Akala’s power of words
The hip hop poet-activist questions our rose-tinted worldviews
Akala wields pen and mic like a master swordsman of the truth – and he’s on a mission to give African history its proper place in the human story
Race and class have shaped the outlook of Akala, born Kingslee Daley, from early childhood – from encounters with racist teachers aged five, to the first time he was stopped and searched as a young boy, to the day he realised his mum was white.
Born in North London, the BAFTA and MOBO award-winning hip-hop artist, poet-activist and historian is today recognised for his many cross-spectrum contributions to society. He has received critical acclaim for his bestselling book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2018), in which he looks at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today. The book speaks directly to British denial when it comes to confronting issues that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain’s racialised empire and is currently being developed into a docuseries for the BBC.
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As founder of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, Akala works with hundreds of schools and over 10,000 young people globally to make the Bard accessible. In 2021, he published his first fiction, The Dark Lady, a magical realist novel for teens set in Shakespearean London to show that “reading is a true super-power”. Next up, he’s currently working on a new album for the first time in six years, inspired by the Verzuz soundclash battles between artists such as Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, and Raekwon and Ghostface Killah.
As one of the most articulate voices in British hip-hop, Akala is not afraid to confront issues that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain’s empire. Amongst all this, he is on a mission to explain how African history has been distorted to justify the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, and how the effects remain with us today. We met up with the natural storyteller to ask him directly about the ‘Middle Passage’, a maritime route that transported captured Africans to America to be sold into slavery. From the middle of the 15th century to the 19th century, nearly 12 million enslaved people were trafficked as cargo across the Atlantic Ocean, a horrific period that is often misrepresented and misunderstood in popular Eurocentric discourse.
Here, Akala speaks to Emma Dowuona-Hammond, the founder of The Middle Passage Festival in Barcelona, which celebrates the culture of the African diaspora
Emma: Let’s get straight into it, and talk about the transatlantic slave trade. It lead to the devastation and depopulation of Africa, but contributed to the wealth and development of Europe. Would it not be more appropriate to refer to this period of history in terms of a conflict as the “European-West African War”?
Akala: That’s a fascinating conception. There is a history of conflict there and a lot of language is used in a way that deliberately obscures that. I don’t think anybody who went through the Middle Passage was part of a trade, in the sense that they clearly did not want to be traded. It’s never looked at from the perspective of the enslaved and in that perspective to call it a ‘trade’ becomes diversionary. One of the problems when you’re talking about the transatlantic slave trade is the people who think they’re clever try to point out that Africans sold other Africans. But, yes, the transatlantic slave trade could be conceived of more as warfare.
Is the idea of collaboration presented as a fact to reduce European culpability?
In every single conflict in human history, there has been collaboration. When the British invaded Ireland, there were Irish people who helped the British. In the context of the Nazi holocaust there were Jewish collaborators. In no other context do people think the fact that there were collaborators discounts the general tragedy. So because of that element of collaboration, there is a way in which it is conceived that Europeans just went to Africa and people were selling their babies on the seafront. This is how the British like to think of it. People think it’s not necessary to have a class analysis of Africa – as if the king of the Kingdom of Benin [what is now southern Nigeria] had the same interests as the average peasant in the kingdom of Benin, which of course in the context of England would be completely absurd. Partly this is because people don’t know anything about Africa. What in reality was happening was that African elites were waging war on African peasants, farmers, workers, serfs, existing slaves etc, and ordinary Africans were risking their lives to get people back. Even those African kingdoms that became major slave leaders generally had laws preventing the sale of their own people.
While African collaboration is exaggerated, is African resistance under-represented?
There was massive resistance in Africa itself. There were more rebellions against the transatlantic slave trade on the west coast of Africa than any island in the Caribbean, including Haiti and Jamaica. There were 482 rebellions just in the British, French and Dutch records alone. One in every ten European ships was attacked. At least one million fewer people went across the Middle Passage than would have done had there not been physical resistance. The transatlantic slave trade could be conceived of as warfare when you think about the fact that at the formal end of slavery what Europe did was link up all European countries and literally make war on the survivors of transatlantic slave trade, those who remained in Africa. The justification of this was that Africa needed to be saved from their slave dealing elites, but the slave dealing elites were the European business partners. So now you want to save ordinary African people from the people who you made money with for the past two centuries?
It’s a familiar story, the distortion of the historical narrative to present profitable foreign policy as humanitarian intervention. To what extent was the story of end of the slave trade an example of the whitewashing of history?
I’m aware of the debate that abolition was a purely economic strategy and there’s certainly a lot of evidence to support that. But to say there wasn’t a genuine moral imperative for the end of slavery would be to be historically inaccurate and dishonest. I think that for a whole host of reasons the abolition movement could be taken seriously in parliament, at the time of the end of the transatlantic slave trade¸ none of which were to do with a sudden moral epiphany. The British began getting their labour for the Caribbean from India. Sugar production transferred to India. Britain had lost America and was on the verge of losing Jamaica. It had failed to defeat the Haitian revolution. There were a whole host of reasons why at that time the idealistic left wing snowflakes, who believed that slavery was a moral evil, could be listened to.
Everybody wants to change the world, nobody wants to do the dishes.
If you look at the way abolition was used, it was used – especially in the case of Britain – to further Britain’s strategic interest to interfere in the affairs of the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French and in the Middle East. It was used in the same way that humanitarian imperialism is used today. We want to go and intervene in Iraq to save them. it just so happens there’s so much oil over there. There are strategic reasons to be over there in that role.
None of that is to say that there wasn’t genuine revulsion against the moral evils of slavery by the British public, there was. Just like millions of us today thought we shouldn’t have bombed Iraq, the government didn’t give a shit what we thought and the public today certainly has more power than it did in the middle of the 19th century. People have been fed a really simplistic way of viewing history and from the British people’s perspective that can be quite damaging, because if we think we’ve always been the good guys in history our rose-tinted views of the past will affect how we view our government’s behaviour today. We saved the world from slavery 300 years ago, so we can save the world from the evils of dictators today.
We saved the world from slavery 300 years ago, so we can save the world from the evils of dictators today.
Given the knowledge that the foundation of the world capitalist system was built using the profits of the transatlantic slave trade, is the dismantling of this system the only way to combat structural inequality, institutional racism and patriarchal violence?
I’m not going to delude myself into believing that at this point in history that the socialisation of the means of production with all the violence this would imply in a British context is the answer. Most British people think the empire was good, they’ve done the polls. Most British people are monarchists. To think in that context that we’re going to overthrow British capitalism and seize the means of production for the workers is implausible. It’s very easy for people who’ve never even been punched in their face once to imagine themselves as revolutionaries. If you want to do something, set up a homework club, get a young kid a job, do what you can do. Someone said to me so beautifully: “Everybody wants to change the world, nobody wants to do the dishes.” I think that obviously means everyone fancies themselves as Che Guevara on Twitter, but what are they actually doing? The more I interact with a lot of Twitter revolutionaries I realise that a lot of that culture is about abstract moral theory in absence of any concrete action. Because if you do anything and achieve anything, lots of people are going to criticise you¨ – and lots of people don’t want to be criticised. So instead they sit on Twitter, and that’s fine, but I’m not into that.
What does ‘doing good’ in society mean today?
I will readily admit I do not have a credible workable answer to late capitalism. I’m doing what I can to exist as ethically as I can within the limits of my own selfishness, my own greed, but my own will to do good. I’d rather you do something and say, “that part was good¨ and “that part was crap¨” – but you did something.
What’s so good about this?
Denying racism is as old as racism itself. As Akala explains so eloquently, we must have accurate knowledge to build a better world: “We must have an accurate knowledge of the culture that existed and exists in places where hip-hop and African diaspora culture comes from. None of that slave music nonsense.” To challenge your own self-importance, get to the truth and learn more about the African diaspora, check out Akala’s Twitter threads here.