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Akala: Shakespeare, Protest And Conscious Hip Hop

Wednesday, 20 November 2013 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Rapper. Artist. Poet. Journalist. Activist. Visionary. There are a number of words that can be used to describe London emcee Akala, or the “black Shakespeare” as he calls himself on his track Comedy Tragedy History.

One of the most recognisable names in conscious hip hop, particularly in the UK, he recently released his fourth record, 'The Thieves Banquet'.

We caught up with him ahead of his UK tour - which gets underway in Glasgow on November 20 - which will see him travel the country in support of his most overtly political work yet.

What can we expect from your upcoming tour? You've also recently been on the road for other reasons. Can you tell us a bit about Hip Hop Shakespeare?

Well, this tour is mainly in promotion of the new album. I'll be performing a lot of tracks from that, but I'll also dip into some classics as well. Hip Hop Shakespeare is the production company which I run and we just recently finished a tour in England. This particular show was a modern interpretation of Shakespeare's Richard III set against hip hop tracks.

You're very passionate about the similarities between hip hop and Shakespeare.

Absolutely. I see it as a great way of engaging with young people that feel somewhat alienated by Shakespeare. They see him as this boring, ancient figure but in his day he would have been seen as edgy and “street” as people view rappers today. On the other hand, I believe hip hop should definitely be recognised as the intellectual art form that it is. The show is a way of fighting ignorance because people should see the value in both.

Would you say you are inspired by Shakespeare yourself?

Definitely, as I am inspired by all great writers, especially writers that speak for and created art for real people. There are some incredible passages in his sonnets that inspired me but also within in his plays; Richard II itself has inspired me greatly. So yeah, I would say that good writers should always be inspired by good writers. You'll find a lot of writers in hip hop that have found much inspiration in literature, be it Shakespeare or something entirely different.

Moving on to your own work, you are openly very political in a lot of your songs and concepts. The likes of Lowkey and the People's Army have also pushed UK hip hop in a very socially and politically conscious direction in the past few years. Why do you think hip hop has so much to say at the moment?

For me, hip hop has always been about speaking out against power, or more specifically, speaking out against injustice. Protest has been a key theme in hip hop, all the way back to Public Enemy, and so that spirit does continue to live on today. You also have to look at the United Kingdom as a whole. Protest is a tradition in this country. When you add those factors, the result is unsurprising.

Why do you think these voices have emerged within hip hop so specifically? In the ‘70s, punk was a big movement and seen as very anti-establishment. Whenever we see artists speaking out against the British government today, it is not rock stars speaking but hip hop artists more often than not. Why do you think that is?

If you live in the United Kingdom at the moment, you can probably yourself convey that apathy that we feel towards the government. It is a widespread thing. I cannot speak for the other genres, but I think it is healthy that artists are so vocal within mine. In terms of music, we are not going to be hearing any political content on the radio any time soon. Obviously, there is a degree of coverage from 1Xtra, but on Radio 1? Not a chance.

Will it ever be possible?

It is not impossible. Rage Against the Machine are a good example of a band that were played on radio all over the world. On the other hand, they had a huge mainstream label backing them. Most of us don't have that.

Would you define yourself as a political artist?

Yes, because all art is political in my eyes.

Your new tour comes off the back off the release of 'The Thieves Banquet'. You use a lot of live instrumentation and dip into different styles on the album. Would you still describe it as a hip hop record? Are you playing with a band live?

It is still a hip hop record. If you go right back there have always been rappers and spoken word artists using live instrumentation. People need to remember the days of Gil Scott-Heron and the type of music he made. We are mixing it up a bit but we have a drummer for every single show.

Will you be performing the title track from the new record? [The Thieves Banquet features four different vocal imitations of particular world leaders performed by Akala]. Did that track take much practice? How do you think it will work live? 

Yeah, definitely! I'm hoping the audience can help me out a bit! The idea just came to me and it just sort of happened. I started messing about with the voices to make it distinctive – the banker, the dictator, the clergyman and the monarch.

Were you worried that there would an element of parody?

No. To be honest, there is an element of parody, but I think that helps it work. When you have ideas like that, you just have to commit to it wholeheartedly. That is what being an artist is about.

Akala UK & Ireland Tour Dates are as follows

Wed November 20 2013 - GLASGOW Stereo
Fri November 22 2013 - MANCHESTER Manchester Gorilla
Sat November 23 2013 - SHEFFIELD Leadmill
Sun November 24 2013 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham
Wed November 27 2013 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Thu November 28 2013 - SOUTHAMPTON Soul Cellar
Fri November 29 2013 - LONDON The Garage
Mon December 02 2013 - OXFORD O2 Academy Oxford
Tue December 03 2013 - EXETER Cavern
Wed December 04 2013 - BRISTOL Thekla

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