Akala, the writer-slash-rapper-slash-activist, is hip hop’s answer to Shakespearean literature. From his lyrics to his books to his theatre company, the Londoner fuses together the eloquent language of William Shakespeare with the often blunt realities of hip hop.
Ahead of the BBC2 broadcast of Akala Presents: The Ruins of Empires — A Graphic Novel Poetry Film, Fringe Frequency attended a private screening at Everyman Baker Street.
At first glance, we were shocked to see Akala’s historical and politically charged graphic novel being adapted for TV as a BBC-funded production. And the man himself responded, “Have they read it?” Before explaining that the BBC saw the time had come to expand. The novel obviously caught the interest of director, actor and creative consultant Andy Serkis, too. His Imaginarium Studios created the striking digital imagery for the production.
Starting the performance, the lights went down and Akala appeared barefoot, dressed in orange. Whether the costume choice was a conscious decision remains to be told, but it certainly pays a poetic tribute to the infamous prison uniform of today’s society; the modern day slavery uniform, key to the topic in hand.
Jumping through time using animation to narrate is genius. A computer-generated figure is used to portray an ancestor, complete with Medusa-like snake hair, who tells the gruesome tale of racism and makes it almost appear mainstream. Right down to the darker-skinned illustrations subjected to slavery, matched by an off-screen voice telling us, “Don’t question what you’re told. Play your role”.
Then, looking at the opposite side of the spectrum, the oppressors try to defend themselves from failing as leaders. It’s intriguing that they manage to create minimal sympathy for themselves, as we are forced to question how well would we perform as leaders?
In masterful moments of pause, Akala himself questions everything that has happened up to the present day, enquiring if humanity can change. The curiosity in his tone is almost a reminder of our own optimism about life, hoping for better days we lost in childhood, as we are dragged through adulthood.
Another ancestor animation acts as a guiding light of optimism, insisting “the road is long, but all journeys have a start”. It almost teaches us to aspire for an amicable future now we know in explicit detail what our ancestors endured.
The big question throughout the poetic piece is can humanity change? Akala goes on to document that as we can now see the world as it is, not blinded by fake news and divided by propaganda, we can start again. The suggestion of the sun burning all weapons and our existence wiped clean from the Earth, so the planet can start again, is an intriguing thought.
If anything, in the age of social media, where as a society we are more visual than ever before, The Ruins of Empires, is long overdue. Using animations to depict the horrific situations of the distant past shares the history to the youth of today in a way they will relate to. Combined with the close-up shots of Akala performing his words, this is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of art, which can only make us question how we think and go forward.
Akala Presents: The Ruins of Empires is showing on BBC Two, April 28 at 10pm BST.