Akala | 'There is a perception of who reads and who doesn't that just isn't accurate'

Akala | 'There is a perception of who reads and who doesn't that just isn't accurate'

Hip hop artist to children’s author may not seem an obvious career path, least of all to Akala, who launches his début picture book in July. “I didn’t think I was silly enough to work with people 10 and under. I think I took myself a little bit too seriously,” admits the award-winning hip hop artist when we speak on the phone one evening. Named Best Hip Hop Act at the 2006 MOBO Awards, the musician and rapper includes writer, poet, historian, label owner and social entrepreneur in his portfolio. He also keynoted at The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference in 2015.

In 2009 Akala founded The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company, a music theatre initiative working to engage teenagers and young people with the Bard, which has toured around the world. Younger children, however, presented a different challenge - “I was really nervous at first” - but primary school-aged children soon proved to be a new source of inspiration. “I know it’s cliché, but there’s a kind of an innocence, a beauty, a lack of self-consciousness that pre-teen children have. It’s such a refreshing, amazing energy to be around.”

With the greatest of respect, children’s literature, even the stuff that I loved, felt that it had a very Victorian-esque tinge to it, it didn’t even feel contemporary for the ‘80s

Hip and Hop: You Can Do Anything (OUP Children's) is the first in a series about two friends: Hip, a wise hippo, and his energetic little bird friend, Hop. Together they navigate familiar situations, in this book learning to ride a bike, rapping inspirational messages to each other. The text has an infectious energy and rhythm: part prose, part rap, full of rhyme and repetition, which makes it a treat to read aloud; the connection between hip hop and a picture book text feels very natural. Inspiring children to grow up into happy, socially responsible human beings is at the book’s heart; the feel-good refrain of “you can do anything” is a powerful message of perseverance, determination and following your dreams.

The energy and positivity of Akala’s words is well matched by Sav Akyuz’s bold, bright palette and style. Commissioning editor Peter Marley suggested the storyboard artist and illustrator, and although the two hadn’t met prior to the project, their synergy quickly became evident. “I liked the illustrations, then I met Sav and realised that he got the hip hop scene. He’s a similar age to me, he grew up with the tapes, he got the references.” Both shared a desire to capture “the more fun side of a hip hop record”, inspired by groups such as De La Soul and OutKast. The resulting visuals are contemporary, distinctive and exuberant. A second book is scheduled for spring 2018, and future titles will introduce a wider spectrum of characters and experiences with potential to develop into other media. “I see it evolving into a world. Hip and Hop have their own little universe.”

Growing up in 1980s north London “books were part of my life for as long as I can remember”, says Akala. “Not reading wasn’t an option. We didn’t have much money but we did have an incredible amount of books. There was a local library literally almost at the end of my street and I remember spending loads of days there. Even though we were economically poor, culturally I had a middle- or maybe an upper-class upbringing.” He names classics like the Narnia books and The Hobbit as childhood favourites, but he found little to reflect the world he lived in.

“With the greatest of respect, children’s literature, even the stuff that I loved, felt that it had a very Victorian-esque tinge to it, it didn’t even feel contemporary for the ‘80s. That’s a challenge that’s yet to be met, not just along lines of race and ethnicity but of class and gender and having a range that reflects reality especially in cities like London where you literally have children from every conceivable walk of life... You can’t cover all bases but you can aim towards a broad representation.” Diversity is a pertinent and long overdue focus in children’s books and it’s both unusual and incredibly refreshing to see the inner-city world of Hip and Hop against what is still the predominantly white, middle-class landscape of picture books. Showing characters and situations familiar to children is vital in reaching a more diverse readership and engaging new readers. “Hip and Hop are obviously animals but the world they’re in, they’re not wealthy children. Young people from cities like London and Manchester and Bristol will recognise some familiarity of that world, that culture, that vernacular.”

Worlds apart

Creating a world that children can not just relate to but be inspired by is what drives this project. Akala warns of the pressure he sees on children to play down their intelligence in an anti-intellectual culture. “I was quite a nerdy child growing up. I loved science, I loved maths. I dreamed of creating or being part of a movement that makes it cool to be smart.” For him, it was hip hop that offered that transformative experience and broke down any barriers to education and literacy. “I really think that making being smart the norm - because everyone has that potential - that’s what hip hop did for me, groups like Wu-Tang Clan, people like Saul Williams, they came along using a vocabulary that I had no understanding of whatsoever and made it cool to be smart. I think that with Hip and Hop I can hopefully give young people some really unapologetically smart characters that they can aspire to be like.”

The fun and playfulness seen in Hip and Hop is something Akala cites as central to education, but through his work in schools he sees a workforce of teachers constrained by the rigidity and expectations of the curriculum. “Schools in my mind should be about creating happy human beings that are gonna go and be productive adults, not just creating people that can get good exam grades. This sense that [education] must be boring is really harmful. A lot of the supposedly difficult subjects, which Hip and Hop will definitely be touching on, they’re not boring. Even as adults we learn best through having a bit of fun. It’s about recognising different types of intelligence, making space for people to learn in different ways.”

This might be Akala’s first children’s book, but it’s not his first foray into publishing. He self-published both a short story collection, Doublethink, and a graphic novel Visions, noting that books have outsold CDs at his gigs. So why go the traditional route this time? “We’ve done pretty well with self-publishing, I won’t be shy about it. But there’s a reach, an infrastructure, an expertise that is still valuable in a major publisher.” In contrast to major music industry labels that “basically want to own your life”, the flexibility of publishing is “very attractive”, he says, adding: “In the publishing industry you can have several different fields, with several different publishers. It’s fairer on the artist. Doing a deal with OUP wouldn’t preclude me from doing a deal with anyone else.”

“Publishing is in a really interesting place because the internet hasn’t destroyed the industry,” says Akala, who sees the opportunities and challenges of the digital landscape as something publishing has yet to harness. “We’re not innovative in the way we market, we haven’t melded literature with music, with film, with TV.” But most of all, publishing needs to look beyond who we think our readers are. “There is a perception of who reads and who doesn’t that just isn’t accurate.”

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