Mobo award-winning rapper Akala talks to Dan Glazebrook about censorship, racism and the Haitian revolution
The hip-hop industry, indeed the entertainment industry in general, is known more for encouraging its artists to become one-dimensional caricatures of themselves than it is for nurturing a culture of political engagement, revolutionary love and serious historical research.
But then Akala is not your typical entertainer. A genuine polymath, he is not only a Mobo award-winning rapper but a campaigning journalist, lecturer, and founder of a company teaching Shakespeare to schoolchildren.
Last year Akala also became one of the major public faces of the campaign against Exhibit B, an art installation featuring caged Africans in various degrading and submissive positions that had been scheduled to take place at the Barbican.
The black community was up in arms — but the artist claimed he was highlighting the barbarism of the “human zoos” that accompanied the late 19th and early 20th-century colonialism of Africa.
For Akala, however, it was this attitude itself that was a major part of the problem: “Any artist empathising with another group of people’s struggle should be concerned about what that group of people think of what they do. Do you see what I mean? I’m quite fascinated by Hinduism, for example, and the Tao Te Ching from China. If I were to be representing any of those cultures and the people whose culture it was were offended by what I did, I’d want to know why, and I’d want to correct myself. But this kind of arrogance — the idea that this guy is better placed to describe and represent the suffering of black Africans than they themselves are — was what was most telling for me. So I was really pleased with the outcome.”
The outcome was that, after extensive protests and a petition signed by over 20,000, the Barbican eventually decided to pull the show.
Predictably, the campaigners were lambasted in the mainstream media for having “censored” the exhibition. For Akala, however, the real censorship was already inherent in the exhibition itself, which failed to depict not only the Europeans involved in this kind of colonial domination, but also the Africans who fought back: “People are tired of seeing this — it is a form of censorship. Black resistance is completely airbrushed from mainstream representations, but black suffering can be put on as pornography for people who have no interest in fighting racism, to sit down and be like ‘yeah, racism’s bad but look how powerful we are.’
“To me that is what seeing black people in cages in the 21st century does — it doesn’t achieve anything revolutionary, it’s just colonial porn. In the world of Twelve Years a Slave and Amistad and Avatar and Last of the Mohicans — all of these ‘white saviour’ movies — people are tired of that narrative.”
It is a narrative which is not only promoted through the art and entertainment industry. Akala has often emphasised how both the mainstream media and the British education system tend to ignore the crucial role of the Haitian revolution in ending the slave trade, for example, preferring to focus on figures such as William Wilberforce.
For him, this imposed ignorance about the significance of Haiti is yet another form of censorship. I ask him why this history has been so “buried.”
“Revolutionary history generally gets whitewashed and airbrushed and taken away, but Haiti particularly, just because of the danger it represents to narratives of race, of class, of gender — 30 per cent of all the people who fought in the revolution were women — it was overwhelmingly led by people who were formerly enslaved on so many levels it violates what’s supposed to happen.”
While the ruling class don’t want us to remember the Haitian revolution, however, it’s clear they themselves have not forgotten — nor forgiven — the momentous changes it brought about.
As Akala explains, “in 1825, the French extorted 91 million gold francs (equivalent to £26 billion today) as reparations for loss of their property — ie, “their” Africans — from Haiti and that money didn’t stop getting paid off until 1947.
“During that time, you had the US invasion of 1915, then you had the installation of the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier and you’ve had democratic elections which have twice elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide and both times he’s been taken out of power.
“So symbolically, what Haiti represents in the black world, is that it has been made to pay for daring to have that revolution over and over again.”
Yet, despite everything, Akala explains, the positive results of the revolution have still not been erased: “Haiti today has one of the lowest murder rates — lower than Trinidad, lower than Jamaica, countries that are significantly more wealthy.
And I would argue that part of the reason for that is the community spirit that must exist in Haiti as part of this anti-imperialist legacy.
“I haven’t been so I can’t say for certain, but the evidence on the ground with Lavalas [the grassroots political party led by Aristide, which in Creole means Flood] supports that, totally.”
Not an analysis you will hear on many current pop records, I suspect. Check him out.
Akala performs at the Boom Town festival in Britain this weekend. Both his current album, Knowledge is Power II, and his book, Ruins of Empire, are available on his website www.akalamusic.com. This is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared at RT.com.