Rapper and writer Akala unpicks the inherent racial and class narratives examined in his passionate polemic-cum-memoir
As Akala writes in his powerful new book Natives: Race and Class In The Ruins Of Empire, public discourse about racism is still as 'childish and supine' as it ever was. We have been trained, he argues, to see racism as an issue of interpersonal morality, rather than a form of structural violence. And as the hysterical reaction to decolonising activism like the Rhodes Must Fall protest has shown, Britain is still strongly wedded to its imperial past.
In Natives, Akala unpacks these thorny issues through a combination of analysis and memoir. The rapper, writer and social entrepreneur was born in Sussex in the early 1980s to a British-Caribbean father and Scots-English mother, and grew up in the north-west London borough of Camden, 'a petri dish for examining race, class and culture'.
A self-proclaimed 'nerdy boy' drawn to books, music and sport, Akala faced the same struggles with poverty, racism and gang violence as his peers and family members. 'I was setting out to write a politics book, but we realised that the best way to do that was to use my own experiences,' he says from his London studio. 'Rather than have race and class as these abstract ideas, this is how they manifest in the lives of ordinary people on a daily basis.'
credit: Paul Husband He gives the example of his friend, 'a very successful black British actor' whose children are essentially upper middle class yet have had interactions with the police throughout their lives. 'We live in a city where there is no class analysis for black people. Crime committed by the black underclass is black crime, so upper middle class black children who've gone to private school, who've never committed crimes, who are statistically unlikely as almost anyone else in the country to ever stab anybody, it's still somehow legitimate [to see them] as potential gang members because we have a narrative that is classless, that is solely focused on the skin colour of the perpetrator. Scotland has had long problems with gang crime too, and of course there is a whole class-based stigmatisation of the schemies, but no one would ever call what happened in the east end of Glasgow white on white violence.'
Natives is impressive in its historical sweep, mapping the construction of racial identity onto the growth of empire and capitalism. It is also full of nuanced cultural critique. In the chapter called 'Linford's Lunchbox', Akala dissects racialised discourse in sport. Asked about the recent World Cup, he brings up England footballer Raheem Sterling, who was criticised by the right-wing press for his tattoo of a gun. For Sterling, the tattoo reflected his vow never to touch a gun after his father was shot, but such subtleties did not fit the tabloid narrative. 'The stick Raheem Sterling's getting, it's not even subtle at this point. The Daily Mail in particular are upset that an irreverent, not sufficiently grateful young black kid – from Stonebridge [in north-west London], to make it worse – whose dad was killed, is earning a quarter of a million pounds a week.
credit: Paul Husband 'What I found really fascinating, is that we live in a capitalist society, where theoretically speaking, a kid from that kind of environment who's made good, the Daily Mail should love him. But in their mind, people like him are not supposed to make that kind of money, and if they do, they should be "yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir" grateful, and Raheem is not that.
'It's weird when you've got people sweating their heart out for England, they're being treated essentially as if they're foreigners and enemies of the country. I think that speaks to this insecurity that people have in relation to black athletes. And let's be real, Raheem's not built like Linford Christie, so it's not even about the sexual insecurity towards the hyper masculine, 6ft 5 ripped-to-shreds [black athlete] – I mean, black men would feel insecure looking at Linford Christie! So the fact that someone like Raheem, who's much smaller, slender, is still given this treatment, albeit in a slightly different way, I think that says something about a particular section of the British press and their relation to black athleticism.'
Akala stresses the need for wider education about the British Empire; to learn from the past you need to understand it at the very least. He has been encouraged by efforts to acknowledge Scotland's role in the Empire, citing the work of scholars Tom Devine and Stephen Mullan. 'I don't romanticise Scotland, but there is a political culture where Scotland seems to be trying to become a small, prosperous European social democracy, and Scotland's kind of satisfied with that. England still wants to run the world. I don't see how they're going to survive in a union together for the next 30 years if these massive contradictions remain.'
Charlotte Square Gardens, Fri 24 Aug, 8.30pm, £12, (£10).
Race and class have shaped the world of MOBO award-winning hip hop artist, poet and political commentator Akala. In Natives, his searing polemic on race in the UK, he considers his own experiences in both childhood and as an adult, and connects them to the social, political and historical context that have led us to where…