Akala is that rarest of things: Not a sell-out. He’s completely independent, running his own label, and promoting himself. Akala is successful because people love him. Mostly, they love his now-legendary Fire In The Booth sessions for Radio 1 Extra, then they get to know his records, and they love him even more.
Gaining popularity in this way (ie: simply by being good at what he does) is notable in an industry heavily reliant on marketing. So what is it that he does? Akala combines confrontational and non-patronising lyrics about politics, racism and inequality with a verbal dexterity rarely matched in hip-hop. He talks up to his audience, and expects them to follow what he’s saying. He also avoids much of the sexist, homophobic and racist content that mars so much of the genre, while maintaining the arrogant swagger of a rap-battler.
And that swagger seems entirely reasonable for someone who has admirable positions as a journalist, educator and cultural commentator in addition to his ascendant music career.
For this tour, we have video backdrops to nearly every track. Some of these feature Akala himself, and it’s eerie watching him syncing to himself so perfectly. But watching this for review I realise something new: I hate that. I hate it when bands play their music live and it sounds like the record. If I go to a live gig I want something different.
But here I don’t hate it. Not at all. So, please don’t think that I’m accusing Akala of simply performing the albums louder; this is an outstanding show, with a carefully-chosen set list and genuine stage presence. What I’m highlighting is, in fact, just that. I am more than happy to watch Akala essentially rapping along to the backing tracks, and that is because watching anyone performing any art-form as flawlessly as this is worth getting out of the house for. In fact, it’s worth a lot more than that.
In fact, there are many welcome additions to the recorded work. For example, The start of his Fire In The Booth 2 set is truncated and stuck in a medley with some of Find Another Reason and new track Stress (which samples DJ Shadow). He also comes on stage in a hunting jacket with a walking stick in his guise as “Pompous Peterson”, with a track not featuring on any record, but performed throughout this tour. And his reading from his recent graphic novel The Ruins Of Empires gave me goosebumps. I’ve also previously seen him freestyle during the Thieves’ Banquet tour.
I cannot imagine anyone not reacting to a track like Murder Runs The Globe, regardless of whether or not they think they like hip-hop. The lyrics are simply too direct, too truthful to be ignored. I have played Akala to my mother, to children, to my girlfriend (who has a bizarre perversion involving radio 2!), and all heard something there that they weren’t expecting.
Anyone would get something from this show. They might not love the music (though to be clear, I really do!), but they would see the skill; they would hear the message. Hearing Find No Enemy is a profound experience. You can hear the life that had to be lived in order to write it. And that’s to say nothing of the sheer funkiness of tracks like Bang With Us? Or XXL.
Akala will soon have a ten-year career as a rapper. I think we need at least ten more to see what this man does next.
A version of this review first appeared on http://www.fringereview.org