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A Magazine for Sheffield

Akala: Knowledge is Power

Originating from the grime scene, Akala has gone on to produce several albums, a graphic novel and the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, an initiative that offers young people a new view of the arts. Always one to tackle a question head on, Akala took time out to discuss his new album, grime’s resurgence and politics in hip hop. Your new album, Knowledge Is Power II, drops on 30 March. What can we expect from that? You can expect an evolution of my previous albums. It's kind of the most hip hop and grime inspired work I've done in a while. It's still 90% hip hop, but it's very boom bap, very hard sounding, very forthright in its opinions. It's just a collection of original songs that I think are a testament to how I've felt this last year. There's a development in style, but also a return to my older stuff. It's more aggressive, both sonically and lyrically, than, say, Thieves Banquet, which was a bit more thoughtful and reflective. Hip hop in the UK seems to be particularly strong at the moment, with artists like Trellion and Sniff here in Sheffield and groups like Sub Luna City down south. Who’s exciting you in music at the moment? Yeah, I completely agree. I was really excited by Big Narstie's Fire In The Booth [on BBC Radio 1Xtra]. I'm excited by the new Kano track, and what Lady Leshurr is doing. I think there's a lot of strong UK hip hop out right now. I feel like there's a resurgence coming about. Speaking of resurgences, what do you think about this grime ‘comeback’ that’s currently ongoing? Yeah, that's very strong at the moment. Obviously, that big [Red Bull Culture] Clash that was caught last year with Boy Better Know and Rebel Sound and all those guys helped take grime to a new place. Some have said it feels like the first time brands and mainstream media are embracing the culture. Do you think they've realised it sells or is that just cynicism? I don't know. I think the mainstream media is the mainstream media. It's gonna do what it's gonna do. It's going to write about what it thinks is hot this week then drop it the next. I don't think we can really be too concerned with what the media does. At least I'm not too concerned. All we have to be concerned with is building a strong, unbreakable, credible scene like there is in other parts of the world. If we look to France, Brazil, the US, obviously there's a strong scene, and in the UK we've never really built that with hip hop. Rock bands have it, punk bands have it. There’s independent scenes of music outside of the mainstream that exist by themselves. Jungle had it, garage had it. Hip hop and grime have never managed to. We've got a scene, but we've not got an industry in the same way all those I just mentioned have had. Why do you think that is? Lots of reasons: lack of infrastructure, lack of business understanding, lack of A&R support. The fact that our music is both class-based and racialised makes it a much more difficult challenge for the mainstream media, because all of their prejudices are put on the artists they are trying to sign at the cost of the original sound and original appearance of the artist. All of those challenges are faced by the music. We've never had - in the way that America had - a Nas or a Public Enemy, a Wu Tang. A multi-million selling success story. We've never had that degree of credibility in my eyes, because they've never been put on that platform. So it means we're still a little bit behind in terms of the credibility of our industry. Grime faces the challenges that any black-orientated music faces in this country. Any industry led in the majority by young black men in our racialised society is problematic. You had that in hip hop within the States, where it was monetised in a way that UK hip hop has never been. Here we've had a challenge. This country really doesn't want things that Big Narstie has to say to be put on a national platform. It's not just because of the colour of their skin, but because of what they're saying. It's how what they say affects people. We're a free society to a point, but the history of our society affects everything. It affects the music industry just like it does the entertainment industry. The decisions that record labels and radio stations at the height of power make are not made by people like me and you. They aren't regular, everyday people. They're made by people, generally, who come from much more privileged backgrounds, whose parents own this or their business does that. There's a high level of nepotism at the highest level of government and industry. That's just the way it is and it's always been like that. It has been reported recently that organisations in London receive, on average, £45 more in Arts Council funding than those outside the capital, a balance in London’s favour of 5.4:1. Do you think the North-South divide is still affecting the arts? I think it's still an issue within everything. It's a historic issue. There's a tendency to compartmentalise things and say it's limited to the arts. No, it affects everything: industry, healthcare. In every way the north of England has been historically more deprived than the south of England. Is devolution the answer, or is this just people hoping for a quick fix? I'm not sure. I don't have the answer. I think obviously more people-led power, anything that moves us towards a more democratic society - I mean the genuine word, not parliamentary democracy - any way you can more fairly share the resources of the country, is a step forward. We're at a really important time politically and socially. Do you think more music should reflect this? I think it is what it is. I choose to make music about political issues. That's my personal choice. I can't really say what anyone else's is. I saw Billy Bragg a couple of years back and he said that the future of left-wing politics in music may lie in hip hop. What do you think to that? I'm not surprised. I toured with Billy and Kate Tempest a couple of years back and he's right. Hip hop was produced by a particular social antagonism and mainstream hip hop has kind of betrayed its roots. It's become about selling people Bentleys and Rolls Royce and flashy cars. There is a section who still believe hip hop is a valid place to air out those grievances, but not everybody will agree with me. The end of last year saw you release the graphic novel, Ruins of Empire. Have you got anything else in the pipeline for 2015, aside from music? I'm hoping to do some live incarnations of the Ruins of Empire. We'll see. That might be 2016. I'm working on that at the moment, doing research and development as we speak. I’m trying to speak to all the composers and artists to try and figure out how we would do that live. Akala plays Plug on 30 April at the closing party of the Festival of Debate. Tickets available at )

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