Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

Monday, October 15, 2018

(Friday 12th October, 2018 Issue)

In 2010, UK rap artist Akala dropped the album DoubleThink, and with it, some unforgettable words. “First time I saw knives penetrate flesh, it was meat cleavers to the back of the head,” the north London rapper remembers of his childhood. Like so much of his work, the song Find No Enemy blends his life in the struggle of poverty, race, class and violence, with the search for answers. “Apparently,” it continues, “I’m second-generation black Caribbean. And half white Scottish. Whatever that means.”

Any of the million-plus people who have since followed Akala – real name Kingslee Daley – know that the search has taken him into the realm of serious scholarship. He is now known as much for his political analysis as for his music, and, unsurprisingly, his new book, Natives, is therefore long awaited. What was that meat cleaver incident? What was his relationship with his family and peers like growing up? How did he make the journey from geeky child, to sullen and armed teenager, to writer, artist and intellectual?

Natives delivers the answers, and some of them are hard to hear. In one of the most touching of many personal passages in the book, Akala retraces the steps by which he was racialised – as a mixed-race child – into blackness, and by which he realised that his mother, who fiercely protected her children’s pride in their heritage, enrolling them among other things in a Pan-African Saturday school, was racialised as white.

 “Though my mum was far from rich and had a great many sufferings of her own to speak of, she still shared a degree of racial discomfort when faced by the questioning eyes of her five-year-old son,” he writes.

The relationship between different generations of Akala’s family is a recurring and fascinating thread. He writes – in a powerful chapter about the failures of the education system to nurture the talent of black children – of how his father and his uncles emerged from their own experiences of the British school system to regard it as a “cultural and intellectual war zone”. And as the grandchild of Jamaicans who came to Britain as adults during the Windrush era, Akala’s generation is the last with a direct connection to the countries of their heritage.

“How will our children and their children after that navigate being born black in Britain and of Caribbean heritage without the wisdom and laughter, the cooking and cussing, of Caribbean-born grandparents?” he asks.

Travel, like education and the dynamics of his own family, is a constant theme throughout Natives. Akala’s unique experience as a sportsman – he played football seriously throughout his childhood – a scholar and a performing artist, give him the content and confidence to address “Linford’s lunchbox”, in a withering critique of British narratives around black sporting achievement, and the global histories of oppression. His thoughts on racism run from Japanese imperialism to apartheid in British-run Hong Kong, the Arab-African slave trade and black identities in 15th-century Spain.

But Akala is at his best destroying the comfortable myths that are invoked by white fragility to downplay attempts to correct the historical record. Like the idea that slavery is really the fault of Africans for selling their “own people”. Or the claim that Britain should feel good about the fact that its historical conduct was better than that of the Belgians or the Nazis. “It’s true, but it’s a shit boast,” he writes. This, like other tropes so regularly wielded against people like him, and me – who have the audacity to critique Britain while being black or brown – are beautifully ridiculed in a series of bullet-point lists.

This is a powerful, polemical narrative, in which Akala makes it clear that he is not brimming with optimism. But reading Natives – witnessing the kind of disruptive, aggressive intellect that a new generation is closely watching – I can’t help but be just that.

Reviewed by Afua Hirsch

Available at Timbooktoo tel 4494345