Akala: ‘I saw someone get stabbed when I was 12'

The activist and rapper, 35, on justice for Grenfell, knife crime, Shakespeare and reincarnation

Contradictory is how I’d describe my childhood. My earliest memories are performing Ray Charles’s Shake Your Tail Feather with my siblings at the Hackney Empire, and sledging down Hampstead Heath in the snow. Then Mum got sick and split up with my stepdad. Things changed. I saw someone get stabbed at 12; a shooting at a party when I was 15.

When you experience violence growing up, it changes something inside you. There was a period of my life where violence was the logical response to confrontation. As hard as I’ve tried, as much as I meditate, do yoga and do martial arts, I don’t feel that’s ever left me.

I’ve already lost two teeth to sugar. I’ve got a weakness for anything sweet. I’m vegan now, I have been for 12 years (aside from a few halloumi wraps), so it’s mostly agave and dates that I’m eating. Diabetes runs in the family, though, so I need to give it the kick.

Going to Nelson Mandela’s house in Cape Town for dinner was mad. My sister [Ms Dynamite] did a concert for his Aids charity in 2001, and we were invited to a meal with Beyoncé and Oprah. Bono was also there, obviously. I got to speak with Nelson – he was effervescent and funny, indescribably charismatic.

Stormzy said you’re not supposed to wake up in the morning to people saying you’re an ugly fucker. I used to spend too much time on social media, now I’m on a break and feel so much better.

Justice for Grenfell means the people responsible going to prison. It was not without warning, we’ve all seen the letters written to the council. They were ignored – and 72 people died.

The first person I ever saw give a lecture was KRS-One, and from then I always felt like hip-hop had a role to play in education. It’s why I started the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company – the man was a genius, but we need to find more relatable ways to tell his stories.

I’ve never been a supporter of Labour, but I like Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a fundamentally decent person. I’m from north London, where there are so many families I know personally that he has helped with immigration status, benefits, long before anyone was watching.

Liam Neeson missed the point with his apology. He said sorry for his anger, but what he should have apologised for is wanting to get revenge on any random black person because of what one black person had done.

I’m on the fence about reincarnation. I don’t believe in God. But the universe is definitely intelligent in some way, although it’s beyond my understanding.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala is published by Two Roads at £8.99. Buy it for £7.91 at guardianbookshop.com


Michael Segalov

The GuardianTramp

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