AKALA’S debut novel, The Dark Lady, tells the story of Henry, a young thief with magical powers in Elizabethan England who is haunted by visions of the mysterious dark lady.

This brilliant, at times brutal, first novel from Akala, will glue you to your seat as you are hurled into a time when London stank and boys like Henry were forced to find their own route through the tangled streets and out the other side.

As part of Southbank Centre’s spring season, BAFTA and MOBO-winning hip-hop artist Akala spoke at the Royal Festival Hall in a conversation chaired by Mustafa the Poet which was also live streamed.

The evening kicked off with a reading by Akala from his new book, The Dark Lady, in which the audience were introduced to the protagonist Henry who roamed the mean and dirty streets of Elizabethan London.

The best way to describe listening to Akala speak is consuming, the sold-out audience at the Royal Festival Hall hung on his every word for over two hours.

His self-confessed waffles perfectly tread the fine line of being poignant and socially important yet entertaining and humorous.

Mustafa opened the questions by wondering if it was intentional to have Henry be so relatable to a modern audience.

The poet and artist said he felt an affinity with the character because growing up as a black youth in the hood in Toronto he witnessed those universal themes of poverty and crime.

Akala replied that without compromising the essence of the story he wanted to explore the issues of being an outsider, especially as a black youth in Shakespearean England.

However, he said that the reader has to be careful to not read too much into the geo-political situation of the past because race relations and prejudice had different dynamics back then.

Akala went on to talk about how, despite his magical powers, Henry has become aware of the limitations, mortality and reality of his blackness.

He mixed real historical detail with elements of folklore and witchcraft and planned how characters would have interacted with Henry in that time period.

The writer talked about the setting in Shakespearean England and said he wanted to challenge and push readers but at the same time try to make it relatable and entertaining.

Akala said that he didn’t grow up thinking Shakespearen language was too different from some of the rap music he was inspired by, citing Wu-Tang Clan. He said: “My man was using words like malevolent and benevolent!”

He also talked at length about his journey of becoming an author and the challenges this threw up, including having to write nine drafts of his 80,000-word book!

Akala said: “I’m not being fake humble when I say this, actually I’m being quite arrogant, that writing a book makes you realise you are not as clever as you thought you were when you were 25.”

He talked about how he was pleased writing a good novel but when you look at the great writers, the likes of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, you just have to accept that there are levels to this thing and have to be content with your own journey.

Akala compared this to being a footballer and that in the school levels he stood out amongst the rest but when he joined West Ham in the youth ranks, everyone is the best in their schools and you’re competing in a much tougher environment.

He went on to say that when he finished the novel it wasn’t even enjoyable.

Due to having your whole life oriented about this book and the process of writing, when it was finished he was left with a gaping wound in his soul and a weird type of melancholy.

A clear message from the evening was the importance of education and reading for people in all backgrounds.

Akala said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Referring to how children should have visible figures in their lives to encourage them to read from as young as possible to make it cool because ‘children who read from the age of seven will read forever.’

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