Akala was challenging the status quo long before it was cool to be "woke". When IBTimes UK caught up with the lyricist, poet, wordsmith and activist at his studio in north west London, the conversation was just as riveting as expected. This was, after all, the man that had commanded the attention of royalty, politicians and TV stars with his literary acrobatics.
"When I was a conscious rapper seven or eight years ago it wasn't fashionable," he says as we navigate our way through topics including music, politics and his work as a social entrepreneur and activist.
Conscious rappers like Akala, Kendrick Lemar and Dead Prez have given rise to the term "woke" – which means to be socially minded and aware of the apparatus of the elite –by choosing to highlight issues largely ignored by the mainstream media.
"Saying nothing when injustices are going on is basically one for the status quo. If you know these injustices are going on, and remain silent, that is tacit support for things as they are," Akala insists.
"As an artist if you rap about how great it is to have a nice car and how great it is to drink loads of champagne and wear the greatest jewellery and watches in the world and you say nothing about the injustices of your society, you are reinforcing very particular ideals."
The 33-year-old star, who has released all of his music independently through his label Illa State Records for over a decade, continues to put his money where his mouth his with the release of his latest EP, Visions.
Outside the musical box
Written entirely in verse, he originally intended Visions to be his fourth 'Fire In the Booth' for Radio 1's Charlie Sloth, but later decided that it was too "conceptual and weird" for that platform. A quick listen and it easy to see how he excelled academically. His wordplay is on par with the best lyricists in the game.
"Visions is a semi-autobiographical magical realism story. It takes episodes from my life, stories of conflict and then looks at alternate states of consciousness and things like reincarnation, spirituality, past life progression and ancestral memory and all these things I'm really interested in, but uses real world incidents from regular city madness to do that,"he explains.
The Mobo-winning musician, real name Kingslee James Daley, is known for his strong political views and the eloquent ways in which he expresses them. Preferring to walk the less trodden paths and not swayed by the hunger for commercial success, there is no ignoring the discourse in his music, Youtube channel and books.
"I haven't had a radio playlist since Shakespeare in 2005 and my next London show is at Shepherd's Bush Empire. It's not O2 but it's not a small venue. It's a lot of tickets for an independent artist."
Having launched the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company in 2009, he is credited with introducing a new generation of readers to Shakespeare with the touring troupe that performs his adaptations of classics like Macbeth to 13- to 25-year-olds. In 2015, he gave a keynote at The Bookseller's FutureBook Conference.
Coming full circle
Akala reveals he has come full circle with Visions, which has the same undertones as his debut mixtape, The War. "In the last five years, it's almost like I've only tried to show people the better side of myself and Visions is one of the first times I talk about the rough episodes I went through when I was growing up or some of the times I was misbehaving as a youth," he explains.
"I think the music has evolved in terms of taste, in term of extant, in terms of the kind of things I'm into the subject matter. But even if you listen to my first mix tape, The War Volume 1, even on there, there is some analysis, history is imperialism, classism etc. So those currents were always there, but more rough around the edges."
For him, an integral part of his work towards a better society is his authenticity. "I'm trying to find a bit more of a balance," he reveals. "Now, I deal with all the politics and history and I'm also like 'this is where I come from, this is what I went through, and this still intrinsically sort of who I am'".
"Do I think humans can achieve a perfect society? No. Do I think we can do a hell of a lot better than we are currently doing? Yes, absolutely."
Born in London's Kentish Town Akala openly admits he made some decisions growing up that could have "resulted in an entirely different life" and says he is spurred by his desire to save lives through education.
"I've always believed that it's my job as a citizen, as an artist, a human being – especially now that I'm in a much better position than the one in which I grew up – to try and a make a difference so that lots of young people growing up the way I did and worse do not have to go through the things I went through or at least have the tools to understand why the world is the way it is if they are going through those things."