In his new book, the rapper/poet/philosopher examines how race and class have shaped life in Britain. Dan Carrier says we could all learn a thing or two from him
IT is easy, poet-philosopher Dr Kingslee Daley aka Akala, writes in new his book, to forget that the curriculum we are taught at school is not the “result of some universal abstract truth but rather the designs of actual human beings like me and you”.
In Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, part personal memoir merged with a wide-ranging consideration of the “social, historical and political” factors that have shaped Britain today, assumed truths are dissembled with guile and wit. The purpose of this book, he says, is to examine how race and class have impacted and continue to shape our lives and he takes us on a historical journey that is both shared and personal.
Britain, he argues, has two competing traditions: “one rooted in ideas of freedom, equality and democracy and another that considers these words as mere rhetoric to be trotted out at will and violated whenever it serves the Machiavellian purposes of power preservation”.
Akala outlines a Camden childhood in the 1980s – “if there was anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place” – and describes the experience of being a young black Londoner in an era of neo-liberal triumphs and of entrenched racism.
He speaks of the prejudice he faced as a child. “Some of my white middle-class teachers made my school life extremely difficult and penalised me for the very thing they should have been nurturing – my intelligence,” he says.
His memories of school in the 1980s – he went to Brookfield and Acland Burghley – are mixed: he recalls being bullied by some adults (“my very first teacher was annoyed that I was a ‘know it all’, apparently,” he writes) and outlines the type of heartbreaking treatment he suffered.
But he also recalls those who helped him – the “countless teachers and community activists gave me the tools for navigating life’s roadmap”.
Akala remembers being seven years old and stepping into the junior school. His mother had a row with his new teacher, a man Akala does not mention by name but those of us who went to Brookfield (it is my former school) will recognise as the Anglo-Polish weightlifter-turned-teacher Andy Drzewiecki.
Akala’s mother’s argument at the start of the new term with Andy altered the parameters of the relationship between Akala and the school system.
“He had a talk about the problems I had been having; a conversation that ended with my mum agreeing to volunteer to come in on selected days to help children with their reading so she could keep an eye on me and be of use to the school as well,” he says.
The effects were dramatic. “My new teacher took such an active role in trying to unpick damage done to my self-esteem and attitude to school that he changed the entire course of my relationship with formal education.”
Chapters range from such recollections to a question-and-answer session, where Akala poses various lines he has shoved in his direction and dissembles them: “Stop playing the race card”, “You have a chip on your shoulder”, “Why don’t you just go back where you came from?”, “You are anti-British”, and various other nuggets of nonsense that, as an intellectual black man who has earned a platform, he often has to contend with.
In other sections, he takes to pieces preconceptions of the black man as some kind of genetically advantaged athlete, using the prism of Linford Christie and the 100m sprint.
He explains the paradoxes in a national memory that sways between a sense of pride for being part of the abolitionist movement to Britain’s empire and continued abuse of others.
He considers the British establishment’s hypocritical approach towards Nelson Mandela and compares it to their attitude towards Fidel Castro, and looks at issues in post-apartheid South Africa – namely the continued ownership of the means of production by a tiny section of the population.
Akala discusses the relationships between black American and British cultures, seen through music: he shows how such topics are linked. By feeding the reader different strands of thought, he considers the interconnectedness of race, class and culture and how it has shaped the world we live in today.
Whenever I see Akala on the TV or internet, hear him live or on the radio (or now having read his latest book), I can only hope that as many people as possible can be exposed to his learnedness, his ability to help you to look at what you thought was an accepted statement or situation and critically evaluate it.
We need Akala’s voice to ring out loud. This is a work of scholarly excellence, and is extremely entertaining. It demolishes accepted ideas that for too long have been a bedrock in the teaching of history and our understanding of what our nation represents. Everyone who is a member of Camden’s diverse “petri dish” should hear him identify our strengths and weaknesses as a community, and offer ways to improve it.
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. By Akala, Two Roads Books, £16.99
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Akala: “I don’t enjoy explaining that black people are human beings”
Excerpt from: New Statesman by Anoosh Chakelian OBSERVATIONS 3 APRIL 2019
The rapper and activist on knife crime, the myth of meritocracy and getting stopped by the police.
In late 2017, the rapper and political thinker Akala was driving in London, on his way to a meeting, when a police car pulled him over.
“Gang members drive cars like this,” the suspicious officer claimed, before an embarrassed colleague took him aside. She’d recognised Akala, whose activism, as well as five albums and 15 years in the music industry, has earned him public renown.
“The whole mood changed completely,” he recalls when we meet. “I got a sense of white people’s interactions with the police. Suddenly I’m not just any old black guy – what you could call class privilege, being a public intellectual, kicks in.”
“Believe it or not, I don’t actually enjoy having to explain that black people are human beings,” he says. “That the kinds of black kids likely to fall into violent crime come almost exclusively from a very particular set of circumstances, obviously. And those circumstances are the same as the white lads in Glasgow or Liverpool who are likely to fall into violent crime.
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Has Akala just dramatically moved the race debate?
Excerpt from: Operation Black Vote, The Home of Black Politics
by Simon Woolley News 19 Mar 2019
Most Black writers or activists know that going on national TV and radio to talk about race issues, particularly race inequality, more often than not will be to enter a rigged debate. That is to say that most of the time the presenter and their chosen guests will not only set themselves up Full Square against you, but they will also attempt to characterize you as part of the problem for daring to raise the issues; rather than discuss some of the legitimate elements that cause persistent inequalities.
But what I witnessed yesterday on Good Morning Britain with the more than opinionated Piers Morgan was something quite extraordinary.
Rather than adopt his usual adversarial mode, Morgan had clearly read Akala’s notes beforehand and agreed with just about everything he said. In particular, that the UK, its media and Government, viewed recent ‘knife crime’ only through the prism of race. “Black people do not have the monopoly on serious crime or general bad behaviour’ stated Akala, adding, “but when soaring levels of knife crime occurred in Glasgow, for example, the race of the criminals was not an issue, but with Black people it’s the only issue.”
Now let’s be clear, it’s unlikely that this one interview, brilliant as it was, is not going to radically move the dial on racial politics anytime soon, but it could be a start. I think the dynamics of the interview should be widely shared, and we should urge other presenters to both see it and engage more in this type of sensible debate. That way we can begin to talk about solutions rather than justifying the debate at all.
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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.”
“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.
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