Akala – rapper, self-made intellectual, political activist, and brother of the rapper Ms. Dynamite – has carved a place for himself as one of England’s most interesting and important public intellectuals, with his foundation as a rapper being the springboard from which he’s launched himself into being a captivating, deeply informed speaker on issues of race, class and history, and where they all intersect. This short clip of him conversing with poet and radio announcer Mr. Gee about William Blake’s poem “London” is rich with insight and analysis.
The camera trails the two men as they walk through contemporary London, musing on what those same streets were like in Blake’s day, what has materially changed and what (politically, socially) has stayed the same. The clip alternates between their sharply observed conversation and ordinary Londoners of all races and class standings, men and women, reciting the poem. That tack blows off the dust of “highbrow” (which so often serves as a pre-emptive strike that cloaks art in the garb of inaccessibility) and reminds the viewer how “of the people” Blake was.
We’re reminded how timely – if not timeless – the iconic poet’s work is by the Gee and Akala juxtaposing London of yore as she began flexing her global muscles, with what that has meant and still means for the city and world today. As Mr. Gee notes, “Blake peeled the veneer behind that image and he spoke about weakness and woe…. Blake is seeing the London that he grew up in as a child sometimes being ripped apart by the extreme wealth and extreme poverty that exists within London.” And as Gee speaks the words “ripped apart,” the camera settles on the hands of a worker at a shawarma stand pulling flesh from a bone with his bare hands. It sounds more on-the-nose than it plays in the clip.
One of the things most notable about the whole intellectual exercise is that neither Akala nor Mr. Gee draw heavy-handed links between hip-hop and the work of Blake, and they don’t have to. The similarities and connections are already there.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
Here is a probing analysis of the poem that reinforces much of what Akala and Mr. Gee say in their take on the poem’s meaning.