playing new casino, but it’s doubtful that any rappers see much – if any – of the money the slots make. Online slots might be a small part of the issue, but they’re a microcosm of the whole situation.
As Akala put it himself in his critically-acclaimed fourth “Fire in the Booth” session with BBC Radio’s Charlie Sloth a few years ago, “you rap about chains, I rap about history, on the page and quite literally.” To listen to Akala is an experience unlike listening to almost any other rapper you might name. Akala doesn’t tell you about his house, his cars, his love life, or his bank balance. Instead, Akala will tell you about what he’s doing to provide funding for youth projects. He’ll explain how his library is worth more than your chain is. He’ll emphasize the importance of reading. These might not necessarily be the kind of ‘cool’ messages that hip hop fans want to hear, but they’re important messages – and when people do listen to them, it tends to change their lives.
One of the best sub-genres you’ll ever find on YouTube is the series of videos made by American rap and hip hop fans listening to Akala for the first time – and especially reacting to his first, second, and fourth “Fire in the Booth” sessions. The speed of his delivery always impresses them, but what really blows their mind is his content. Here’s a British performer telling them about Black Wall Street. He can fit more content about the history of slavery into eight bars than your schoolteachers managed to fit into all the years you spent in education. Not only will he do that, but he’ll also challenge the way you’ve been encouraged to think about history. Do you think William Wilberforce ended slavery? Think again. Do you think working-class white people weren’t also enslaved in America? Think again on that issue, too. Akala presents cold, hard facts. The fact that he can make them rhyme so tightly is a bonus. This isn’t a new response to the revival of the BLM movement; this is something that Akala has been doing for his whole career. This isn’t a movement for Akala; it’s a way of life.
It’s easy for any artist to take a stance on a political or social issue, and almost as easy for them to release one or two songs about it. It’s far less frequent that one artist releases so much material on the same topic, and yet Akala is relentless. Music is just one aspect of his life and his career. This is a man who’s published works of fiction and works of fact, documenting black culture and black history. He’s been invited to lecture at Oxford University and do it with a hoodie on. He writes plays and scripts and visits young prisoners to talk about their lives and their prospects. He’s not a saint, and he wouldn’t thank anyone for trying to compare him to one, but nothing Akala does is a stunt. He’s one of the most knowledgeable, compelling, and intelligent voices of his whole generation, and yet most people haven’t yet found the time to give him five minutes and hear him out. That’s not just a loss to music; it’s a loss to culture. One of the great ironies of his career is a rapper is that while his lyrics have become the topic of numerous Ph.D. studies and essays around the world, academics might have paid him more attention than American music fans have.
You probably have a little time on your hands right now. You’ve found the time to come to this website and read this article. Having spent that time, spend a little more. Look up Akala, and take in his first “Fire in the Booth” session. Once you’ve started, there’s no going back, and you’ll find out why his supporters consider him half a professor and half an MC. Akala has been ignored by American fans for this long, but that’s no reason to make him wait any longer for the appreciation he deserves.
© 2020, Seth Barmash. All rights reserved.