In celebration of Black History Month, the Reach team attended a talk by Akala, in which he discussed his Sunday Times bestselling debut book, ‘Natives’.
With some of us having grown up listening to Akala’s music, we were jumping at the chance to get up close to the MOBO and BAFTA award winning artist, but this event opened our eyes to the more mature work of “the black Shakespeare” and the incredible accolades he has gone on to achieve.
Akala gave a whistle-stop tour of the themes discussed in his book, starting with growing up in London as a working-class, mixed-raced boy during the 80’s and 90’s. He described himself as a bookish teen who found himself being marginalised by circumstance and having to challenge the prejudiced views of teachers at school.
Moving on to highlight the evident structural racism that persists today, Akala spoke of the history of British colonialism and the British Empire. The passion he has for this topic was palpable as he addressed the room. It was moving to listen to Akala’s personal account of when he was first confronted with the idea of race. He recounted this moment of realisation as a young boy of 5 when he had just experienced a particularly nasty racially motivated insult from a white boy at school. As he came home and began explaining the incident to his mother, he was struck with the realisation that she was white and found this a difficult truth to be faced with, having just been on the receiving end of racial abuse from someone who is white.
Akala used his characteristic one-two punch of both sharing a well-researched evidence base interwoven with his own lived experience. Something that really struck a chord was hearing Akala describe incidents of witnessing friends involved in serious youth violence, to the point where this type of violence was so normalised within his peer group even by the time he reached his early teens. He spoke of the complete lack of ‘professional’ support that he and his peers received following these traumatic experiences. However, he spoke fondly of the community support he had received from his pan-African Saturday school and stressed the important role that these community groups can play in providing a safe space for young people. This hit home for us as we are painfully aware of the limited resources that are available to so many young people in their local communities and schools, despite the trauma and difficulties that many young people face growing up in inner cities today.
Akala’s talk, followed by a tantalising Q&A, left us hungry for more. The topics Akala discussed resonate so well with the ethos behind REACH research, and as such it was a huge privilege and great opportunity for us to be able to attend this talk. The relationships between ethnicity, racism and young people’s mental health are central to the REACH project. A lot of the adverse experiences that Akala discusses in his book are only too familiar to many young people growing up in London today. Together with our school partners and thousands of young-people who are taking part in REACH, we hope to contribute to change and to support a long-fought movement towards a more equal society.