A weekend of events celebrating hip hop at the Southbank Centre in Central London kicked off on July 14 with a presentation by UK rapper and poet Akala breaking down the musical history and origins of hip hop music,joined by Sona Jobarteh who is a member of one of the five principal kora playing, also known as Griot families from West Africa and the first female kora player to come from this prestigious musical family.

Akala schooled a strong audience in the Clore ballroom beginning with a historical tour through of images showing the architectural and cultural innovation of African history, citing writers and historians such as Olfert Dapper and Basil Davidson, before going onto the Griot tradition in Mali, West Africa and the significance the Griot’s had on the Malian empire. 

To explain in brief, Griots are historians, praise singers, musical entertainers and African historians who would speak drawing upon a practised and memorized history, that had been passed on from Griot to Griot for generations which was constant throughout Africa and integral in the development of the culture.

Sona Jobarteh joined Akala to elaborate on these points, speaking on her personal experiences as a member of a Griot family and spoke of the main points of the traditions of passing on the teaching of history, genealogy and religion through the power and gift of speech, the practice of music through song and musical instruments and understanding history and identity.

Continuing, Akala spoke on the history of African descent in musical expression in Congo Square, New Orleans – a place of African expression in the the 18th century – to the sounds in what was to be jazz music in Haiti and demonstrated the elements of music influenced by its African origins across jazz and Hip Hop by showing clips of 1930’s musician Cab Calloway on James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald‘s scatting.

He also touched on the production of Hip Hop and it’s practice of sampling, demonstrated by Pigmeat Markham on “Here comes The Judge” and comparing that to some of the first publicly acclaimed rappers such as The Last Poets and the late great Gil Scot-Heron.

What seemed to be the most informative and currently relevant part to the presentation were the examples of recent musicians and their influences and cultural ties to Africa and the evolution it has taken. This was demonstrated by showing reggae music and its pride in its roots, as with Yellowman and Bob Marley, but also showing the deterioration of the pride and respect in and for black music.

With the influences of slavery and the appeal in black culture Akala brought up the topic of Jamaican patois or what he explained to be Africanized English (calling it a representation colonized people trying to hold onto their culture) and its place in current black or ‘urban’ music.

The point he really left us with is the popularisation of claiming black culture and black music, embracing elements of it and often disrespecting it, making the point that white artists in America (using the example of Eminem) could never and would never represent the stereotypes of white people at their worst for the purposes of a music video as is often done in black culture.

However, he used the example of rapper Giggs, who has lived and represents what could be classed as the ‘worst’ in black culture having tours and shows constantly cancelled by the police. To validate this, he used the example of Professor Green and Maverick Sabre‘s music video for their collaborative single “Jungle” which caught heat on Twitter the following day, amongst those who were unaware of the talk that took place.

All in all, the presentation was thought provoking, informative and educational and Akala brought about debate on a topic that questioned the messages portrayed by the mainstream media of black culture, specifically music and ultimately largely the exploitation and which is often thought of but not discussed in a public forum – and why not? In it’s context and when you’re able to see the evolution throughout history it does, if nothing else, encourage you to see that to really embrace and celebrate the origins of a culture you have to respect it above anything.

The presentation ended on this piece by Akala:


(Footage filmed from a previous performance)