Akala: 'I don’t enjoy talking about gang violence but someone has to'

Jimi Famurewa

If you are one of Akala’s 203,000 Twitter followers — or among the millions to have nodded appreciatively at his recent viral news interviews on social media — you probably have a good sense of his ability to defuse the charged dialogue around London’s youth violence epidemic with crisp, calm deployment of facts. From myth-debunking murder statistics to snippets from socioeconomic studies, little of relevance seems to escape the rapper, author and activist’s forensic gaze. So there is an odd sort of pride when I realise I am the first person to tell him about the moment last Thursday when North Cornwall Tory MP Scott Mann suggested, on Twitter, that street violence could be quelled if every knife sold was fitted with a GPS tracker.

“Where do they find these people?” says Akala, shaking his head with weary disbelief. “I mean, imagine being that dense?” The main issue, he continues, is that ideas about monitoring weapons and lengthening jail sentences all stem from the same illogical place. “If I’m a 15-year-old and I am in such a low place emotionally that I’m willing to kill someone over what council estate they’re from, do you think the threat of 10 years in jail is going to stop me? It’s the stupidest argument in the world. Because do you know what actually stops people from feeling that way? A good education, a good job, a bright future.”

The youth violence problem in England and Wales, and specifically London, has appeared ever more severe in recent weeks (there have already been, at the time of writing, six teenage stabbing deaths in the capital this year and Chancellor Philip Hammond has announced that police in England and Wales will get an extra £100 million to deal with the issue). And so, as everything from police cuts to social media has been blamed for what looks like unprecedented brutality, Akala’s voice and alternative viewpoint has found a growing audience.

Where others have guessed or theorised at root causes, the Jamaican-British man also known as Kingslee Daley (and younger brother of musician Ms Dynamite) deals in evidence and the experience of a tough Archway childhood — he saw his first stabbing at 12. In a hypno-tically composed appearance on Good Morning Britain on Monday (viewed 1.76 million times on Twitter and shared by Jeremy Corbyn), Akala, 35, dismissed the idea that the spike in knife crime is linked to race (“When both the perpetrator and the victim are white, race suddenly becomes unimportant”) and an uncharacteristically reasonable Piers Morgan agreed.

On Channel 4 News earlier this month (2.4 million Twitter views) a rapt Jon Snow looked on the verge of whipping out a notepad. Throw in Natives, his best-selling 2018 memoir and the inspiration for a sold-out speaking tour, and this 15-year veteran of the hip-hop scene (named after the Buddhist word for “immovable”) looks, suddenly, like the chosen laureate of race and class in internet-age Britain. As we meet in his poky, African-fabric-adorned Ladbroke Grove recording studio, he explains that this new-found desirability among TV news producers doesn’t sit all that easily.

Akala on Good Morning Britain (Rex Features)

“I’m not desperate to be in front of the camera and I don’t enjoy talking about a lot of this stuff to be honest,” he says, square-jawed and buggishly handsome with a black beanie pulled over his neat dreads. “But the narrative around gang violence, or black-on-black crime, is designed to suggest that, say, your children are at an equal risk as some guy who’s doing life in jail. Which is completely f**king absurd. This idea that it doesn’t make a difference whether a black guy is a professional journalist or in jail for double murder actually puts the vast majority of black people in a tremendous amount of danger. Because the resources are not going where they’re supposed to go, to the kids who are supposed to need them.

“We’re acting as if somehow stopping and searching [a black man] on the way to the gym on a Saturday, because they’ve got a tracksuit on, is doing the public some sort of service. And it isn’t. So it seems from where I’m standing that the black underclass — and I don’t say that as a form of judgment because my family would have probably broadly fitted into that category and lots of my uncles and cousins are in prison — are being used as a sort of ideological beating stick.” So what is the solution? Well, perhaps because of his own Scottish heritage (his mother Heather is from the Outer Hebrides while his dad, Eyon, comes from Jamaica) Akala suggests schemes such as Glasgow’s transformative Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) — a holistic suite of community initiatives, school mentorship and employment opportunities — hold the answer. It’s a model that the Evening Standard campaigned for following an indepth investigation last year and which Sadiq Khan subsequently announced he would support.

"University- educated Marxists can be more concerned with ideological purity than actually achieving anything."

Akala

“Glasgow has seen a massive reduction in violent youth crime even though the city itself is more violent than London. If poverty, domestic abuse and expulsion from school [give us] the strongest common indicators for knife violence, rather than blackness, then what should we be working at changing? It’s not rocket science.”

Akala voted for Corbyn in 2017 and has spoken in support of the Labour leader. Has he been approached by political parties? “Possibly,” he says, with a smile. “I’m not going to start naming them but you can probably imagine. From Left and Right.” His politics are Left-wing but he wouldn’t rule out working with people he “disagreed with politically on an agreed agenda”. He adds: “I’m sure super-Lefties will criticise me but I am also partly a pragmatist. I notice the difference between me and what I’d call lower-middle-class, university-educated Marxists. They often seem more concerned with ideological purity than actually achieving anything.”

Away from politics, what he’ll be achieving next is the publication of two new books: an illustrated history of the world for pre-schoolers and a young- adult novel set in Elizabethan London (“Writing is extremely hard,” he notes, with a sigh). He is plotting a return to music too, having not released a record since the 2016 “best of”, 10 Years of Akala. “Next time I put an album out, people will see. It’s going to be exciting. And part of it is just [that I was] ahead of the curve in terms of UK hip hop.” Though it may seem he probably unwinds by reading sociological research papers, he “likes a box set”, is “in the gym all the time” and — having played youth football for West Ham United — he’s recently returned to playing seven-a-side with some childhood friends.

Akala with his sister Ms Dynamite in 2006 (PA)

There is an off switch, then. But for now he is still focused on youth violence. And clinging to the hope that, paradoxically enough, some negative assumptions may lead to a positive outcome. “I think young black boys in particular need to draw the correct inferences from what is being said,” he says. “If we are in 2019 and British society is still pretending that the children of black journalists, lawyers, architects, bus drivers and engineers are all an equal risk, then young black boys need to be really cognisant of what British society is saying about them. And to the extent that it’s possible for them, to pull themselves away from the bad bredrin in their neighbourhood.

“You’re not going to become Al Capone. You’re going to wake up at 35, and you’ll be coming out of prison getting a job you could have done at 16. And so for any boy who is attracted to that lifestyle, I’m not judging, I made some mistakes myself, but what I am saying is, ‘Bruv, I hope for your sake and your future that you realise early enough that it’s just not f**king worth it,’” He is passionate now, voice raised, gaze steely. “It’s not worth it.”

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala (Two Roads) is now available in paperback