‘Cars not conduit to the soul’: Akala on Jay Z, his status and Shakespeare ahead of sold out Manchester Gorilla gig

A show reel of creativity and accolades precedes Akala.

‘The Black Shakespeare’ has BBC panel show appearances, TED (Technology, Education, Design) lectures, an abundance of LPs and EPS and a graphic novel on his CV, not to mention a 2006 MOBO award for Best Hip-Hop Act.

Yet, speaking to MM ahead of his Monday night sell-out at Gorilla, Akala explained that he has not had a radio single in over a decade.

However, that is a disregard that he does not take as personal sleight.

“You’ve got to know your audience,” he explained.

“I’ve done all kinds of different venues – small ones and big ones and we’ve done five headline shows in London this year.

“It’s about reaching as many people as possible for a sustained and longer period of time.

“I’m happy that as an underground artist who has not had a radio single in over ten years I can still sell a thousand tickets a year in Manchester!”

Akala not only tours as a solo artist but with The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company – an educational musical-theatre group he founded to challenge perceptions of the self and the relationship young people have with the arts.

Hip-Hop Shakespeare focus on bringing thematic and structural comparisons between Shakespeare and modern hip-hop to the foreground of their performances.

Akala believes that the similarities between hip-hop and Shakespeare illuminate a route into an area of literature many young people have previously considered impenetrable.

“We’ve done work in Sudan, The Philippines and Indonesia as well as a brief tour of India,” he said.

“Jay Z made a whole album about his life as a drug dealer. Shakespeare is always about violence or sex or murder or power and rivalry.

“Check the use of image, the use of metaphor, the use of internal rhyming on that [Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt] album.

“I spent a lot of time listening to Wu Tang and on the track 12 Jewels by RZA he is talking about astrophysics.

“That is hip-hop being made smart, sexy and cool.”

Almost any track from Akala’s discography will find him rapping about the contested areas of history, politics and social injustice.

“This is my big gripe with school and society,” he said.

“We’ve branded being intelligent as some kind of Carlton-Banks-style geek, a boring guy that nobody likes.

“I don’t believe that – I think its bullshit.

“For me hip-hop or being a great MC is being intelligent and being smart.

“Even if they [the MC] was the cool guy hanging out they were still pretty brainy.

“I think our mission is to make that [being intelligent] cool because I think there is a dumbing down of popular culture.”

However Akala understands that showing an interest in certain subjects may not appeal to everybody.

He is pragmatic and does not see an overnight volte-face from within the music industry.

“Everyone has to be themselves and if someone is not into politics then they can’t pretend that they are just for the sake of it,” he said.

“I don’t necessarily have an issue with people who want to rap about materialistic things.

“I can think that’s bullshit. It just doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong, it’s just that I choose not to do that.”

“If what someone is into is driving a nice car…” here, he trailed off, thinking.

“I mean, I like cars – I just don’t think they’re a valid conduit to the soul.”

Crucially, Akala does not misunderstand the utility of commercial success – record sales and sell out shows allow him to finance further creative pathways.

“I’ve got a lot of plans for 2016 as it’s the four-hundredth year of Shakespeare’s death,” he said.

“We’re [Hip-Hop Shakespeare] planning to revamp a production of Richard II into a concept album of the play – as well as lots of international and educational conferences.”

Akala continued by discussing the nature of balancing artistic credibility with commercial success.

“If you win the Booker Prize it has a practical, commercial benefit the same way it is when you win the Brits or the Mercury prize,” he said.

“Marlon James won the Booker Prize this year and he will now forever be Marlon James Booker Prize-Winning Author.

“There is a real commercial implication.”

Although he understands this, it is the material asceticism with which Akala lives that is at odds with large swathes of the music industry.

Therefore it is unsurprising that he details a different value system of success.

“Those things [industry recognition and wealth] are, I’m not going to lie, a measure of success,” he continued.

“But I like to think there are things above that – not just engaging with the music but also with the idea.”

This attitude is present in a lot of his music, and can be found on tracks like Find No Enemy, on which he raps ‘you can keep the charts, all I want is your hearts’.

Similarly, on his Fire in the Booth Freestyle for Radio 1Xtra’s Charlie Sloth, he performs lyrics that value learning above materialism: “I definitely do own a library that cost more than your chain.”

However the popular reception of his Fire in the Booth freestyle highlights the ‘weird crossroads’ he finds his career at.

Having experienced some commercial recognition but having maintained his politicised-cum-educational approach to music making, Akala says it is hard to decide exactly where his music sits.

“I’m not a mainstream figure by any means but I’m not underground anymore,” he mused.

“I think no matter what, I’m not going to be a popular figure.”

Intonating ‘popular figure’, he emphasised his meaning as mainstream and commercial success: “Although you would be naïve to think you can’t have more impact – you can!”

This self-awareness is not mirrored by self-indulgent melancholia – Akala is optimistic that he can always be doing more.

Despite this, he spoke with candour on the disappointment he feels at the lack of contemporary intellectual figures with popular presence.

“We don’t really have the tradition of public intellectuals in the UK anymore,” he said.

“I mean we’ve got Stephen Fry, who I like, but I think a lot of young working-class kids won’t necessarily be able to relate to Stephen Fry.

“I think there has always been a repackaging of the canon.

“Even what we would call the orthodox manner of teaching and viewing Shakespeare is a repackaging.

“No one in the modern era speaks with Shakespeare’s accent.

“Any update is a repackaging, it’s just repackaging which sees itself as a legitimate way to repackage it.

Akala acceots that Shakespeare can be interpreted in many forms, but understands how individually they will be considered a success.

“People in the small classical world – in the opera, in the traditional theatrical world – think they’ve got the answer,” he said.

“I think a lot of art forms are equally valid I just think a lot of those art forms or people associated with those art forms sometimes think their way is the only way.

“I don’t think ours [Hip-Hop Shakespeare] is the only way. You’ve got Japanese film interpretations, you’ve got 1950s style Romeo and Juliet with 16th Century language.

“The measure of success comes from the people.”

It’s an astute comment from Akala, who raps on his latest LP as being ‘far from the knight in shining armour’ but just wanting ‘to be the best that I can’.

With a prodigious work rate and a well-informed, self-aware critical and artistic capacity, he seems to be doing just that.

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