‘Exhibit B’ controversy
No stranger to controversy, Akala last year also became one of the major public faces of the campaign against “Exhibit B,” an “art installation” featuring caged African people in various degrading and submissive positions that had been scheduled to take place at the Barbican. The black community was up in arms – but the artist claimed he was highlighting the barbarism of the “human zoos” that accompanied the late 19th and early 20th century colonialism of Africa.
For Akala, however, it was this attitude itself that was a major part of the problem.
He said: “Any artist empathizing with another group of people’s struggle should be concerned about what that group of people think of what they do. Do you see what I mean? I read the Bhagavad Gita, for example – I’m quite fascinated by Hinduism as a philosophy or the Tao Te Ching from China.
“If I were to be representing any of those cultures, and the people whose culture it was were offended by what I did, I’d want to know why, and I’d want to correct myself. But this kind of arrogance – the idea that this guy is better placed to describe and represent the suffering of black Africans than they themselves are – was what was most telling for me. So I was really pleased with the outcome.”
The outcome was that, after extensive protests and a petition signed by over 20,000 people, the Barbican eventually decided to pull the show. Predictably, the campaigners were lambasted in the mainstream media for having effectively“censored” the exhibition. For Akala, however, the real censorship was already inherent in the exhibition itself, which failed to depict not only the Europeans involved in this kind of colonial domination, but also the Africans who fought back:
“People are tired of seeing this – it is a form of censorship. Black resistance is completely airbrushed from mainstream representations, but black suffering can be put on as pornography for people who have no interest in fighting racism, to sit down and be like ‘Yeah, racism’s bad but look how powerful we are.’ To me that is what seeing black people in cages in the 21st century does – it doesn’t achieve anything revolutionary, it’s just colonial porn. In the world of ‘Twelve Years a Slave,’ and ‘Amistad’ and ‘Avatar’ and ‘Last of the Mohicans’ – all of these ‘white savior’ movies – people are tired of that narrative.”
The Haitian revolution
It’s a narrative that is not only promoted through the art and entertainment industry.
Akala has often emphasized how both the mainstream media and the British education system tend to ignore the crucial role of the Haitian revolution in ending the slave trade, for example, preferring to focus on figures such as William Wilberforce.
For him, this imposed ignorance about the significance of Haiti is yet another form of censorship. I ask him why this history has been so “buried.”
Akala said: “Revolutionary history generally gets whitewashed and airbrushed and taken away. But Haiti particularly, just because of the danger it represents to narratives of race, of class, of gender. Thirty percent of all the people who fought in the revolution were women – it was overwhelmingly led by people who were formerly enslaved. On so many levels it violates what’s supposed to happen.”
Nor is this airbrushing solely the preserve of the right, he says:
“Even a lot of supposedly left-wing historians are guilty of writing about the revolutionary age and the French and American revolutions and leaving Haiti out of it, when in many ways the Haitian revolution went further than all of them. Haiti was the only one that got rid of slavery. So in terms of the implications, Haiti was really, really important for anyone interested in freedom, justice and quote, unquote ‘democracy’ – but the racial aspect of it means that it’s grossly understudied.”
@akalamusic to share our experiences, create worlds that amaze us, touch our hearts and make us use our brain to paint everlasting pictures
— Arash poems (@Arashpoems) August 12, 2015
Akala does what he can to redress the balance, and his book ‘The Ruins of Empire” contains an intense, evocative account of the Haitian revolution told through a series of vignettes from the life of one of its leaders, Dessalines.
It would have been perfect for the ‘A’ Level History course I used to teach on slavery and abolition. It would have been, that is, had the course not just been dropped from the curriculum by the one exam board that used to offer it – proving Akala’s point.
Whilst the ruling class don’t want us to remember the Haitian revolution, however, it’s clear they themselves have not forgotten, or forgiven, the momentous changes it brought about.
Akala puts it this way: “In 1825, the French extorted 91 million gold francs as reparations for loss of their property – i.e. ‘their’ Africans – from Haiti, and that money didn’t stop getting paid off until 1947.
“During that time, you had the American invasion of 1915. Since then, you had the installation of the dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier, and you’ve had democratic elections which have, both times, elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and both times he’s been taken out of power. So symbolically, what Haiti represents in the black world is that it has been made to pay for daring to have that revolution over and over again.”
Yet, despite everything, Akala argues that the positive results of the revolution have still not been erased:
“Haiti today has one of the lowest murder rates: lower than Trinidad, lower than Jamaica, countries that are significantly wealthier. And I would argue that part of the reason for that is the community spirit that must exist in Haiti as part of this anti-imperialist legacy. I haven’t been so I can’t say for certain, but the evidence on the ground with Lavalas [the grassroots political party led by Aristide] supports that, totally.”
‘Half millennium of permanent bloodbath’
Empire and its legacy retain an enduring fascination for Akala, not simply as a historian, but as someone seeking to understand and change the world today.
This much is clear throughout his work, which constantly emphasizes the connections between the violence of the colonial era, the modern division of wealth, structural racism and contemporary warfare. On “The Fall,” for example, from his latest album, Akala notes how the genocide initiated by Christopher Columbus paved the way for a “half millennium of permanent bloodbath.”
“Columbus didn’t set off with this big old plan to create in the 21st century the industrialized world that we see before us today, of course he didn’t,” Akala says.
“He wasn’t that clever a man. He set off, he murdered a whole bunch of people, committed genocide, and out of a whole series of historical circumstances, and accidents, and some planning, this world system of European-based capitalism evolved – along with white supremacy.”
Fundamental in all of this was the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, Akala says: “There was an interesting program on the BBC of all places a few weeks ago, called ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners,’ by David Olusoga, which outlined something historians used to consider controversial. Eric Williams wrote a book in the 1940s called ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ and he put forward the thesis that Transatlantic slavery was really the foundational moment in the formation of European capitalism.”
The BBC’s program effectively confirmed Williams’ thesis, drawing on extensive research by banker-turned-historian Nick Draper.
But, as Akala puts it, “It’s not rocket science. Imagine if Apple Macintosh didn’t pay a single one of its employees. It’s already the richest company in the entire world.
“Imagine it only paid the most senior management and it didn’t pay anyone else – no-one who worked in the stores, none of the people who made the products – no-one, only Steve Jobs and his cohorts. It would be an infinitely richer company than it is today. Now imagine a whole nation of companies that applied that principle. So it’s not difficult to see how Europe became so wealthy.”
To some extent, things have changed since then, of course, thanks not only to the Haitians, but also to the two world wars, where European powers were forced to arm those they had colonized whilst weakening themselves in the process.
Akala says: “All of the allies needed their colonies to win that war, so the French needed their Senegalese, and their Mauritanians and others to fight for them; the British needed their Indians and their Africans and their Jamaicans to fight for them, and it created this kind of ‘gap in the market’ if you like, where for the first time in a few centuries, European power was challenged, leading directly to the limited decolonization that we have.
“Europe has tried to hold on to power in as many ways as possible, including using the IMF, and the World Bank, and America.”
His theme is that while colonialism changed its form, it never truly ended: neocolonialism replaced it.
Yet today, the European/North American-dominated world system is breaking down. The fall of empire has been a particular theme of Akala’s recent output, tackled not only in his book – a graphic novel based around a whirlwind tour of human history (and now also a one-man stage show) – but also in his recent album “Knowledge is Power.”
What will replace this crumbling neocolonial system, however, is not entirely clear.
On the one hand, global politics today is being shaped by the rise – or rather, the return – of Asian and African power, Akala argues: “What a lot of people have to understand is that, for six or seven hundred years, before Europeans set up in East Africa and elsewhere, there was a semi-global system of trade between India, the so-called Middle East, Africa and China – with the Chinese admiral Zheng He coming to Africa in 1415 – and that system is reemerging.
“Its imperfect – it wasn’t a paradise before white people turned up, and that’s not what any real historians are saying – but it was certainly better than what has emerged.”
The reemergence of China, India and Russia, Akala explains, is potentially good news for smaller Asian, African and South/Central American countries, as “they’ll have an alternative option for trading, an alternative option for loans, an alternative option for a partner in development.”
On the other hand, the “Old Order” is refusing to go quietly: Europe is “scrambling around the world,” Akala says, trying desperately to reassert its position – and the danger is that the neo-colonial world will be “crushed in the battle.”
He adds: “We’ve seen what’s going on in Syria, we’ve seen what’s happening in Libya, we’ve seen desperate, naked, almost 18th century colonialism returning – particularly with what happened in Libya. And to me that shows signs of weakness, signs of desperation.
“We’re seeing 1950s-style language coming back, you know, referring to desperate people, whose desperation we have partly created, as ‘swarms’ and things of this nature. So I think that kind of nakedness, and that ugliness, is a sign and recognition that there are challenges.”
The reemergence of Asia and Africa
For Akala, then, these are our two possible futures, both being simultaneously created before our eyes – the reemergence of an African-Asian led global economy, or the reemergence of European-led global war and fascism.
In some ways, of course, the old imperial powers are being forced to accept the rise of China as a fait accompli, he says:
“Look at the way how, over the last few years, all the anti-China rhetoric that was so heavy six or seven years ago, has all started to disappear in the British media. You’ve got Boris Johnson talking about how everyone needs to learn Mandarin – basically you’ve got people going around the world, English and European leaders, begging China to trade with them, essentially. That’s the sign of a new day. So we can see the world’s richest country for 17 of the last 20 centuries – China – returning to that position.”
Is this a good thing? Akala thinks so.
“There’s no guarantee that a new power will be just,” he says. “But I think it guarantees a different world – what that different world means, only time will tell. What I do know for certain is that the current system that enables a few individuals, in Europe and elsewhere, to amass fortunes more than entire countries is just not tenable, it’s just not going to work.
“And whether or not Europe and its American extension would rather destroy the entire planet than have a world that is bipolar, a world that is negotiable, a world in which America and Britain, particularly, don’t get to just do whatever the hell they want. Only time will tell.”
Not an analysis you will hear many current pop records, I suspect. It is this impressive understanding of the dynamics of world history that sets Akala apart from his contemporaries and which gives his music both its intellectual depth and its revolutionary force. Check it out.
Akala’s current album, “Knowledge is Power II,” and his book, “Ruins of Empire,” are both available from his website www.akalamusic.com. He’s performing at the Boom Town festival in the UK this upcoming weekend, and at the Shambala festival in late August.
Dan Glazebrook is a freelance political writer who has written for RT, Counterpunch, Z magazine, the Morning Star, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Independent and Middle East Eye, amongst others. His first book “Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis” was published by Liberation Media in October 2013. It featured a collection of articles written from 2009 onwards examining the links between economic collapse, the rise of the BRICS, war on Libya and Syria and 'austerity'. He is currently researching a book on US-British use of sectarian death squads against independent states and movements from Northern Ireland and Central America in the 1970s and 80s to the Middle East and Africa today.