In His Words: Akala’s Path to Political Awakening

Rapper, intellectual and writer, Akala is one of the most incendiary voices of his generation. In his new book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, he debunks the British myth of meritocracy. Here, he shares his intellectual journey

“I went into the British school system a nerdy boy who wanted to be an astronaut. I was from a materially poor but culturally very rich family. My stepdad was a stage manager of a theatre which was probably the most important black-led cultural institution in 1980s Britain. I think I met Angela Davis there, I met this South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela – you couldn’t ask for culturally a better upbringing. I saw probably four pieces of theatre a week for the first ten years of my life.

“But I went into school too well prepared for school for a child from my ethnic and class backgrounds. And I found out very early that this offended some teachers’ very sense of identity. My teacher at seven put me in a special needs group for kids who didn’t speak English. She obviously knew I didn’t have problems with English – I was reading The Lord of the Rings at home. This is a woman who was brought up in the 1930s, at a time when the idea that white people were innately genetically superior and that Britain’s right to colonise the world were self-evident. This doesn’t excuse her, but she was conditioned in a very particular way. I can now understand why she maybe felt like a traitor to her race, to her culture and to history if she allowed me to believe that I could access the best of British society. Even poor white kids are not taught ‘of course you can be an astronaut, of course you can be an architect, of course you should aspire to run the country.’ That’s preserved for kids who go to Eton or who are privately educated and so a lot of this is about the pre-existing class hierarchies that were in Britain prior to even black and brown folks arriving in large numbers. Then we arrive with all of these aspirations to move up in the world because it’s what our grandparents were fed in the colonies.

“Remember our grandparents leave Jamaica, in my case, believing everybody in Britain’s rich, like the white people in Jamaica. One of the things that the British government was terrified about, about us coming in, was precisely that we discover that most of people will be poor and non-educated and not treated that well. That we’d see actually this is what the British elite have done to their own people and we lose admiration for them, which is exactly what happened.

“Had I – remember I’ve got one white parent – had two white parents and had I been middle class, the chances I would’ve got put in a special needs group for kids who don’t speak English, while reading The Lord of the Rings, is somewhere close to zero. My identity, whether I like it or not, had real world implications on my experiences. I wasn’t interested in football at all, I wasn’t even that much into music. I was a proper nerd. But I was socialised into being into football, socialised into being into music. I’m not complaining about either of those things. Then I become a teenager.

“Set of predictable experiences. Unfortunately mum and stepdad split up and it was an ugly breakup. Mum gets very sick the following year. So we spend the first two years of secondary school, me and my older sister, nursing our mum through cancer. We’re not well off on top of that, obviously. And so really my life changed at exactly the wrong time. First ten years were actually quite good, quite happy family, good memories, not that well off, but regular working-class family. Stepdad goes, mum gets sick, household changes almost overnight, really.

“Then I went out into the world and was dealt with – particularly by school teachers – a certain way, dealt with by the police a certain way, and this influenced my intellectual journey. Had I not had those experiences, I probably wouldn’t even have asked the questions that I’ve asked. I’m 13 years old. The police have searched me illegally. There’s not an adult present. How can they get away with this? I learned very early that ‘oh, the laws of the country don’t apply to me.’ So then I wanted to figure out, well why is it that the laws of Britain don’t really apply to me the same way they apply to everyone else?

“My argument has always been and continues to be: even though Britain pretends to be a meritocracy, it is not. And the better young people from poor backgrounds, and particularly young black boys, understand the hurdles that are inevitably going to form in front of them, the easier they can jump over them. My argument has never been and never will be: oh, some people are racist, therefore you shouldn’t try hard at school. It’s the exact opposite. Some people come back at me with, ‘oh, you’re trying to make excuses,’ and it really impresses me that people can look at everything I’ve achieved in my life and think I’m interested in making excuses. Quite the opposite. I’m trying to give people the arsenal to succeed because that’s what I was given.

“I went to Pan African Saturday School and they explained to us the way things worked in the world – not so we could go out and be defeatist, not so we can go out and say, ‘well, we’re not going to try because some white person asked to touch my hair, therefore I’m just not going to try it today.’ No. So we can understand and have the mental toughness to still succeed. And actually when I was talking about Pan African Saturdays online, loads of other people who’d been successful went and started messaging me saying ‘I went to Saturday school, I went to Saturday school.’ And I realised that that there’s loads of untapped history there of how much of a positive contribution that particular brand of black community self-education made to my life and to wider British society.

“One of the opening chapters in the book is called The Day I Realised My Mum Was White and it sounds stupid, right? Surely I knew my mum was white but I didn’t, I didn’t really know whiteness had any meaning. I go to school and a boy called me a ‘Chinese black nigger bastard’, which as far as racial insults go was pretty original. I went home and said ‘mummy the white boy called–’ and then I looked at my mum and said, ‘but you’re white aren’t you mummy?’ Sort of slightly accusatory, and she said ‘no, I’m German, they’re English’. She tried to make a separation between the English and herself as a German, even though she isn’t really German, so that I’d feel comfortable coming in and saying not ‘the white boys did this’, but ‘the English boys did this’. Because she knew – she’d been spat it enough times and called ‘nigger lover’ enough times to know what was coming. Her own experiences taught me that there’s no point running away from it. Your son and your daughters are going to deal with the way this society views their bodies and views them. The best you can do is give them some equipment to navigate that and not hide from it. And to my mum’s credit, she did exactly that and she found a massive amount of support from the Pan African Saturday School movement.

“The first time I saw someone get stabbed shaped my intellectual journey too. Now I’m a big man, I think maybe I should have gone and talked to someone about that. My best friend’s big brother got cleavered in the head at the barber shop. I went on and I didn’t even tell my mum because I knew if I told her she wouldn’t let me go around their house no more. And she wouldn’t go out anymore. Some of the scientists who’ve been tweeting me are saying what they call ‘adverse childhood experiences’ can permanently alter your brain chemistry. And I do believe that, there is a certain level on which I am aware that if people push my buttons too much, my head will go. Not because I think I’m some tough guy or any of that. I just don’t have the emotional capacity to be prodded beyond a certain point without losing my shit. And I think that’s true of all human beings to a degree. But I think the difference is, when you’re exposed to violence very young, you know that it’s in you, whereas when you haven’t been exposed to it, you don’t get to see the ugly part of yourself. I do think that was a big part of growing up, being around that kind of stuff. Friends going into prisons, sitting through friend’s court cases, which really contradict – I mean I’m a straight-A student, you know, I should have gone off to uni.

“But luckily I think with my intellectual background, the Pan African Saturday School, most luckily, you know, having some talent as a rapper, I was able to pull myself away from that again, you know, it was actually a very definite experience. We went out for my 21st birthday. We got in a fight with a load bouncers, loads of the worst things happened, but I just decided that day that I can’t do this anymore. You know what I mean? I can’t be in a situation where my friend is gassing a bouncer in the face and police are getting called, and I can’t do all this stuff. So I sort of pulled away from my friend group that I grew up with and started hanging around with my older friends who were from a different part of London. I think that was probably a wise decision at that point.

“My life is quite good, despite how I grew up, in spite of things I’ve been through, so I feel a burden to try and bring joy and inspiration and hope and a fulfilment and intellectual stimulation into the lives of other people. Because all I was given all of those things too often. There’s plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

“When I was a child, I couldn’t imagine being a young black boy now and seeing someone like me with a woolly hat, who doesn’t pronounce his T’s correctly, go on Good Morning Britain and be taken seriously as an intellectual. When I was a yoot, that was impossible. What effect does that have on a right wing, privately educated, middle-class white kid whose parents are teaching them that all the black boys in London are stabbing each other? And then I come on TV and I just state some basic facts and articulate myself quite well. A kid growing up in Bath who’s quite bright is going to watch that and think some of it actually makes sense. Maybe black people’s behaviours actually do need explaining – not excusing, but explaining. So I think even my existence in the public is indicative of the many ways in which Britain has changed. Nobody from my class background or ethnic background was really taken very seriously as an intellectual when I grew up. And some of them were great intellectuals – Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall were much greater intellectuals that me – but they were not given the public platform that I was given in the same way. So I do feel some sense of achievement and success in the broader context of British society that I am happy about and I’m proud of.

“Obviously I accept that I probably have a very large platform and whether I like that or not, that’s a fact. But also I don’t really want to be put on any unrealistic sort of pedestal. One of the things I’ve always tried to do is make a way for loads of other voices. And one of the reasons I don’t do loads of interviews that I get asked to do, actually don’t go on those TV programmes, is because I’m saying, ‘why not ask this person, this person or that person and that person?’ I think pedestals can also be dangerous. I still am who I am and I come from what I come from and I’m flawed and have problems and I’ll make mistakes and all of that. Obviously, and I’m cool with all that. But yeah, no, I think, I think it is interesting the way in which Britain has changed.”

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala is out now.