As part of Black History Month, hip hop artist and writer Akala spoke about the ‘Evolution of the EMCEE’ at the University of Nottingham. The talk covered the history of the art of rapping, of which the modern incarnations are grime, garage, jungle and hip hop.
Akala started looking at the culture of African diaspora further back then slavery, to underline the historical misconceptions regarding the view of the continent. The Empire of Mali, which reached its peak in the 14th Century, was the richest state in the world at that time, with three universities already in existence. A wall four times the length of the Great Wall of China (a feat recently awarded a Guinness World Record) was also built in Benin.
Moving onto music, the ‘griot’ (which means blood, an analogy for songs circulating through a community as blood does through the body) played string instruments for emperors in the 17th Century. They had to memorise 3-4 hour epic poems; Akala noted how we are now impressed by rappers verses lasting 3-4 minutes.
He wanted to emphasise that those that were enslaved did not come to the Americas without their own cultures. Western Africa was a not homogeneous place, so while enslavement put different groups together that were unlikely to have met, leading to an “infusion of African cultures”, musical styles such as jazz and rap developed in spite of the oppression, not because of it.
Akala then spoke about the repression of African cultures on plantations and the Haitian Revolution, the largest and sole successful slave rebellion in human history: “We’ve been conditioned to denigrate African spirituality, for example, Voodoo, as illegitimate and evil”.
The first key points in modern music according to Akala were during the Reconstruction Period in the USA after the Civil War in 1865. While he claimed history has been rewritten, that “slaves fought for their freedom in the civil war”, they were not freely given it, and that “Lincoln explicitly stated that if he could keep slavery and the Union he would”, he went on to explain that the 13th amendment led to prisons becoming racially used, and the emergence of the Jim Crow laws and KKK led to re-segregation and murder.
After the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th Century, there has been a repeat of mass incarceration. Akala pointed out that we should try not take a linear view of history as unfortunately, everything can get worse, drawing attention to the growing population of homeless people on the streets he sees on his frequent tours of the UK.
We then watched a series of videos from the 1930s to 1990s. It started with a clip from a barber shop quartet rapping, moving on to an early incarnation of the moonwalk from Cab Calloway, and legends of hip hop testifying the influence Muhammad Ali had on them with his own rhymes. Members of the audience could be seen nodding along and appreciating the music.
Post-war migration from the Caribbean to the UK brought over Duke Vin and the first sound systems which “changed the face of popular British music”. Rap song “Cockney translation” by Smiley Culture charted in 1985. In the 1990s, those residing in Hackney, Brixton and Tottenham were sent new music by family members in New York and Miami, spreading new music across the Atlantic.
Moving onto the current day, Akala stated that “Grime is a direct manifestation of the Jamaican sound system”, for example in the sampling and battles between crews. He highlighted the interesting evolution of the Griot tradition of praising those in power (as they were under their patronage) to rappers ability in the current day to critique it: “Kendrick Lamar is now many people’s political entry to the world”.
Following questions from the audience, Akala spoke about the control of hip hop by major labels trying to sell products, rather than encouraging artists to question the government: “Music impacts consciousness”.
He mentioned that people come up to him on the street book and ask him which books they should read, demonstrating that people are interested in ‘political’ matters. “[There has] always been specific policing of black people and music”.
Akala credited the internet with giving artists reach and independence, “allowing artists a bit more creative control to see a broader spectrum of music become successful”. He blamed A and R bosses trying to change UK MC culture for it taking so long to take off.
“It’s weird when people say they hate hip hop but love Eminem”
When asked about cultural appropriation, he went back to the denial of the vote and radio licenses in America. He said it came down to the history of theft. “It’s weird when people say they hate hip hop but love Eminem”. He claimed contemporary debates surrounding dreadlocks are often misguided as they were used by Pagans and in Ancient Egypt.
The talk, unfortunately, had to come to an end, but it isn’t a stretch to say that everything in the audience seemed to leave a fan of Akala if they weren’t already. Rapturous applause and requests for a reading list followed his informative and inspirational talk.
Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu