For one minute, just yards from Cargo on Shoreditch’s Rivington Street, the first snow of winter appears to be falling. White flakes dance under the glow of a lamppost and the faces of passers-by light up with glee. A few steps further however and the ‘snow’ has vanished, the product of a fleeting trick of the light.
If this one moment of magic on Rivington Street turns to disappointment, however, the awe experienced at Akala’s intimate gig inside Cargo more than makes up for it. The 28-year old rapper, writer and activist from Kentish Town has come home tonight for the final date of a brief tour in support of this year’s brilliant Knowledge Is Power Vol. 1 mixtape.
Akala has built a fearsome reputation as a live performer and it almost seems incongruous to be seeing him in such a small venue. Yet if he has occasionally won mainstream recognition since his debut in 2003, not least a MOBO Award for Best Hip Hop Act, he frustratingly remains largely unknown. On the strength of tonight’s performance, Akala should be selling out venues 10 times the size of Cargo – indeed, as strong as Plan B‘s iLL Manors album was, it’s maddening to see him winning wide plaudits for his socially conscious lyrics when Akala’s inspired, erudite and conscious words put them to shame. Still, there is no hint of bitterness here – as Akala raps during the stunning Find No Enemy, “You can keep the charts, all I want is your hearts”.
There’s no denying that he has them. The crowd tonight roar their approval as Akala bounds onto the stage, a tight coil of energy that doesn’t let up once in a 90-minute set. They chant to the “conform, conform” hook of apocalyptic opener Welcome To Dystopia, an Orwell-inspired examination of human nature and social conditioning. Big themes indeed but Akala handles them with skill. No doubt in part due to his youth work with theatre group The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, he is a charming and engaging performer, his wit and enthusiasm ensuring that he never seems patronising or hectoring. Of course it helps that his music is punchy and populist, as evidenced by the mass jumping to XXL only minutes in. Still, there can’t be many gigs where the artist leads a good-natured call and response to the phrase “Absolute power corrupts absolutely but absolute powerlessness does the same” (Absolute Power).
Akala doesn’t hide the influence of political hip hop acts such as Public Enemy, Dead Prez and Rage Against The Machine but he has a compelling voice all his own. This is nowhere clearer than in the two freestyle raps he performs tonight, Juelz Part 2 and F64. As he says before the former, “rapping is a little bit about showing off” and that is, to put it mildly, an understatement. Both performances are breathtakingly powerful with words spilling from the stage at a dizzying rate, tackling more themes in 10 minutes that many artists do in their entire careers. The latter opens with a favourite theme of Akala, the shallow and self-defeating nature of much hip hop music: “Sorry kids let me apologise before I go further, unfortunately I don’t rap about how many men I have murdered”. It’s a topic tackled head on in Knowledge Is Power which is preceded by some words about the African origins of hip hop and the genre’s profit-oriented exploitation. The track eulogises the power of self-awareness and education, perhaps the core message of all Akala’s music. This emphasis on education above all else in fact recalls peak-era Manic Street Preachers, whom you can imagine admiring lines such as Fire In The Booth’s “when people are enslaved one of the first things they do is stop them reading/cos it’s well understood that intelligent people will take their freedom”. References to reading abound, from Malcolm X to John Pilger and Naomi Klein, while Comedy Tragedy History finds Akala declaring “I’m the black Shakespeare”.
Such fiery eloquence is sorely missing from a mainstream where ‘black music’ is, as Akala raps on Find No Enemy, caricatured as being “all about tits and arse”. In a few lines he neatly encapsulates the rich lineage he follows in and declares “We can call it urban, to me that’s cool, if urban means street that includes jazz too”. It’s certainly easy to understand why he separates himself from “clown rappers” who “disrespect women” and boast “about their latest garments” (What Is Real?). Akala is an incredibly inspiring figure and sadly all-too-rare in his efforts to seriously engage with the world around him. Few people present tonight leave unenthused by his talent. If there is any justice, this astonishing gig will be one of Akala’s last before he captures a wider audience. In this age of austerity and a ‘lost generation’, we need artists like him more than ever.