Akala: Exploding on to the scene

Mobo nominee MC Akala is more than just Ms Dynamite’s little brother.

FRESH FROM HIS inclusion among this year’s Mobo nominees, the North London MC Akala is in buoyant mood. Having sold a modest 7,000 copies of his debut album on his own independent label, the 22-year-old rapper known to his mum as Kingslee MacLean Daley may not be an obvious prize contender. But something in his easy, chatty, motormouth manner suggests that he was not too surprised.

“I had a feeling,” Daley smiles, sipping apple juice outside a Camden bar. “But I was a little surprised I was nominated for best hip-hop and not best newcomer. I thought it would have been the other way around. I’m flattered because hip-hop is probably the bigger category of the two, I just thought best newcomer was more likely.”

The Mobo nomination is somewhat ironic given that Daley has been very outspoken about his dislike for recent trends in hip-hop, although he makes an exception for Kanye West and his all-time musical hero, Jay-Z. He may have opened for 50 Cent as an unknown MC two years ago, but the rap world’s current obsession with jewels, guns and semi-naked girls leaves him cold. He prefers Keane, José Gonzaléz, Arctic Monkeys, White Stripes and Red Hot Chili Peppers. “

Hip-hop’s stuck in a rut,” he shrugs. “Lyrically and musically, rock is more inventive right now.”

There are plenty of rock influences on Akala’s album, It’s Not a Rumour, a very London mix that namechecks Hampstead house prices and the congestion charge among its witty, fast-talking snapshots of urban life. The child of a white mother and black father, Daley is keen on blurring racial and genre boundaries in music. He argues that British multiculturalism is one of our most underrated national qualities, especially in comparison with America’s racially segregated cities.

“I make music that can relate to everybody,” Daley says. “There is not a single black person in England who doesn’t have a white friend, or a white teacher, or whatever — and vice versa, especially in London. For that reason I can sample the Clash on my album and nobody questions it. They approved it personally! I was so flattered. One of the biggest bands of all time.”

Daley was raised by a single mother in Archway, North London. He credits her with giving him the self-esteem to succeed in school, sport and music. “She used to beat me if I ever said ‘I can’t’,” he nods approvingly. “I think that’s fantastic. That’s why I am where I am now, and the same with Niomi.”

Niomi is Daley’s elder sister, better known as the UK garage queen Ms Dynamite. In his early music career he kept quiet about his famous sibling, but now he talks about her openly and warmly. Having accepted her invitation to share the stage at Live 8 last year (pictured below right), he recognises that the family connection has been a blessing as well as a burden. “I wouldn’t say it has overshadowed my career, but at times people have not taken me very seriously,” he nods. “That all changed when the album came out. People like The Times starting reviewing it, and saying it was actually good, Ms Dynamite’s brother or not.”

Daley grew up in “the ‘hood, quote unquote”. But he stresses that it was a pleasant and quiet council house, a safe distance from the high-crime estates where some of his friends lived. In his teens he saw shootings and stabbings at parties on the notorious Broadwater Farm estate, and even witnessed a friend attacked with a meat cleaver in a barber’s shop. “Nobody even stopped cutting the hair,” he recalls incredulously. “If that had been a white barber’s it would have closed down for a week. It’s amazing how you get desensitised to violence.”

All the same, Daley sees no point in glorifying violence on record. The bloodthirsty machismo that fuels much US gangsta rap and UK grime is thankfully absent from his lyrics. “I don’t want to hear anyone rapping about how much of a murderer they are,” he says. “I would like to hear about our environment, but from a realistic standpoint — and the realistic standpoint is that people die and go to prison. That’s all that happens. One out of every thousand might do something good, but the other 999 will die or go to prison. And that is not something, in my opinion, that requires any glorification.”

Precociously bright, Daley notched up an impressive record of academic, sporting and entrepreneurial achievements before turning to music. In his teens he was a maths prodigy, earning a place on an intensive course at the prestigious Royal Institute of Mathematics. “It was a good experience but it was odd,” he recalls. “Even in this day and age, people find it strange that a black kid from the streets can be intelligent.”

Daley was also a gifted footballer, playing for both the West Ham schoolboy team and an apprentice scheme for Wimbledon. But the long hours and backbreaking commitment eventually drove him away. Then, at 18, he and a friend opened a West Indian restaurant catering to the UK garage crowd in Ayia Napa. His musical ambitions intervened, but he remains keen to get back into the cuisine business.

“When I’m successful enough in music, I want to open several other businesses,” Daley says confidently. “Good food is only part of it.” Like a cross between Jay-Z and Jamie Oliver, he hopes to reach out an entrepreneurial helping hand to inner city kids. “There are so many incredibly talented kids who waste their lives,” he says. “They are sitting in a prison cell right now because they lost their temper when they were 18.”

Right now, Daley is at the foot of a very large mountain. But regardless of how many Mobo awards he earns, he clearly has the charm, intelligence and ambition to build an empire. “I won’t even say if,” he grins, “I’ll say when.”

© Stephen DaltonThe Times, 18 August 2006

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