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Publication: Trace, July 2005

Brand New Heavy: How Akala became himself through hip hop

Kingslee MacLean-Davies, 21, hammers a football across an empty soccer pitch in Market Road in north London, and then fires off in hot pursuit. His red Arsenal shirt flashes against the drizzled green astroturf. Under a flat grey sky he plays keep-up, grins a broad, self-possessed smile and loses himself in his skills. He used to train here, but this is no longer his field of dreams.

Kingslee MacLean-Davies, 21, hammers a football across an empty soccer pitch in Market Road in north London, and then fires off in hot pursuit. His red Arsenal shirt flashes against the drizzled green astroturf. Under a flat grey sky he plays keep-up, grins a broad, self-possessed smile and loses himself in his skills. He used to train here, but this is no longer his field of dreams.

Maclean-Davies chose the name 'Akala', a Buddhist moniker that means 'immovable', yet Akala the artist/MC/entrepreneur is anything but: he is a mutable, restless rap polymath born under the sign of Sagittarius who has rolled through the educational programme (a sheaf of As at GCSE), the sports scene (he trialled for West Ham and Wimbledon) and the fast-food trade (he opened and then closed a jerk joint in Ayia Napa in 2003), all before he turned 20. Now he is full-beaming energies onto the business of hip hop, producing his own videos, distributing white labels and a mixtape, founding his own Illa State indie label. He designed the company’s logo: a Union Jack reconfigured in the black, gold and green of the Jamaican flag. This colour scheme couldn’t be more appropriate for a star in the process of becoming: in the Jamaican original, gold represents natural beauty and wealth; green signifies resources and hope; black denotes hardships endured.

Determination doesn't even begin to describe Akala's volcanic, force-of-nature self-belief, because determination suggests effort, and his gameplay is effortless. There is a maxim you hear a lot around Akala - 'roll wid it, or get rolled over' - which is more than just a reference to his heavyweight new single, 'Roll Wid It'. Today someone suggests, as we ship though London in the back of his red Fiat, that the British music industry won't let this music grow. Akala issues a measured, muscular response: 'They can't stop it,' he says. 'They either roll wid it, or get rolled over.'

In his conception, success is mode of being, a way of thinking instead of a destination or a bank balance to achieve by a certain age. Similarly, ambition isn't something handed to him by a careers officer, but instead an almost physical urge: the drive to get up, do stuff, link and project the friendly fire of his personality into the world.

His role models are the big-thinking statesman of black culture – Bob Marley, Muhammed Ali, Jay-Z – the ones who took themselves from grime to grandeur, but the spur really comes from within. 'To be honest, I was born like this,' he says. 'I feel like it's almost an abuse of your life to not be ambitious? I've been given two arms and legs, sight, ears, writing skills. I'm healthy. I can see, I can hear, I can rap. I can open a business, how can I not be ambitious?

The ultimate purpose and reward of success he says, isn’t a fleet of Lexuses or some nice big watches, but to be able ‘to touch people's lives; to touch a human being's life from 5,000 miles away that you've never met through music. Also in life,’ he says, ‘it's great to help other people. And especially someone coming from my situation. We've seen loads of people in America trying to do what I'm doing. But we've never seen anyone in England doing it, especially having ownership of your own product and culture. And inspiring other people like I've been inspired'

This a way of saying that unlike the megalomaniac tyros of hip hop’s increasingly self-centred elite, Akala isn't just in this for himself: he's in it for everybody. For his family, for Camden, for the streets and for the UK.


Kingslee MacLean-Davies is the kind to whom things happen. But he is also the kind whom adapts what happens to his advantage, forcing opportunity from adversity. Akala looks lucky: you can see it in the way he’ll holds the doors open for people he hasn’t met yet, catches the eye with a kind smile, makes sure we’re all happy when we go for soul food at Mr Jerk's on Bayswater.

He grew up around the streets of Camden in conditions that tend to breed either despondency or a burning impulse to self-improve. By the time he was ten his stepfather had already walked out. Single-parent life was made tougher by relative poverty and unsympathetic teachers. Guns were present rounds the ends, and so were the police, and neither force had a lot of affection for the bright but truculent kid. In the cheek-by-jowl of contemporary London, where postcodes delineate chasms in earning differential, Maclean-Davies knew everyone in the council estate down the road, but knew no-one in the smarter terraces round the corner door. He resolved to change all that. ‘It’s crazy that you can live so close and be worlds apart!’

He shares the starry self-assurance, penetrating intelligence and luminous good looks that lifted his sister Naomi MacLean Davies - Ms Dynamite - to fame. He has bright eyes, broad, rocky features and a outcropped crew cut. There is a capacity and force to his six-foot-plus frame, on which hang a set of loose and kempt but unshowy clothes. Underneath the calmly forceful veneer is an empathy derived from the experience of struggle, his own and others'. He is a kind of gentleman thug who asks you to judge him by his words and deeds rather than his appearances.

Yet he’s also a collection of contradictions. On his 'War Mixtape', he offers raw, gravitational freestyles spun out over Dead Prez, C.R.E.A.M and other bangers. His style is throaty, confrontational and hot-blooded, and it articulates the sound of the inner-city struggle against terminal, dangerous decline. In the video he produced for his incendiary 'War' single, he raps from the roof of a police car while his crew throw shapes in the shadows behind. His music is reality hip hop, and his rhymes make grand claims: he is ‘Shakespeare with a nigga twist’ in one couplet, and elsewhere promises to ‘move to everything like Germany like when Hitler was leader’, a reference to the Nazi leader’s military strategy that seems sure to stir controversy. Either way, there’s little doubting his conviction.

His flow moves fast because Akala's mind is in perpetual transit towards the next thing. He is in every sense a player, and rap is not simply rhymes and beats, tracksuits and trainers: 'rap is a sport, it's about who's best, it's very much a competition. Comparisons are inevitable. But the critic that's most important to me is it the streets, cos they have no agenda of trying to sell. Are you good or are you not good? When you get on that track can you spit or not? That's where the realest feedback will come from.'

It’s additionally a greenhouse for aspiration, a force for social change and a platform of self-actualisation that let's anyone become who they really are, or really want to be. This, in a nutshell, is his business.

And let's be immediately clear about how Akala now conceives of himself. Ask whether he's businessman first and musician second, and he replies in the affirmative before the question is even fully asked: 'Yes. One hundred per cent. Business first, it's got to be. I was born loving music but if something doesn't make money for my business, I'm not gonna do it. My head is governed by business. But it goes hand in hand, if you compromise the integrity of your music, you're compromising your business. What sell music is integrity.'

And if this sounds coldly monetarist - even P Diddy paid his dues to the muse before morphing into a rap's own Donald Trump - bear in mind that there are good reasons why the integrity Akala talks about hardly in short supply.

Maclean-Davies says the worst thing that ever happened to him was when his mum contracted Hodgkins Lymphoma when he was 10. 'It made me realise how alone we were,' he says. 'No-one helped. Dad didn't sit me down and says, "you know what, mum’s gonna be alright". Going to school every day and not knowing if when you get home you're mum's gonna be dead, it makes you grow up.'

A further fundamental life change - this time entirely benevolent – occurred when his sister punched out of the underground in 2001 with ‘Booo!’, galvanizing an unimaginative urban scene with hyperspeed chat and pirated garage riddims. Just two years later, she was addressing thousands in London’s Hyde Park and terming Tony Blair ‘the Devil’s chaplain’ over his support for the Iraq war. When her moment arrived and the Maclean-Davies mantlepiece crowded up with gongs and platinum discs, Kingslee ‘totally expected it. [Naomi]’s the most talented human being I know,’ he asserts. ‘All the awards she won, I expected all of it. I thought, you’re so fucking talented that you deserve this anyway. So, it never surprised me. There’s not much in life that could surprise me.’

Was he jealous?

‘Not at all. There’s no one else in the world that deserves more success. She’s a real person, and that’s more important than being talented. She doesn’t bend her principles for no one. You can’t buy principles.’

It remains to be seen whether Akala’s gravely principled music turns as many ears as his sister’s buoyant hybrid of garage and R&B. What’s clear is the pair share conviction, along with so much more. Dynamite joins us later at the Chelsea flat-cum-studio of Akala’s producer Rez. She tucks into the rice & peas her brother picked up at Mr Jerk’s. They fuss each other affectionately; he calls her ‘fatso’ and they tease each other and laugh. She snuffles, because her one year-old picked has up a flu. For a pair of urban firebrands forged on London’s rawest roads, they are both supernormally normal.

The pair have already worked together, but the family affair will have to wait until Akala has consolidated his own rep. ‘I could’ve done a song with my sister and been a star overnight,’ he knows. ‘We’ve done songs together, very good songs,’ some of which they recorded in Rez’s studio - a tiny bedroom set-up were a quilt suspended from the ceiling doubles as the vocal booth. ‘We got one called ‘Why Do’: big hit. But hip hop is a reflection of the streets. In the street nobody cares who your uncle, cousin, mother or sister is: it’s about standing on your own two and being a man. Your can’t stand on your own two, your shouldn’t be a hip hop artist.’

Akala learn to stand in his own two long ago. Like KRS-One said, rap is something do you; hip hop is something you live, in which respect Akala could hardly be more any more hip hop if he tried. Hip hop is how he became himself. Whether he remains in one place long enough to touch everyone else’s world is anyone’s guess. But from football pitch to jerk joint to Chelsea in the space of an afternoon day, whichever way you look at it, Akala’s on an upwards trajectory.

© Kevin Braddock


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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