Photography Tristan Bejawn

akala talks to i-D about the relationship between racism and violence

"It seems like some people wish to use this problem, which is affecting a very specific demographic of teenage black boys in London, as well as others all over the country, as a way of demonising black people as a whole."

by Ciaran Thapar
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26 March 2019, 11:12am

Photography Tristan Bejawn

“Mind holding my apple?” Akala asks, pulling one from his jacket pocket and handing it to me. The rapper, writer and activist from Camden — who has, over recent years, become one of the most fiercely political yet reassuringly accessible British voices of a generation — poses for the camera, as I look down to focus on the fruit’s cuts and bruises. Then a man with a thick white beard stops next to us. He holds a road bike with one hand and reaches out to shake Akala’s with the other. “I saw you on television the other day” the passer-by grunts. Akala grins and nods in gratitude. “I thought you were brilliant” he continues, before walking off towards Ladbroke Grove tube station.

“Good Morning Britain have been trying to get me to go on for a year and a half and I said no bare times,” Akala says. Now we are sat talking in his studio, a windowless space packed with recording equipment. Records by Biggie and Bob Marley hang on the wall. I recognise the room from his “Great Reads” YouTube series, in which Akala recommends his favourite classic books in an effort to promote what he calls, in the introduction to his best-selling memoir-polemic Natives: Race And Class In The Ruins Of Empire, an “almost irrational love of books” sourced from trips to the library as a child. Two days prior to us meeting, Akala has appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain (GMB) to discuss serious youth violence (he had been on Channel 4 News to do the same the week before).

“Right now, Middle England is seeing more black people than they’ve ever seen on TV, and it’s only ever to discuss stabbings. I’ve seen Piers [Morgan] pay enough attention to knife crime. So I felt like I had an obligation to say, well, hold on a minute, what are the facts?” he says. “We live in such as an anti-intellectual culture, where people can go on national TV, chat shit, and just make emotional arguments with no stats. But I deal with facts. I think that’s why it resonated with people,” he explains. In Akala’s latest television appearance, pressed by Piers Morgan, while outlining proven root causes behind Britain’s long history with youth violence, Akala calmly dismantled the claim that race, and blackness specifically, is inherent to London’s knife crime epidemic. The video quickly went viral after being intensively shared on Twitter and Instagram by young fans as well as older commentators. “Then I went on Twitter and posted all my sources” he continues, grinning, his eyes sparkling with undeniable accomplishment.

Akala, which is a Buddhist term meaning “immovable” and whose real name is Dr Kingslee James Mclean Daley (he has two honorary doctorates), is not just a rapper. Sure, he’s released a slew of rap albums and mixtapes over the last decade-and-a-half, and plans to record another album this summer (“writing a book makes you appreciate the power of drafting, and I’m looking forward to applying that to music” he says). But over the course of his diversifying career, the 35-year-old has also become something of an intellectual and creative polyglot: capable of founding educational charity programmes, performing on Radio 1Xtra’s Fire In The Booth, addressing the Oxford Union, and debating on Question Time, among countless other impressive, public-facing feats.

“We’ve taken a very real problem but given it disproportionate attention in a sensationalist way,” he says, when I ask about the current debate about violence taking place in the UK. “And it seems like some people wish to use this problem, which is affecting a very specific demographic of teenage black boys in London, as well as others all over the country, as a way of demonising black people as a whole. But British Ghanaian and Nigerian boys in general, across the board, are doing really well at school. Is race responsible for that?” he queries. “There are over one million black people in London. So you’re asking me to suspend all my mathematical common sense and accept that the 20 or so teenage knife murders that happen each year are representative? When you look in the background of these youths — and this has been the same thing for 200 years, whether you are in London, or Liverpool, or Glasgow — you’re going to see relative poverty, exposure to domestic abuse, and expulsion from school,” he continues, segueing from fact to fact. “You know, a police statistician messaged me yesterday and said there have been more domestic murders this year than there have been teenage knife crime murders. None of that excuses teenagers or makes it okay, but given the link between [a person’s] exposure to domestic violence and [their propensity for] street violence, you’d think we’d have a conversation about that,” he adds.

Akala
Akala shot by Tristan Bejawn

In my youth work in London, I have often held critical conversations with groups of black British boys, of various African and Caribbean origins, about how race plays a role in their lives. Alongside the commonly held perception that ostensibly wealthier white people habitually clutch their bags tighter when passing them in the street, or seem to avoid sitting on a nearby seat while travelling on public transport, or that corner-shopkeepers follow them round suspiciously in presupposed anticipation of thievery, one theme that has consistently arisen is the belief that, while moving through public spaces, similarly-aged white British and British Asian boys do not pose an automatic threat. Some teenagers, however, describe how their heart might beat faster or their fists clench when they walk past other groups of black boys in public. Recognising that this sort of behaviour is specific and complex, I ask Akala whether this is what he meant when he said, while on GMB, that “a particular demographic of young black boys, at a particular stage in their lives, feel a degree of psychological self-hatred or contempt for themselves that they project onto other people who remind them of themselves”. And if so, why and how does this phenomenon manifest?

“Yes, exactly. Look, in Britain we think that young black boys are immune from all the anti-young black boy propaganda that exists here. Jamaica is one of the most violent countries in the world. Do you think any black person in Jamaica gets scared the moment they see another black person. Course they fucking don’t! Because everybody is black! Doctors are black, architects are black, lawyers are black, the prime minister is black. And if you go to Africa, Ghana is one of the most peaceful countries in the world, it’s also one of the poorest. How do we explain that the murder rate in Jamaica is 30 times higher than the murder rate in Ghana, but recognise that we’re ethnically identical, because half of black Jamaicans come from Ghana originally. No parent in Ghana is worried about their kid getting stabbed to death on their way to school. They’re worried about a lot of things, but not that,” he answers passionately. “Black people are not racially minoritised there like they are in Britain or the United States”.

“I’m not denying that there is a racial component in some sense, but it’s just that in Britain it isn’t discussed in the right way. Because if it was, it would mean a wider dialogue about our racial history; the way that black people are represented in the media; about the extent to which young black boys have internalised the idea that other black boys are inherently bad and a threat. The thing is, when you get a bit older the exact opposite happens! When I see another group of black men on the other side of the street and I’m like: bruddah, I see you. ‘Cause we know what each other has been through. So it’s no good telling one part of the story,” he says, then takes a moment to reflect on the contradictory value of injecting energy into providing explanations he is tired of giving, but accepts as necessary. “On the one hand, I’m like, I’ve gotta talk about all this because there is no way to avoid it. But on the other hand I feel real duty that we do need to change the narrative. There are so many boys who just want to go to school, get their grades, get a job, and are doing so successfully! And yet the 20 tragedies every year soak up all the attention. That’s why I’m very suspicious when big platforms like GMB — I didn’t get a chance to say this to Piers — are only interested in the negatives. There is more black success now than at any point in British history! And not just in football and music. When I was younger and I went to Canary Wharf, there might be one token Indian bruddah working at the bank, but otherwise there were no people of colour there. Now, there aren’t loads, but there’s enough to show that progress is being made,” he says.

In Akala’s book Natives — an amalgamation of personal memoir, social history, and political argument about life in modern Britain — one chapter is entitled “The Day I Realised My Mum Was White”. I mention how his formative memory of struggling to articulate his frustration to his white mother, as a child returning from school after being racially abused, resonates with me when I think back to the first time I was called a “Paki” and, expecting my own mother not to understand, couldn’t initially find the words to explain my pain. I ask why he chose to write the book in this way, using snippets of his personal life to help make broader points about British society; the micro to explain the macro.

“I think macro decisions wouldn’t be important unless they affected the lives of real people. So what I try to do in this book is show how macro decisions, macro ideas, macro concepts, they affect the lives of real people. If you go around pretending that all black boys are at risk of violent crime, for example, young black boys who have no relationship to it whatsoever — who have never done anything wrong and just want to play by the rules — their presumption of innocence gets suspended. I was lucky that my mum knew she needed to give me the equipment to deal with it. Whereas a lot of other parents, and I see this in many of my friends, who are rich and black, they’ve got teenage sons, and they don’t know what the fuck to do. Because in a way, if you are a footballer, or a businesswoman, or an actress, you’ve made it. And you thought that would allow your son to have made it too, but now he’s a 16-year-old black boy and he goes out in the world and people still see him as a criminal. I try to use my experiences, and put them in context,” he explains.

What significance would he like Natives to have? “I want it to provide emotional solace to young men who have grown up how I grew up, or people like yourself. To help people realise: I’m not mad, I’m not crazy, it isn’t just paranoia, this really is how things are. But I also want people to take intellectual analysis away; to break all the denial and contribute to making people realise this silly myth of meritocracy. Yeah, sure, Britain may be more meritocratic than other societies, but that’s a different argument to pretending like race and class make no difference to your life chances in this country. And what I want is for young black boys in particular is to understand the hurdles so they can jump over them. It’s not about me saying racism exists, so don’t try. It’s me saying: you’ve got to try twice as hard, bruv, and here is all the data to prove it.”

'Natives: Race And Class In The Ruins Of Empire’ is available here.