I first saw Akala where I discover most of my rappers, watching BBC’s Question Time.
His eloquence and intelligence shone out in this arena of pomposity, hypocrisy and arrogance. It is a programme whose primary purpose is to make everyone unhappy and, according to social media, it usually achieves that. It says much for our political discourse that any glimmers of sanity or inspiration will usually come from the “celebrity” guest such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Charlotte Church or Akala, people whose experience mixed with unbounded curiosity is in stark contrast to the fenced-in and spin dizzy minds of so many politicians and professional commentators.
Radio 4 recently serialised Akala’s book, Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire. Like Russell T Davies’s It’s A Sin, the brutality of recent history may startle people, not merely those who were not born then, but also those who lived through these times but viewed it through the prism of our newspapers.
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As Akala says in the first episode, “It’s easy for people just slightly younger than myself and born into a relative degree of multiculturalism to forget just how recently basic public decency towards Black folks was won in this country, but I was born in the Eighties.”
He begins with the New Cross Fire of January 1981. It was Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th birthday party and 13 young Black people died following a fire that many believe was a racist arson attack. The family of the dead were treated as suspects rather than victims and the investigation was bungled. This led to a “Black People’s Day of Action”, a march of 20,000 people across London. It was predominantly peaceful but The Sun newspaper went with the headline “ The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London”.