By Ella Jukwey
Ten years ago, British rapper and poet Akala released his debut album, It’s Not A Rumour, through his own label Illa State Records. Since then Akala has gone on to make an impact as a multi-faceted artist. The wordsmith is renowned for his biting critiques of the establishment, analysis of racism, legendary freestyles, and love of Shakespeare. Akala has chosen to celebrate his milestone in the music industry by releasing a special Ten Years of Akala triple vinyl. With all the British rapper has achieved — from sold-out tours to giving speeches at Oxford, and a TED Talk — he is rarely heard on mainstream radio.
“You can make songs about how you love killing people or how much drugs you take. There are certain things that are considered 'radio friendly,' and critiquing power isn’t one of them,” Akala tells REVOLT in his cosy West London studio. He is modestly dressed and cordial and supplies thought-provoking answers to any question you ask.
Another factor Akala points out for his absence on the radio is that he is an independent artist. Although being independent might have contributed to his lack of airplay, in some ways it helped to make him a successful musician. In Britain, black independent artists are flourishing and taking over the charts in their own way. South Londoner Stormzy made history with "WickedSkengMan4" becoming the first freestyle to get into the chart in the top 40. Grime veteran Skepta released the highest-charting grime album ever with Konnichiwa and won the prestigious Mercury Prize.
Akala revealed that he would not say no to signing a major deal, but it wouldn’t be your typical record deal, as he raps about what he describes as challenging topics.“It would have to be on my terms,” Akala says. “I certainly wouldn’t sign a traditional record deal; i.e I’m an employee of the company and I’m part of the cookie cutter machine. I’ve done too much myself to submit to that. I might partner with a bigger company to reach more people.”
Another way Akala has kept himself relevant these past 10 years is through his "Fire in The Booth" freestyles. Charlie Sloth’s "Fire in the Booth" segment for his BBC radio shows are highly regarded, and Akala has been invited to do four. It’s a testament to Akala’s ability as a lyricist that his segments have over 3 million views.
“I memorize; all my long 'Fire in the Booth' freestyles are memorized,” he tells me. “It’s something I learnt from Jay Z. He said him and Biggie used to do it. I thought it was unbelievable at first, but it’s amazing what you can do if you work hard enough.”
Akala’s freestyles are not only great because they show him as a lyrical tour de force, they also ask difficult questions. In his latest , Akala rapped, “And I ain’t dissed black women to make my living.” Those lyrics are powerful in a time when actress Leslie Jones faced online harassment and misogynoir is a pertinent issue.
“There’s this idea that to be a ‘successful’ rapper, that you have to live up to certain tropes,” Akala explains. “One of them is to cuss down women, black women especially. I’ve been a successful artist and I’ve not had to do it. It’s become fashionable to do it. And I think it’s time for us as men to rethink that and how socially acceptable it’s become in my opinion. It would be more admirable to fight for our sisters than to put them down.”
Akala’s skills go well beyond the mic. He’s written two graphic novels, Ruins of Empire and Visions. Akala originally intended for Visions to be a piece of music, but found that it worked better creatively as a graphic novel. He is a clearly a writer above all, and rapping is just another form of writing he engages in.
Akala founded The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company as a musical theatre production company that explores the similarities between Shakespeare and hip-hop artists. For youngsters growing up in the inner cities, this type of initiative helps to make Shakespeare more accessible to them, especially in the UK, where the artistry of hip-hop is often overlooked. The year Akala marks his decade in music is also the year that marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Without mainstream backing, Akala has soared and become an independent success. Six albums later, and having won a MOBO and a BAFTA award, it seems as if he has only just begun. As far right politics become popular and threaten minorities, Akala’s message of equality and critique of power is more potent than ever.
And watch REVOLT Specials | What's That Sound? London to learn more about the music scene in the UK: