Akala: redefining history

Kingslee James Daley, AKA Akala, has been influencing political culture through his music and academia for over a decade. His activism has and continues to challenge the United Kingdom’s colonial history. 

“Time is a cycle, not a line,” is a stand-out lyric of a 2011 episode of Radio 1Xtra’s Fire in the Booth. The voice behind the microphone is that of Kingslee James Daley – better known by his stage name, Akala. Now 32, Akala’s involvement in activism, academia and music has spanned for over a decade.

Akala spoke at Sussex last month for the second time – he also gave a lecture in April as part of Decolonizing Education Week. All students who were lucky enough to see him took a lot from the experience. In celebration of Black History Month, The Badger examines his contribution to political thought and culture.

The tradition of Black History Month was inspired by its creation in the United States. The motivation to establish a specific time period devoted to celebrating the US’s black social, cultural and political history was voiced by Carter G. Woodson.

The cruel obstacles of white supremacy aimed to dehumanise, control and terrorise the black population

An historian and academic, Woodson was one of the first African-Americans to receive a PhD from Harvard University. He was born in 1875 to parents who had previously been enslaved in Virginia and he – like all people of African descent living in the States at the time – stood against the cruel obstacles of white supremacy that aimed to dehumanise, control and terrorise the black population.

Woodson grew up at the height of the Jim Crow era: laws enforced racial segregation and fostered white power, violence against and killing of black citizens was encouraged by government policy and occurred rampantly. Against all odds, Woodson received an education and devoted his life to activism and education contesting the societal structures of white supremacy.

And so, in February 1926, Negro History Week was established by Woodson as part of an effort to encourage schools and institutions to teach African-American history. The month was chosen to honour the birthdays of abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, the US President under which the abolition of slavery occurred. In 1969, the week was extended and February became known as Black History Month.

In the United Kingdom, Black History Month was established in 1987. Here, October was chosen to coincide with the African Jubilee celebrations organised by London’s Race Equality Unit. The solidification of the event in the UK was pioneered by Akyaaba Addai Sebo, who worked for the Greater London Council (GLC) at the time.

Sebo grew up in Ghana, and went on to work in politics in the UK. His career led him to spend time in the US in the 1970s, and he was inspired by Black History Month celebrations there. The UK – one of the European fountainheads of imperialism and racism – had spent centuries enslaving black populations and undermining black identity, and Sebo thought Black History Month would renew a sense of pride and raise awareness of the UK’s history of racism.

Today, Black History Month celebrates the societal contributions of Black and Ethnic Minority populations, and commemorates the losses to those communities that have been imposed by the white-washing of political, economic and social life. It aims to heighten the confidence and awareness of black people to their cultural heritage.

Broadly, Black History Month is about recognising that mainstream historical narratives have been shaped by centuries of racial inequality: it’s about recognising that history, as most of us learn it, is biased. Racial relationships that have been defined by colonialism, extraction and slavery have made white populations more powerful in every realm of life. This power has allowed white populations to narrate the past according to their interests: history is white, and Black History Month draws attention to and challenges this dominance.

One person who strives to challenge the skew of history is Akala. He is Jamaican and Scottish, and grew up in Kentish Town, North London. He is an MC, an educator and a champion of post-colonial and Pan-African thought. His interest and knowledge has evolved from his experience growing up as a mixed race member of British society.

Akala’s interest and knowledge has evolved from his experience growing up as a mixed race member of British society

Akala’s rhetoric is one of empowerment and education. It is impossible to summarise all the issues that he covers in his work: they range from English literature, to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to the nature of black masculinity. His central motive is to renegotiate history, to expose his audiences – black and white – to the inequalities that have influenced both our perceptions of society and how we experience it.

Akala draws attention to the brutality of the British Empire and to Britain’s dominant role in the slave trade, with a focus on the impact that the past continues to have on the present. In mainstream primary and secondary education, the United Kingdom’s dark history is often overlooked – the realities of conquest are sugar-coated, and colonialism is presented as a stand-alone period that is strictly defined as ‘the past’.

Often it is not until a student reaches University that syllabuses begin to detail the central role that Britain has played in destroying the fabric of life in so many countries. Only in the last four years of my life have I known that ‘developing countries’ are doing so now because their development was shackled by colonial powers for hundreds of years. The dominant narrative is to present Britain’s wealth and power as a given – Akala tells us, unapologetically, how this nation’s brutality has earned us a place among the most powerful nations in a globalised world.

In challenging history, Akala challenges the racism and discrimination that exists in Britain. In an interview for The Guardian in 2013, he discussed the elitist and narrow nature of the perceived intellectual: “I hate to say it, but this country is not comfortable with the idea of young, intelligent black people – especially men…It’s the same with chavs – I have plenty of white, working-class friends from east London who read Max Planck ad Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. But their story is never going to be told because they’re not supposed to be like that.”

Akala has a way with words; they are his art. Many have credited him for his energy, his matter-of-fact, eloquent style. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to see him speak, these qualities are more than visible in recordings: Akala, as with some intellectuals, certainly doesn’t alienate anyone with jargon. His academic style is sadly a rare one: he seeks the understanding of everyone he can possibly reach, not just those who have prior knowledge of his field. This is a quality that hasn’t reduced as his acclaim has risen.

As well as hosting lectures and talks, Akala spreads his message through his music. He is currently performing in the UK, showcasing his 10 Years of Akala Tour, which is coming to Brighton on 28th October. His first album, It’s Not a Rumour, was released in 2006, and he has since released six more, including a collection of favourites from his career to coincide with his current tour.

A Little Darker is a collaboration with Ms. Dynamite, legendary female rapper and Akala’s older sister. In 2006, he won the MOBO award for Best Hip-Hop.

Akala’s many talents merge in his thriving project, the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company

On top of everything else, Akala is a successful entrepreneur. When he was just 18, he and family members set up a West Indian restaurant in London, which operated for a year. Akala releases his music via Illa State Records, his independent music label that started operating in 2003.

Akala’s many talents merge in his thriving project, the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company (THSC). Founded in 2009, the music theatre production business – through educational workshops, theatre productions and live events – explores the linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and of contemporary hip-hop artists.

Two years after the company’s founding, Akala spoke at a TED talk event in Snape, Suffolk, about the visions of the THSC. He started the lecture – as he does his workshops – with a guessing game: hip hop or Shakespeare?

Akala read quotes to his audience and asked them to raise their hands as to what they believed the source to be. Most members attributed the lyrical lines to William Shakespeare, who has become known as the father of modern English. The lines – about beauty, morality, and the nature of man – came from a number of artists, including Jay-Z and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, as well as Shakespeare. The intention of this exercise? To demonstrate how much of a difference context can make in the receiving of language – with perception withdrawn, it is difficult to tell the difference between the lyrics of hip-hop legends and those of Shakespeare.

Akala and the rest of the THSC wish to break down the barriers between two art forms which, informed by cultural history, could not seem further apart. The impression most of us have of Shakespeare, Akala emphasises, is that his work speaks to the elite. His name has become synonymous with what it means to be posh, English, and white. But, as Akala often points out, the Queen’s English that we associate with poshness – received pronunciation – didn’t emerge until long after Shakespeare’s death. He also points out that most of Shakespeare’s audience were illiterate. The elite label has been attached to Shakespearian productions and language because of historical bias towards wealthy white populations.

Hip-hop, on the other hand, has become synonymous with negative stereotypes of black people, and is often demonised in mainstream white culture.

In merging Shakespeare and hip-hop, Akala and the THSC take two perceived extremes in society and demonstrate how history has created the illusion of their difference. Akala’s conclusions to his TED Talk included the statement that art and lyricism demonstrate a “unity in human culture and in the ideas that humans pursue.”

A key element of unity is understanding, and understanding is essential to progress. Black History Month promotes understanding in the name of progress

A key element of unity is understanding, and understanding is essential to progress. Black History Month promotes understanding in the name of progress: it aims to voice the black history that has been overlooked by white dominant narratives.

Akala’s contribution to this education is a means for celebration: he is a symbol of the change Britain could see with an enhanced understanding of the past.

Unity is precious, and post-Brexit Britain will struggle to maintain it. Economic and racial divides are becoming deeper, but Akala’s work represents a move in the right direction.

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