When Akala was twelve he was in the top 1% of his age group in mathematics. That was almost 25 years ago and, in these times when political discourse is dominated by obfuscation and hypocrisy, his grasp of statistics and passion for evidencing an argument is refreshing.

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Akala at Waterstones, Manchester. May 2018

‘This is the only time I will quote Tony Blair,’ he says referring to  the New Labour mantra education, education, education. Hardly anyone who leaves university at 21 gets shot and goes to prison, he puts out. His thirteen year old peers are all in jail or dead.   42% of people in prison have been expelled from school. 24% have been in care. The statistics show where the problem lies and how resources should be targeted. It costs money to incarcerate people. Why not use the money to address the issue before it is too late?

Akala survived the dangerous teenage years to become an award winning rap artist, documentary writer, founder of the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company and now author. He is promoting his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, a study of how race and class shape lives and which reconciles the sweep of history with individual experience. He describes himself as ‘someone who barely went to college yet who has lectured at almost every university in the country. I come from one of the statistically least likely groups to attain five GCSE passes – white and ‘mixed-race’ boys on free school meals fail at an even greater rate than ‘fully black’ boys on free school do – but I got ten GCSEs, including multiple A* grades. I took my maths GCSE a year early and attended the Royal Institution’s Mathematics masterclasses as a schoolboy…. When I say I could have been a statistic – another working-class black man dead or in prison – people who did not grow up how we grew up probably think that’s an exaggeration. But people that grew up like us know just how real this statement is, just how easily the scales could have been tipped.’

In a GQ magazine interview with Eleanor Halls he says, ‘I think I was very lucky because I went to a pan-African Saturday school. I was taught a community vision of history that was different to the mainstream vision. Mainstream intelligence and mainstream society has a way of presenting itself as the norm. This is history, this is what happened. Any serious student of history knows it’s not exactly that simple, and even the mere act of writing a history book means you’re going to choose what evidence to include, what evidence to not include, what narrative to tell, and what narrative not to tell. It’s like editing a film – there are rushes that get left out. It doesn’t even always mean you’re deliberately being biased – just the act of creating a historical narrative necessitates a perspective.’

He quotes E.P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, Cheikh Anta Diop, Franz Fanon and Lao Tzu as influences but ‘I also read a lot of stuff I disagree with. I read a lot of Niall Ferguson. I don’t like his work, and I completely disagree with [his] historical perspective, but you can’t only read people you agree with, otherwise all you get is bias confirmation.’

On Windrush.

The government has turned British citizens who paid for themselves to come here into immigrants. Why would the Windrush generation register for citizenship when they are already citizens? Race and class are a way of playing people against each other.

On ethnicity

When they say ethnicity is the reason for crime it gives the police who are bigoted licence. Should the Prime Minister be ethnically responsible for white paedophiles who work at the BBC?

On violence

I have one request, going forward can we try to use the appropriate term #seriousyouthviolence rather than just ‘Knife crime’ – I know its a mouthful but ‘knife crime’ seems to have become a dog whistle that does little to encourage serious thought at this point…


 GQ Interview with Eleanor Halls Retrieved 10:50 19/3/2019

Guardian interview with Owen Jones, 18/3/2019

Good Morning Britain interview with Piers Morgan,18/3/2019

Hip-hop Shakespeare Company Retrieved 10:50 19/3/2019

Roots, Reggae and Rebellion, Akala’s BBC documentary 2016 Retrieved 15:23 19/3/2019

Akala was speaking at a Waterstones event in Manchester on 15 May 2018. The review was updated on 19 March 2019 to reflect recent news.


Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire

The paperback is available on 21 March 2019


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About Lynn Steinson

Author of psychological thrillers "Deluded" and "Guilt" about members of The Sun pub quiz team.
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