Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @GlynAkroyd

After appearing at Writing On The Wall Festival’s Time For Action event at The Black-E, rapper and activist AKALA spoke to James Jackson about the plight of UK rap music, and Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of winning the General Election.


On rap music in the UK         

Since my debut single Shakespeare came out, the internet has democratised everything in music. Back then, the music industry in the UK was kissing America’s backside and wasn’t interested in promoting any British MC-based music. Then the internet came along and people wanted to hear artists from the same country as them.”

YouTube, in particular, has revolutionised people’s route to market, and so all the big institutions like record labels and MTV have made themselves irrelevant by not supporting anything real or authentic. It’s quite interesting to watch. I live in Kensington and Chelsea, across the road from Universal Studios, and I’ve met people who work there. A lot of them don’t even like music!”

I’m looking at my peers who started 10 years ago and they all have viable careers now. I went to see Giggs at the Hammersmith Apollo and there were 4,200 people there – if you’d have told me when I was 15 that underground rap music would be good for almost 5,000 tickets in London, I’d have asked what you were smoking.”

I’ve been touring for a decade and a bit, and it’s just starting to be viable. It’s a good time to be a UK rapper – probably the best it’s ever been. We shouldn’t get too gassed though; nature giveth and nature taketh away.”

Even though I grew up in similar areas to other UK rappers, we had very different upbringings – my stepdad was a theatre director so I grew up in the Hackney Empire theatre, a uniquely working-class, African Caribbean-led theatre. In most working-class, African Caribbean neighbourhoods there were special Saturday schools called ‘supplementary schools’, that make a big difference in educating the community.”

I’ve seen more theatre than almost any rich kid in Britain, because I practically lived in a theatre; I did the lights for the Russian circus when I was 10. It’s only now when I look back I realise that, culturally, I was a rich kid; it’s just that I was economically broke.”

I don’t want my music to be about escapism. But I don’t want to knock anyone whose [music] is. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with artists that provide that, because sometimes you need to escape! Even if your life is materially good, sometimes you need to escape from life. I think there’s a place for escapism in society, I just don’t think that’s what I try to do.”

"It’s not surprising at all that rappers are getting on board with Jeremy Corbyn" Akala

On Jeremy Corbyn

It’s not surprising at all that rappers are getting on board with Jeremy Corbyn. Look at the people who have endorsed him – myself, Novelist, JME, Stormzy, Professor Green. We’re young, working class, and primarily African-Caribbean. He’s probably the only mainstream politician ever who was actually anti-apartheid before it was fashionable, so a lot of MCs actually think they can relate to him. This might not be a major concern to the British electorate, but some of us have longer memories.”

He’s not perfect – no politician is – but, for the first time in my life, someone I consider sane and decent has a chance of being elected. I’m not saying he hasn’t made mistakes, but I don’t consider any of the other people who have stood in my lifetime to even be sane.”

When I was five years old, the NHS saved my life. If I was an American child, I’d be dead, or my family would still be paying off debts now. When I was 10, my mum got cancer, same thing. We were not a family that had money. If we were under a different system, we wouldn’t be here, or we’d be saddled with a lifetime of debt. You get some people who come from a poor background, and then their life situation improves and they lose sight of how they grew up.”

Everyone keeps telling us he [Corbyn] hasn’t got a chance, but the bottom line is, if enough people vote Labour, he will win. The polling doesn’t look great, but enough people didn’t vote in the last election to swing the entire thing. We can only campaign and do what we can – but, mathematically, he can win.”

It says a lot about our country that we gave three terms to Tony Blair, yet Jeremy Corbyn is seen as unelectable. Maybe those of us who believe in a more progressive Britain are wrong. Maybe the country is a lot more right-wing than places like Liverpool and London recognise. I don’t think people will be surprised if he doesn’t win. I do, however, think that, should the Tories win, and should they win convincingly, there is every reason to be depressed. Make no bones about it, things are gonna get a lot worse for a lot of people.”

For large sections of the country the Tories winning doesn’t affect them, or it affects them positively. I live in one of the bluest boroughs in London, and for half of the people there, life is going to continue to be fantastic; but for the other half, the people in the council estates, they’re gonna get moved to Newcastle. And no disrespect to the people of Newcastle, but when you take ethnic minorities from London and pick them and move them to Newcastle or to Barking or wherever, for us that’s like moving back 30 years. We’ve gone in to inner-city London – or Toxteth here – and certain battles have been fought and people have accepted, to a degree, our presence within a city. So, to then pick someone up and then say ‘ah, Newcastle!’ – that creates a whole set of challenges that people will have to go through all over again that aren’t even being considered – but that’s Tory ideology. According to them, there’s no such thing as society.”

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