I’ve been a fan of Akala for a while. I discovered him on BBC 1 extra fire in the booth and was immediately drawn to his powerful lyrics. His rap doesn’t follow the normal trajectory of modern hip pop instead he raps about class, pan-Africanism, colonialism and his Jamaican and Scottish roots. I always learn so much when I listen to him. His book natives is a continuation of all the issues he has been spitting out in his songs.
This book is about how the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy, how it still haunts everyday life in Britain for people of African descent and people of colour. I could relate to many of the issues he raised but there was a lot of learning I was gained especially in relation to the intersections between race and class. Akala uses history to illustrate what unique space he occupies in British society as a man of mixed heritage. He gives the hard truth of his reality which was far from perfect.
Akala begins the book by justifying why talking about race and class in the British context is important and goes through the typical ignorant statements that people commonly make. Such as “ if we stop talking about it (racism )it will go away”, “stop playing the race card”, “ why don’t you go back to where you came from”. He challenges readers that may be sceptical of the importance of this topic to reflect on their own privilege as well as the fact that Britain isn’t a racial utopia just yet therefore we need to have these challenges conversations in order to deal with the issues of gang violence, assimilation, terrorism etc.
He describes many of the issues he went through growing one of which was navigating the British educational system. He looks these issues through a wider analysis of the remnants of empire. For example, he describes an incident in his childhood when a teacher was so threatened by his intelligence that instead of encouraging him in his studies because of course working class black or mixed-race children cannot be naturally gifted. That she put him in a special needs class with kids who can’t speak English. Instead of simply just accusing the teacher of being racist, He writes “It is entirely understandably though still unacceptable that within that frame of reference she would feel like a traitor to her race, to her culture, to her nation if she was to encourage colonial migrants-members of the subject races to reach their full potential for excellence”.
It’s hard for many of us to believe that a teacher would act this way, however under the microscope. Akala shows that it is entirely plausible that a woman that grew up in the 1930’s learning about how great the British Empire is and how they are civilising the natives would feel surprised and threaten by black (although he is mixed the blackness is that problem) child that seems very confident about their intelligence. One could argue that it’s natural for her to want to put him in his place.
Akala highlights the importance of having male role models and how going to a supplementary pan Africanist Saturday school was his saviour in many ways. One of which was being in an environment that was encouraging and raised the self-esteem of its students. He also exposed to a lot of culture growing up through this step-father who was the stage manager of Hackney empire.
His experience at the pan-Africanist school taught him a different version of history to that which he learnt at school, getting him in trouble with teachers. From the example of a teacher showing him a picture of William Wilberforce and said “this man stopped slavery” in which his seven year old self replied “what, all by himself don’t you mean he helped”. At that tender age Akala had already learnt about the maroons of the Jamaica and slave revolts therefore he wasn’t buying into this “white saviour” narrative of the end of slavery simply being due to abolitionist movements. The friction between Black people and the education system is something that affects the learning of many students and is one of the reasons for the creation of Black history month so that black children can learn about their history and empower themselves.
I can personally relate to the importance of being in an environment that facilitates your growth, I went to mostly went to a Muslim primary and secondary school growing up. One thing I really liked was that we were all pushed to achieve, when I was in mainstream school I was told this is your set you can’t achieve higher that then a C in Maths. But when I went to an Islamic school all of us were expected to do the higher tier paper, our teachers who were not paid would teach us extra classes on the weekend just to make sure would pass well. What motivated them wasn’t money it was the vision that these young Muslim women would grow up and become something. I believe that it’s very important to have teachers that relate to your experience in the world, as a student you will be able to see yourself in them and they will be able to themselves in you.