One piece of evidence for this fragmentation in my city and in many cities around the UK is the gulf between rap artists born before 1985 and those born after 1990. Somewhere along the way the so-called old-schoolers stopped interacting with and mentoring young, up-and-coming ambitious artists. This has meant that many young rappers are creatively standing on the shoulders of giant ghosts; ghosts they can’t even name check, because they don’t know their hip-hop history.
We need people who have the ability to bridge generation gaps and deep cultural rifts, to help people listen to each other and at times to force people, especially privileged people, to hear inconvenient truths. One man who does all this using extraordinary lyrical skill, clarity, wisdom, forcefulness and grace is London rapper Akala. He is Elevator 34.
Akala’s ability to fuse storytelling, social commentary, fiery satire and highly entertaining rap verses is evident in his famous 2011 radio performance on Fire In The Booth.
Akala is vocal about the power of reading and a part of his role as bridge builder is because he is such an avid reader, constantly seeing things from different points of view, constantly striving to see the bigger, more nuanced picture. You can hear his theories develop and beliefs strengthen over his last four albums. He’s also candid about his failings.
There are literally hours of Akala lectures and interviews on youtube, perhaps more hours of him speaking than him rapping. He’s an anthropologist, sociologist and historian. He recently spoke to the Oxford Union about, among many things, the problems of Victorian Egyptology. In 2013 he asserted: “This country (the UK) is not comfortable with the idea of young, intelligent black people – especially men. They’re treated as the exception to the rule.”
His album ‘Knowledge is Power Vol. 2’ released in 2015 is about resistance and empowerment. “Every journey begins with just one step,” he says as he beckons young black people to explore their own explosive ideas, not just his.
The album includes this heavy hitter:
The lyrically potent ‘Murder Runs the Globe’ is followed by the track ‘Urge to Kill’. Played back-to-back they make a brilliant foundation for a sobering debate about violence and war.
Bigoted, racist powers won’t be able to stop Akala’s young listeners from feeling invigorated to go and do further research on his confrontational, anti-establishment assertions.
Akala also stands between cultures and makes them hold hands. In 2008 he founded the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, which performs adaptations of Shakespeare’s work and provides workshops for teens and 20somethings. Akala is keen to show that there are more than superficial links between the bard of the past and the rappers of the present.
There will be a new wave of rappers who will not only name check Akala as an influence but will also be able to wax lyrical about what they learnt from brilliant people who names are left out of school history books. Akala: relentless educator, bridge-builder, firebrand, lyrical elevator.