Kingslee ‘Akala‘ Daley is one of the United Kingdom’s best musical artists of any genre. With the versatility to switch flows and styles within a breath, he has long cemented his place on the UK scene and worldwide since we first heard him on The War Mixtape nearly a decade ago. The MOBO award-winning artist has touched a huge number of people both through his music and through The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company that he founded in 2008.
We owe Akala and The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company a huge apology. We originally conducted this interview at Outlook Festival 2012 in Croatia but during our ridiculously long journey across Europe back to London, we unfortunately lost the memory card holding the original recording. Thankfully during a recent clean up of Rhyme On Beat HQ we managed to locate a copy of the recording and have got the transcript for you below. Our extensive interview with Akala covers everything from his early musical influences to why he turned his back on a promising career in football and even why he chooses not to eat meat (you may find this answer surprising). In addition to the transcript we’ve also added some music and videos for those that haven’t had an opportunity to listen to his work before.
Rhyme On Beat: What were your first musical influences growing up as a child? What influenced Akala?
Akala: The music my parents played, Bob Marley, James Brown, Ray Charles. Those were my earliest musical memories.
ROB: KRS-One said he started rapping because he watching an MC battle and someone picked on him so he jumped in to defend himself on the microphone. At what stage did you stop thinking like a fan and wanted to become an artist?
Akala: Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan.
ROB: When their albums were released or did you see them live?
Akala: Both. Fear Of A Black Planet and Wu-Tang Forever.
ROB: The influence of hip-hop culture on mainstream culture is unquestionable. Do you think the popularity of rap music in the charts has helped the genre as a whole?
Akala: It’s been a gift and a curse but that’s my biased opinion in the sense that when a Public Enemy or a Wu-Tang or people I consider to be great reflections of the culture become popular it’s cool but when you have this kind of cheesy, un-throughout music it’s not really helpful.
“When you’ve been to slums in Brazil and seen 50 teenagers with machine guns you look at your life a little but differently”
ROB: We first heard you in 2004 on The War Mixtape. At that time there was a lot of focus on what has now come to be known as grime music and not a lot of focus on UK hip hop. How has your music and the way you think about your music changed since then? A lot of the music you made then had a lot of anger in it.
Akala: I’m not as angry as I used to be and if I am I’ve found a better way of channeling that anger. I’ve been lucky, I’ve travelled all around the world since that CD came out nearly 10 years ago; I would struggle to count the number if countries I have been to. So when you have those kind of experiences if it doesn’t change you… You’re just being a bit of a d**khead really. When you’ve been to slums in Brazil and seen 50 teenagers with machine guns you look at your life a little but differently.
ROB: It puts everything in perspective?
Akala: Yeah and I just think I’ve grown up. I’ve been exposed to a wide array of music, culture and great things throughout the world. I still have that same drive and that same anger I suppose but I try to channel it a bit better.
ROB: When you’re alone in your own space, when you’re not touring, when you’re just chilling in your house, when you’re not reading a book, who are you listening to at the moment?
Akala: I don’t know why this came to me, maybe just because it was the last CD in my player when I was driving yesterday: Bonobo – Black Sands. I’ve been listening to that at the moment, I really like that album. I like a lot of instrumental music because I do a lot thinking so stuff like Sacred Spirit or there are a couple of composers that I like that make stuff that’s classical but hip hop. Saltillo, people like that. I’m really into that kind of Bombay Dub Orchestra, that kind of music but with not many vocals and if there are vocals really minimal. That kind of chill out s**t.
ROB: Is there any artists you want to work with in any genre?
Akala: Dead or alive?
Akala: Dead: Bob Marley, alive: Radiohead.
“Wu-tang made education cool. Made it the thing you wanted to do and be, Wu was the biggest impact in my teenage years”
ROB: You recently released the video for Educated Tug Sh*t with English Frank who jumped on to the scene in a big way. The song is about the importance of being educated, you’ve written for The Huffington Post about how important reading is, where did you get your inspiration for reading and educating yourself? You seem to actively search it out.
Akala: I didn’t go to university or anything like that. I suppose life. I grew up in a household where, even though we didn’t have much money, there were always books in my house. My mum always used to buy me books for Christmas or birthdays or whatever else, my godfather was really educated but then hip hop. Wu-tang made education cool. Made it the thing you wanted to do and be, Wu was the biggest impact in my teenage years.
ROB: What are you three top must read books and why?
Akala: The Awakening of Intelligence by Jiddu Krishnamurti, it’s a reflection on human thought and the insanity of human civilization. They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima. It’s a book that explores the theory that there were various African civilisations, so Ancient Egypt, Nubia and Mandinga Empire sailed to America prior to Columbus. Quite a lot of evidence to support that, so it’s very interesting and challenges a lot of people’s preconceptions. Thirdly a book called The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat, which is about cane field workers in Haiti.
ROB: Looking at the content in your music it’s quite extensive the sort of things that you cover, like you were just talking about African civilisations. Has it ever crossed your mind to compile that in to some sort of documentary or film? If you put it in a book, not everyone picks up a book. If you put it in music, some people have a narrow view of music. If you put in a film or documentary people can just sit and absorb like they sit and absorb TV. Have you considered putting it through that sort of medium?
Akala: Yeah I’m working on some things to do with that. Keep your eyes peeled.
ROB: On to the political aspects rather than the music. What do you think are the biggest social hurdles for young people in terms of them staying in education?
Akala: They don’t see the point and I understand why. What’s the point when people with degrees are out of work? When the way the school system is set up it doesn’t include particular groups of young people? It sort of set up in a way to keep them in their position, they see the school system to some degree as their enemy. That’s how I felt when I was in school even though I did well in school. Let’s be clear, the school system in Britain is not set up for young working class kids to become astrophysicists, that is not the idea. The idea is for kids that go to Eton, Oxford and Cambridge to become astrophysicists and working class kids at best become plumbers and electricians. There’s nothing wrong with being a plumber or an electrician, those are great jobs, but why aren’t the kids from Eton being encouraged to do those jobs? They’re not teaching you how to own a business, run a business, to be your own boss. They’re teaching you to be a hamster on a hamster wheel and not everyone likes that and I get that. The challenge is the very education system itself, it’s set up by people who want to maintain their own privilege. They’re never going to educate us to take their privilege away from them that would make them stupid.
“The function of the British government is to serve the British elite and keep their business interests happy and it does that very well”
ROB: The initial riots in Tottenham last year were due to various points of frustration coming from young people. Do you think these grievances have addressed by the government at all?
Akala: Of course not but they won’t be. I don’t know why people think the British government is there to address our grievances, I don’t understand it. That’s not the function of the British government. The function of the British government is to serve the British elite and keep their business interests happy and it does that very well. The job the government should do i.e. take care of all its taxpayers isn’t what it does and it’s never done that. The racism, classism and sexism that are a part of our society are as present at the top of society as they are in the hood.
ROB: In your music you talk a lot about class/class warfare. Without pigeon holing you would you describe yourself as a Marxist?
Akala: Not at all actually. I think Karl Marx had a lot of interesting things to say like a lot of other people but he was also a bigot. If you read a lot of his work, his opinions on Africa, Asia and China were quite frankly just plain racist. I can’t respect anyone, whatever time grew up in, that is a racist. Everyone makes the excuse and says “everyone was racist back then” but I can point you to white authors writing in the exact same time that never said that kind of bullsh*t. People are just making the excuse for Karl Marx because they’re Marxists. Also there is an author called Ibn Khaldun who wrote out of Tunisia in the 11th Century and a lot of the ideas/terms that wet tend to think of coming from Karl Marx, he was writing about it in the 11th century. So if we don’t know Arab history, if we don’t know African history, if we don’t know Chinese history Karl Marx will be our first point of reference when we talk about class struggle. So I’m definitely not a Marxist and there are things that I take great issue with in what he said though some of it was of value. Ancient Chinese scholars, ancient African scholars, medieval Arab scholars deal with the themes of class at least as well as Marx does and we need to study those as well.
ROB: Moving on a little bit more, is it true that you had the potential to be a professional footballer?
Akala: Yeah. I used to play for West Ham [United F.C.], my team at west ham had Glenn Johnson, Anton Ferdinand, Kieron Richardson, a guy called Liam Ridgewell. The year about us was Jermaine Defoe, the year above that was Joe Cole and all that lot so I interacted with all those guys. I was at West Ham when West Ham was the best youth academy in Britain but it just wasn’t for me.
ROB: What made you decide you didn’t want to go down that path?
Akala: Once I left school and I was doing it full-time I started hating football because it became a job. I also went through a period that a lot of teenage boys from single parent working class families go through: I started thinking I was a rude boy, smoking and drinking, I discovered girls. All of that took my eye off football.
ROB: How did you becoming a vegan affect your outlook on life? Or was it your outlook on life that made you become a vegan?
Akala: It was simply to do with health. I done some research and I don’t believe human beings are designed to eat meat, I believe that meat is detrimental to our health. It was a totally selfish decision, it’s not because I love the animals and I don’t wear leather. My car has leather seats in it and I wear leather shoes. Totally selfishly I don’t believe meat is good for me so I don’t eat it.
“Brazil is a majority black country, and I mean black African not people that look like me, I mean visibly Yoruba, Mandingo, Hausa. So in northereastern Brazil the main religions are Nigerian Yoruba religions… It was really inspiring for me to see how they’ve held on to the culture”
ROB: Like you said earlier you have traveled all around the world, experience all these different cultures, talked to all these different people. What experiences have stuck with you?
Akala: Being in the Amazon, I went to El Salvador for New Year’s Eve. Most people don’t know but Brazil has the most black people of any country except Nigeria. So Brazil is a majority black country, and I mean black African not people that look like me, I mean visibly Yoruba, Mandingo, Hausa. So in northeastern Brazil the main religions are Nigerian Yoruba religions, when I went there on New Year’s Eve they still have this festival of the Orishas where they practice this Nigerian religion. They all run in to the sea, they wear white. It was really inspiring for me to see how they’ve held on to the culture. I went to Mali, I’ve been all over Africa, going to India in a few weeks as well, I know that will be amazing.
ROB: THSC has been going from strength to strength since you founded it. It was via that platform you did the TED lecture as well. Where do you see THSC in five years?
Akala: We really want to get into the way Shakespeare looks on-screen/in theatre. Using Shakespeare as an influence for music, looking at the way hip hop is put on stage, what does hip hop theatre look like in the 21st century. All those things.
You can purchase Akala’s current release Knowledge Is Power Vol.1 alongside a number of his other releases at his official online store here. Please support independent UK music and purchase of his great music. If you prefer the live stuff Akala is currently on tour and you can see if he’s dropping by your town on his official website.