AKALA at The Middle Passage Festival, Barcelona Sept. 2019

Akala talks Transatlantic Slave Trade and Twitter revolutionaries 

Suzannah Riddell
Photos Paul Husband. Stuart MacKay. 

“We must have an accurate knowledge of the culture that existed and exists in places where hip hop and African diaspora culture comes from… none of this black music started with slavery/slave music – that is nonsense.’’

Akala is a man with a mission: to give African history and African achievement its proper place in the human story. This mission includes explaining how African history has been distorted to justify the Transatlantic Slave Trade and colonialism, and how the effects of the pseudo-scientific racism this distortion relied on, remain with us today. It is a mission that we at The Middle Passage Festival share.

British born Akala – a BAFTA and MOBO award winning hip hop artist, best selling author and social entrepreneur is currently receiving critical acclaim for his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Speaking at the first edition of the Middle Passage Festival in September here in Barcelona, Akala took us on a journey through African history to understand the roots of the art, music and culture of the contemporary African diaspora that The Middle Passage Festival celebrates. 

Afterwards we sat down to discuss how the Transatlantic Slave Trade is (mis)represented and (mis)understood in popular Eurocentric discourse, and for what ends. The misrepresentation of this period begins with the words we use to describe it.

(S) Rather than the ‘Transatlantic Slave Trade’,  would it not be more appropriate to refer to this period of history in terms of a conflict; ‘The European-West African War’, for example?

(A) That’s a fascinating conception. I definitely think there is a history of conflict there and a lot of language is used in a way that deliberately obscures that. I don’t think anybody who went through the Middle Passage was part of a trade in the sense that they clearly did not want to be traded. It’s never looked at from the perspective of the enslaved and in that perspective to call it a trade becomes diversionary. I think one of the problems is when you’re talking about the TA Slave Trade is people who think they’re clever try to point out that Africans sold other Africans.

The idea of collaboration is presented as a fact that reduces European culpability, and emphasises the trade narrative over one of conflict, acting as as a ‘victim blaming’ tactic, and is based on a lack of understanding (or perhaps more accurately on the miseducation) of history from both a European and an African perspective.

(A) In every single conflict in human history there has been collaboration. When the British invaded Ireland there were Irish people who helped the British. In the context of the Nazi holocaust there were Jewish collaborators. In no other context do people think the fact that there were collaborators discounts the general tragedy. So because of that element of collaboration there is a way in which it is conceived of that Europeans just went to Africa and people were selling their babies on the seafront. This is how the British like to conceive of it.

(A) People think it’s not necessary to have a class analysis of Africa. As if the king of the Kingdom of Benin had the same interests as the average peasant in the kingdom of Benin, which of course in the context of England would be completely absurd. Partly this is because people don’t know anything about Africa. What in reality was happening was that African elites were waging war on African peasants, farmers, workers, serfs, existing slaves etc, and ordinary Africans were risking their lives to get people back. Even those African kingdoms that became major slave leaders generally had laws preventing the sale of their own people.

While African collaboration is exaggerated, African resistance is under-represented. Resistance also took place in the slave colonies of the Caribbean, Latin America and what would become the United States of America.

(A) There was massive resistance in Africa itself. There were more rebellions against the TA Slave Trade on the West Coast of Africa than any island in the Caribbean. Including Haiti and Jamaica. 482 [rebellions] just in the British, French and Dutch records alone. 1 in every 10 European ships was attacked. At least 1 million fewer people went across the Middle Passage than would have done had there not been physical resistance.
But yes the Transatlantic Slave Trade could be conceived of more as warfare, especially when you think about the fact that at the formal end of slavery what Europe did was link up all European countries and literally make war on the survivors of TA Slave Trade, those who remained in Africa. The justification of this was that Africa needed to be saved from their slave dealing elites but the slave dealing elites were the European business partners. So now you want to save ordinary African people from the people who you made money with for the past two centuries?

“…because if we think we’ve always been the good guys in history our rose-tinted views of the past will affect how we view [our government’s] behaviour today.”

It’s a familiar story, the distortion of the historical narrative to present profitable foreign policy as humanitarian intervention. To what extent should we understand the end of the Slave Trade as an example of this?

(S) How far is the story of the end of the Slave Trade, as a triumph of the British and American Abolitionist movement, an exercise in whitewashing of history – and what effects does this whitewashing have?

(A) I’m aware of the debate that abolition was a purely economic strategy and there’s certainly a lot of evidence to support that. But to say there wasn’t a genuine moral imperative for the end of slavery would be to be historically inaccurate and dishonest. I think that for a whole host of reasons the abolition movement could be taken seriously in parliament, [at the time of the end of the TA Slave Trade] none of which were to do with a sudden moral epiphany. The British began getting their labour for the Caribbean from India. Sugar production transferred to India. Britain had lost America, and was on the verge of losing Jamaica. It had failed to defeat the Haitian revolution. There were a whole host of reasons why at that time the idealistic left wing snowflakes that believed that slavery was a moral evil, could be listened to.

(A) If you look at the way abolition was used, it was used – especially in the case of Britain – to further Britain’s strategic interest to interfere in the affairs of the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French and in the Middle East. It was used in the same way that humanitarian imperialism is used today. We want to go and intervene in Iraq to save them, it just so happens there’s so much oil over there. There are strategic reasons to be over there in that role.

(A) None of that is to say that there wasn’t genuine revulsion against the moral evils of slavery by the British public, there was. Just like millions of us today thought we shouldn’t have bombed Iraq, the government didn’t give a shit what we thought and the public today certainly has more power than it did in the middle of the 19th century.

(A) People have been fed a really simplistic way of viewing history and from the British people’s perspective that can be quite damaging, because if we think we’ve always been the good guys in history our rose-tinted views of the past will affect how we view [our government’s] behaviour today. We saved the world from slavery 300 years ago so yes we can save the world from the evils of Middle Eastern dictators today.

Knowledge is power. Only through understanding history in terms of race, class and gender can we understand the forces at play in the world today. But how do we use this power? Is the pen really mightier than the sword? The armchair revolutionary in me wants to know Akala’s thoughts.

(S) Given the knowledge that the foundation of the world capitalist system was built using the profits of the TA Slave Trade, is the dismantling of this system the only way to combat structural inequality, institutional racism and patriarchal violence?

(A) I don’t have the answer and I’m not going to delude myself into believing that at this point in history that the socialisation of the means of production with all the violence this would imply in a British context [Is the answer]. Most British people think the empire was good, they’ve done the polls, most British people are monarchists. To think in that context, that we’re going to overthrow British capitalism, and seize the means of production for the workers [is implausible].
I think it’s very easy for people who’ve never even been punched in their face once to imagine themselves as revolutionaries. If you want to do something, set up a homework club, get a young kid a job, do what you can do. Someone said to me the other day so beautifully; ‘Everybody wants to change the world, nobody wants to do the dishes’. I think that obviously means everyone fancies themselves as Che Guevara on Twitter, but what are they actually doing?

(A) I will readily admit I do not have a credible, workable answer to late capitalism. I’m doing what I can to exist as ethically as I can within the limits of my own selfishness, my own greed, but my own will to do good. The more I interact with a lot of Twitter revolutionaries I realise that a lot of that culture is about abstract moral theory in absence of any concrete action. Because if you do anything and achieve anything lots of people are going to criticise you, and lots of people don’t want to be criticised. So instead they sit on Twitter writing loads of theory, and that’s fine but I’m not into that. I’d rather you do something and say: that part was good, that part was crap, but you did something.

Although he wields the pen (and the mic) as a master swordsman, Akala is a pragmatist. When armed with the truth, doing your bit can be a revolutionary act.

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