Words by Ed King / Photos by Katja Ogrin http://www.katjaogrinphotography.com
There should be more people here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s shoulder to shoulder from the sound desk to the stage, but I expected a full room tonight. I’ve seen the interest Akala can create, and I’m disappointed to still see space at the back.
Akala is back in Birmingham promoting his new mixtape/album, ‘Knowledge is Power – Vol 1’; playing in the Academy 3. And immediately he wants us, all of us, telling us to ‘get both your hands in the air’, ‘make some fucking noise’ and show him ‘that Birmingham sound, from the gut’. Everyone from the sound desk forward explodes in a cheer.
Starting with ‘Welcome to Dystopia’, the Orwellian opening track from his 2010 album ‘DoubleThink’, Akala warns us in five words; ‘conform, obey, transform, sleep easy’. The pace is furious, urgent, and I’m curious to see how long he can hold it.
Without pause, we are shoved into ‘Freedom Lasso’, Akala’s 2007 single about the complicit chains of society, before ‘XXL’ gets most of the crowd singing. It seems Akala’s not the only one who knows all the words.
Next the 26 year old ‘rapper, label owner and educator’ questions his contemporaries with ‘What is Real?’, a satirical dig at the role of rap in modern culture, before launching into ‘Bullshit’ – a track that clearly answers his own question.
‘Absolute Power’ brings us the first new track of the night, giving the crowd another chance to show how much homework they’ve done, and slows the pace for the first time; before Akala delivers his ‘Sprint’ – a machine gun message of social injustice. Calculated lyrics over a needle point pentameter; it’s like listening to Das FX with a dictionary.
The slightly weak link of ‘Roll Wid Us’ brings the beat back down, and sounds a little like a Bond theme tune, before the painfully personal ‘Fire in the Booth’ gets spat off the stage; a linguistically delivered assault on the hypocrisy of class, racial stratification and the divide and rule approach of a still present empire. If you do nothing else today, find and listen to this song. Or better still read the lyrics.
The rest of the set continues to teach, preach and educate. Intelligent rhymes about misogyny, state brutality, the illusion of money, and the self-perpetuating self-destruction promulgated by modern Hip Hop, all get kicked angrily off stage.
Akala’s message is astute, frustrated, and sometimes incongruously aggressive. But when he warns the crowd ‘you’re taught to act inferior and play position perfectly’, I am heartened by how many young people are listening.
And whilst the promoter in me still shakes his head at a room unfairly under capacity, whilst Jay Z, Kanye West and Drake cram out the LG Arena; the term ‘sold out’ couldn’t be further from my mind.
For more on Akala, including the last dates of his UK tour, visit http://www.akalamusic.com
‘Knowledge is Power – Vol 1’ is also available at http://www.akalamusic.com
For further gig listings at the O2 Academy in Birmingham, visit http://www.o2academybirmingham.co.uk