Akala has already revealed to the world that the Wu-Tang Clan’s lyrics can rival Shakespeare’s. He has also helped restore the weight and significance of African contributions to human history in his Oxford Union speech and his freestyle sessions on the BBC.
In his first book, Natives, Akala now takes on the British Empire and tears down the myths of greatness that surround it. One of these myths, he tells us in chapter five, is that William Wilberforce ended slavery.
“What, all by himself, miss?” seven-year-old Akala replied to his teacher when she tried to convince him of such. After grabbing our attention with this anecdote, the author vividly exposes how the state uses the Wilberforce narrative to whitewash Britain’s chief involvement in the bloody transatlantic slave trade. Akala then explains that it was Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian slaves who first ended slavery through revolution.
Akala begins most chapters with a story from his childhood or teenage years where race and class have affected him or his loved ones and shaped his understanding of oppression.
This could be his fiery arguments with racist teachers, the first time he was stopped and searched, or even the day he realised that his mum was white. He enables us to understand what it’s like to grow up as a black and poor Londoner in the 1980s and 1990s.
Although the author is now a successful artist, his book is not a rags to riches tale. Akala asserts that Britain is not a meritocracy where the barriers of race and class can be simply overcome through hard work and perseverance.
He explains his success as the absurd and unexpected consequence of an unequal system that allows the rise of a few while leaving behind the many, no matter how brilliant they are. He points out several times that some of his friends could have been academics or scientists if the obstacles of structural racism and class oppression had not been there.
The real strength of Akala’s work becomes apparent when biographical elements make way for his analysis of the wider social forces that have and continue to mould the existence of non-white people in Britain, namely the empire and its legacies. Natives is filled with facts and statistics on racism that humiliate the world of entertainment, the education and justice system.
While Akala attempts with zeal to trace the historical roots to racial and economic oppression and its impact today, he fails to give a coherent solution to challenge oppression. At worst, Akala the activist turns into a pundit in the final chapter, deliberating on what the decline of the west in the face of rising Asian superpowers will mean for race and class dynamics.
One might think the author chooses to reflect on the future as he lacks optimism when it comes to transforming the present.
At best, he argues in chapter three that the struggle against injustice begins with education. But the fight against systemic inequalities such as racism can’t rest on changing attitudes. It is through involvement in the anti-racist struggles in the era of austerity, the Windrush scandal and Grenfell that people are more likely to switch their reactionary ideas for genuine anti-racist ones.