In Natives, musician and political commentator Akala has written a fierce and necessary polemic on race and class. Now in paperback, our Non-Fiction Book of the Year, Natives stands out for its clarity, urgency and humanity. Akala uses his own personal experiences to explore how race and class intersect and how we’ve come to be where we are in contemporary British society. It’s eye-opening, challenging and, we believe, required reading. Now available in an exclusive signed pink sprayed edge paperback edition, and we have an extract from this vital book, below.
1 – BORN IN THE 1980s
I was born in the 1980s and I grew up in the clichéd, single-parent working-class family. We often depended on state benefits, we lived in a council house, I ate free school meals. I am the child of a British-Caribbean father and a Scottish/English mother, my teenage parents were never married and they separated before I was born. My dad spent a portion of his childhood in and out of the care system and my mum was pretty much disowned by her father for getting with a ‘nig nog’. The first time I saw someone being stabbed I was twelve, maybe thirteen, the same year I was searched by the police for the first time. I first smoked weed when I was nine and many of my ‘uncles’ – meaning biological uncles as well as family friends – went to prison. My upbringing was, on the face of it, typical of those of my peers who ended up meeting an early death or have spent much of their adult lives in and out of prison.
I was born in Crawley, West Sussex, but moved to Camden in north-west London before I had formed any concrete memories and I spent my childhood and teenage years living there. Camden is home to 130 languages and about as wide a divide between rich and poor as anywhere in the country. I went to school with the children of lords and ladies, millionaires, refugees, children clearly suffering from malnourishment and young boys selling drugs for their fathers. If there is anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place.
I was born in the 1980s in the ‘mother country’ of the British Commonwealth, the seat of the first truly global empire, the birthplace of ‘the’ industrial revolution and the epicentre of global finance. What does this mean? What are the social and historical forces that even allowed my parents to meet? My father is the British-born child of two African-Jamaican migrant workers who came to the mother country as part of the Windrush generation. My mother was an army child, born in Germany, spending her infant years in Hong Kong and moving to the small town in which I was born in her early teens. In my parents’ meeting are untold histories of imperial conquest, macroeconomic change, slave revolts, decolonisation and workers’ struggles. I was born poor, by Western standards at least. I was born poor and racialised as black – despite my ‘white’ mother – in perhaps the most tumultuous decade of Britain’s domestic racial history.
I was born in the 1980s, before mixed-race children had become an acceptable fashion accessory. A nurse in the hospital promised to give my white mother ‘nigger blood’ when she needed a transfusion after giving birth; yeah, the 1980s was a decade bereft of political correctness.
The 1980s was also the decade of Thatcherite–Reaganite ascendency. The ‘golden age of capitalism’ had ended in 1973, and the 80s saw the start of the rollback of the post-war welfare state, increased sell-off of public assets and the embrace of an individualistic ‘self-made’ logic by the very generation that had become wealthy with the support of free universities and cheap council houses, and had literally been kept alive by the newly constructed National Health Service. The decade saw the most powerful military machine ever assembled spun into existential crisis by the enormous threat posed by the potential of a socialist revolution on the tiny little Caribbean island of Grenada, and the self-appointed captains of global democracy could be found backing genocidal regimes from Nicaragua to South Africa – though that could’ve been any decade, really. It was the decade Thomas Sankara was killed, the Berlin Wall fell, Michael Jackson started to turn white and the MOVE movement was bombed from the sky. The 1980s were fairly eventful, to say the least.
For black Britain, the decade began with the New Cross fire/massacre of 1981, a suspected racist arson attack at 439 New Cross Road, where Yvonne Ruddock was celebrating her sixteenth birthday party. Thirteen of the partygoers burned to death, including the birthday girl, and one of the survivors also later committed suicide. Many of the families of the dead have maintained to this day that a) it was an arson attack and b) the police bungled the investigation and treated the families of the dead like suspects instead of victims. The community’s suspicion that it was an arson attack was perfectly reasonable, given that it came in the wake of a string of such racist arson attacks in that area of south-east London. The prime minister did not even bother to offer condolences to what were apparently British children and their families. Of course, Thatcher could not, in her heart of hearts, express sympathy for black British children while supporting an apartheid government rooted in the idea that black people were subhuman, so at least she was consistent. There certainly was not going to be a minute’s silence and most of Britain is completely unaware it even happened, despite the New Cross fire being one of the largest single losses of life in post-war Britain.
The same year also saw the passing of the British Nationality Act, the last of a series of Acts that were passed from 1962 onwards and whose racialised motivations were barely disguised. British Caribbeans had come to learn that they were indeed second-class citizens – as many had long suspected – but they were not of a mood to be quiet and keep their heads down about it. New Cross led to the largest demonstration by black people in British history; 20,000 marched on parliament on a working weekday and foretold of the harsh realities of the decade to come: ‘Blood a go run, if justice na come’ was the chant. It was to prove prophetic.
The rest of the decade of my birth was punctuated by uprisings and disturbances in almost all of the Caribbean and ‘Asian’ areas of the country, as well as the miners’ strikes of 1984–85 and the constant presence of the anti-apartheid struggle. These ‘disturbances’ included the infamous Brixton riots of 1981, set off by the sus laws – a resurrection of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, these laws allowed people to be arrested on the mere suspicion that they intended to commit a crime – and their manifestation in Swamp81, a racialised mass stop-and-search police campaign.
Brixton burned again in 1985, set aflame by the police shooting and paralysing Cherry Groce. Just a week later, the death of Cynthia Jarret after a police raid on her home sparked the Broadwater Farm riots, where a police officer was killed. I know members of both families personally, and grew up with the son of Smiley Culture, the reggae artist who died during a police raid on his home in 2011. I mention these connections only to point out that these people are not abstractions or mere news items, but members of a community, our community. Dalian Atkinson, the former Premier League footballer, was tasered to death by the police in 2016; it’s hard to imagine a former pop star or a retired footballer from any other community in Britain dying after contact with the police.
These 1980s reactions to state violence, racism, poverty and class conflict were by no means limited to London; there was the St Paul’s riot in Bristol in 1980, Moss Side and Toxteth in the north-west of England in 1981, Handsworth in the Midlands in 1981 and 1985 and Chapletown in Leeds in 1981 and 1987. How many millions of pounds of damage these outpourings of rage caused I don’t know, but now that they are sufficiently distant from the present, very few academics would dispute that they had very real socio-political causes. Indeed, entire books have been written on them, and government policy and police behaviour and training were reformed in direct response to these events, though what lessons the British state has truly learned from the 1980s remains to be seen.
It’s easy for people just slightly younger than myself, and born into a relative degree of multiculturalism, to forget just how recently basic public decency towards black folks was won in this country, but I was born in the 80s so I remember only too well. I was five years old when the infamous picture was taken of footballer John Barnes, kicking away the banana that had been thrown at him from the stands. I grew up routinely watching some of England’s greatest ever football players suffer this type of humiliation in their workplace, in front of tens of thousands of people, who for the most part seemed to find it entirely acceptable, funny even. I knew Cyril Regis personally (rest in power, sir), I know about the bullets in the post and the death threats received by black players from their ‘own’ supporters and apparent countrymen because they wanted to play for England. No one asked in public discourse where that association with black people and monkeys came from, because if they did we might have to speak of historical origins, of savage myths and of literal human zoos.
I was not born with an opinion of the world but it clearly seemed that the world had an opinion of people like me. I did not know what race and class supposedly were but the world taught me very quickly, and the irrational manifestations of its prejudices forced me to search for answers. I did not particularly want to spend a portion of a lifetime studying these issues, it was not among my ambitions as a child, but I was compelled upon this path very early, as I stared at Barnsey kicking away that banana skin or when I sat in the dark and the freezing cold simply because my mum did not make enough money. I knew that these experiences were significant but I was not yet sure how to tease meaning from them.
Akala is a BAFTA and MOBO award-winning hip-hop artist, writer and social entrepreneur, as well as the co-founder of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. He has been awarded an honorary degree from Oxford Brookes University and the University of Brighton. He's written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the Independent, and spoken for the Oxford Union and TEDx.