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Race and Class

We Talked to Akala About Race and Class in the UK

"There has been a loss of Caribbean identity as we've become very English, but at the same time we generally don't believe we’re English because we're black."
Akala on stage (Photo by Paul Husband)

You might have seen Akala on television recently, smuggling subversive ideas about empire, race and class into the Question Time and Newsnight studios. The rapper and poet's voice – deliberate, oracular, with a hint of the precocious school boy who was told off by his white teachers for knowing too much – comes through in a new book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire.

It is an autobiography and history lecture at once, telling stories of Pan-Africanism, slave revolt and British "race relations" through Akala's own life experience as a mixed-race, working class kid in 1980s London. There are lucid, well-cited and sharply argued passages – on, say, why Britain has no grounds for smugly praising itself for "abolishing slavery" as it so often does – which should probably be extracts on the national curriculum. We had a chat over the phone.


This has been edited for clarity and length.

VICE: Natives mixes your life story with political analysis and history, putting me in mind of famous autobiographies by black radicals like Assata Shakur and Malcolm X. What were your influences?
Akala: Yeah, some of the ones you’ve just named there. I was also influenced by [black revolutionary] Stokely Carmichael’s autobiography, which is probably the most underrated of the classic revolutionary autobiographies. It's, dare I say, the best written in terms of narrative and flow. His voice really comes through. And [co-founder of the Black Panthers] Huey Newton would be in that collection of inspirations. Beyond that, there are a whole load of historians and theorists and academics from a spectrum of political persuasions who influenced me too.

The book meditates on race and class. What is the best way to think through the relationship between these two highly contested concepts?
I use the example of the Caribbean a lot because I've experienced what it is to be racially minoritised and racially privileged [as a light-skinned person racialised as black in Britain]. There are boys I’ve grown up with who have gone on the run to Jamaica for attempted murder, who have my complexion – and I'm not dry snitching on anyone because they did their time – and who have been able to set up businesses, open companies and open bank accounts, because being light-skinned comes with the assumption of legitimacy and being posh in Jamaica.


Every time I go back to Jamaica I see that people find it hard to work me out, especially in the ghetto… There are certain mannerisms I have that people recognise as being one of them. And because no one who looks like me lives in that environment in Jamaica, people say, “Imma move like yardie…?” They mean: he's one of us, but he doesn't look like us, and people like him usually don't live down here. So the relationship between race and class means that I have more affinity – even though the violence is astronomically worse in Trenchtown or Flanker than it is anywhere in London – with poorer people who are almost always dark-skinned than the sort of light-skinned uptown set, who I now share a class location with. Race and class are not mutually exclusive and they’re constantly interrelated.

What it has meant to be white in the Caribbean, and often to be mixed-race, is to not be working class. That isn’t the case in Britain. This means when my grandparents came to Britain they could not wrap their head around the fact that most white people were poor. For the first time they were encountering white people who they had more years of schooling than.

That moment when your uncle saw a white person sweeping the street in England and couldn’t believe his eyes seems to show a truth about the relationship between class and race. It’s a revelation that can go two ways: towards a sense of multi-ethnic class unity or towards realising that there can be a black bourgeoisie, the system maintained as a few people move up the ladder.
There's no problem with a small black wealthy minority from the ruling class's perspective. And from black people’s perspective, the difficulty is that both things are desirable even though they're contradictory. If there are no successful black people in your society then it's pretty fucking depressing to be a black person. And so there is a desire to see black people move up the ladder as "representatives of the race".


But we should remember that there was already ethnic class struggle in the Caribbean. The 1938 labour rebellion, which happened right across the British Caribbean in Guyana, Trinidad [involved] primarily black and Indian workers. Blacks and Indians have had a difficult and tenuous relationship throughout Caribbean history, but 1938 was an example of exactly, that and it scared the shit out of the British colonial governors, to the point that they just started executing people in the streets. They started shooting striking workers.

It led to Jamaica becoming the third country in the Commonwealth to get universal adult suffrage and, to this day, for all of Jamaica's million other problems, it has a very strong class consciousness. Most artists who make it from the ghetto – even if they can't live in the ghetto anymore, which is understandable given how violent it is – have some sort of project, hospital or school in their old neighbourhood. [Dancehall artist] Bounty Killer has probably been a millionaire since he was 21, and he can still say that he's the "Poor People's Governor".

We see the playing of class against race a lot in England. One minute we need to create more black doctors or have more black people on TV, the next it's the "left behind white working class", as if Nigerian kids studying harder at school mean it's their fault that poor white kids are not doing well. Poor black kids of Caribbean origin, who are fourth generation British, are also not doing very well at school. In fact, they fail at virtually the same rates as poor white kids. So the "white working class" has not been left behind; the working class has been left behind. It should be no surprise that immigrant kids whose parents were university-educated back home are doing better in school.

The great British-Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson calls the Windrush generation the "heroic generation", and their children – who were more political and took part in protests like the Brixton riots – the "rebel generation". What would you call your own generation of Afro-Caribbean Brits?
I feel bad saying this about my own generation, but I'm sure they'll know what I mean – I would call my generation "the lost generation", in the sense that our parents, the rebel generation, had parents who were still Caribbean. And so they had a sense of where they came from while claiming a Britishness that was denied to them. We are just confused, in the sense that we're like, "We're still not allowed to be British because anything we do that's bad is apparently a result of our black skin."

Even this latest thing where they're comparing London to New York [in terms of gang-related violence] – what the fuck has London go to do with New York? Why not compare it to Glasgow or Greater Manchester or Liverpool, all of which have higher murder rates than London? So, I think there has been a loss of Caribbean identity as we've become very English, but at the same time we generally don't believe we’re English because we're black.

That said, another way of thinking about it might be the "combined" generation. Previous generations of black Brits were overwhelmingly Caribbean; my generation is 50:50 Caribbean and West African. When I was really young we used to really make fun of West African kids badly. But that’s not acceptable anymore, and you see a new self-confidence. West African kids are no longer pretending they’re Jamaican. The biggest rappers in the country are of West African origin. So, from a Pan-Africanist perspective, our generation is also that of reconciliation between West Africans and Caribbeans, forming a black British identity rooted in the experiences of the Caribbean and West Africa. That might be a more complementary and more accurate way of describing it than the "lost" generation.