I watched Akala’s documentary on hip-hop last Sunday night on iPlayer; or, more accurately, on Monday morning. I finished it about 1am, and it was a great start to my week.
Akala was the perfect presenter for this show. He is engaging and charismatic, and has the respect of all corners of the UK rap community. Though not a battle rapper himself, he clearly has the skill to handle himself in any lyrical skirmish (anyone doubting that can listen to his SB:TV F64).
He is also inquisitive, which takes a humility that is probably most attractive, if not necessary, in documentary presenters. One of the 45-minute programme’s best scenes was when he interviewed Linton Kwesi Johnson on the origins of his style and of hip-hop more broadly. As a housemate of mine once said, to be a great artist you must respect your forerunners, and Akala certainly did that.
I was also struck by how keen Akala was to align himself and his fellow MCs with the poets of the past. The word “poet” is one from which many poets actually shy away these days, and it was interesting to see a rapper with millions of YouTube views behind him so passionately claiming it for his own.
It was refreshing to see a show that went behind the scenes this much. A memorable moment was seeing the childlike wonder of Ghetts as he described the eternal journey towards mastering his craft. Another surprisingly touching scene was when a schoolteacher was dissecting the lyrics of Devlin’s “Community Outcast” – one of my favourite pieces of UK rap – and Devlin seemed moved that his words would be studied in a classroom.
I really enjoyed the format of the programme, which was a narrative punctuated by interviews with several of UK rap’s leading lights, and acapella renditions of raps by several artists. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t room for criticism. I would have liked to see some better and more diverse performances of the acapellas, especially given the talent in UK rap at the moment. A bar or two from Wretch32 or PMoney would not have gone amiss. There was largely an absence of female MC voices, and it would have been good to hear about the challenges and the opportunities that they face. I also thought that the battle scene was one we could have done without. These two rappers, even if we overlooked the casual and childish prejudice they tossed at each other, just weren’t very good.
But these are minor gripes in the grand scheme of things. This very good documentary has opened the door for Akala and his genre on the small screen, and I look forward to seeing where he takes his advocacy next.