Akua Naru Olatunji is an academic, a wordsmith and an advocate for creative expression for black women the world over. Strong, compassionate, proud and extremely talented, with mic in hand since the age of nine, Akua combines her passion for music with activism and a need to share the art of spoken and written word.
After a lifelong career travelling shore to shore to work with the likes of Questlove, Tony Allen, Rah Digga, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and so many more, we caught her on the eve of her Black Noise tour of greater Europe while inspiring young women in Sudan at Afhad Women’s University.
Read on to hear her thoughts on wokeness, creative practice, the dark past that still haunts us and the unknown future that awaits us.
Shiba: At the moment we see a lot of black artists at the height of very public, racial statements in their art – especially emerging in the mainstream. Some might say that being ‘woke’ is no longer a state of mind. Do you think some people look at this movement as if it were fashionable? Could it come to a point where black consciousness ‘sells?’ And does it even matter?
Akua: I don’t even have time to think about that, to be honest. Blackness has been central for me since I was 11 or 12 years old, that’s always been normal; to be fighting… so maybe there are some people who are just coming to the level of consciousness right now and it’s finally feeling comfortable to speak about their struggles. I don’t know. The people that I know… we’ve always been challenging white supremacy. We’ve always been unapologetically black, so there’s really no time to think about whether or not it’s a trend.
There may not have a language for it, they may not have read Fanon and they may not know what happened to Lumumba; not everybody has had the opportunity to gain that access to knowledge but they feel it… they know what’s happening. The people that surround you say a lot about who you are, and my people are quite a global group, and I see them doing the work. That’s what I know, so I can’t say what it’s like or should be like for them. Nobody should.
Have you ever had to explain to somebody who disagreed with what you chose to put out there that it’s not about them?
Yeah… I mean this thing is I’ve been in situations where, of course, someone disagrees with something I’ve said, I mean, we’re different people and it’s ok. It’s normal. We’re never gonna agree on everything . That’s the beauty of building. I write songs that are very black; my music is very black, and obviously I centralise blackness and black women’s experiences and it’s clear who I’m writing for and what the narrative is.
There are people who have a problem with the fact that I’m speaking to black people, and talk about issues that I feel are important to me as a black woman
But yes I have been in situations where people were unhappy. For example, I have a song on the Miner’s Canary called Black and Blues People where the chorus says, ‘black people unite.’ After the show there was a white man who waited for me when everything was over, and when people started cleaning up etc he waited for me after the show and said ‘You should start trying to talk about all people because we are all people, and I’m not a racist but…’
You know in a situation like that, so there are people who have a problem with the fact that I’m speaking to black people, and talk about issues that I feel are important to me as a black woman… And some people don’t feel included.
There might be other things that I said that people don’t agree with… Sometimes I disagree with myself! Maybe with something I wrote five years ago, I would think about now and if I had a chance to rewrite it I would, because now my opinion is slightly different, and because, well… I’ve grown.
And that is the point really, to grow through experiences like these?
I think so but for some people it’s not… for me growth is is very important. Yeah so somebody waited all that time for me after the show and I thought I’m not even going to respond to this, because this is who I am. Write your own… you know, the fact that you even think that I should… I’m sure you have a problem with it obviously but I’m not here to engage you.
I wasn’t going to dignify or defend what I do, so I just went about my business
People who like your music like it for a reason, and you’re allowed to disagree with what you disagree with. Now I’m in a place where I don’t even have to defend it and it’s ok to disagree.
So did he leave happy at the end of it all?
I’m not even concerned. I’m not responsible for his happiness… I let go of it, it’s just not my job to make sure he is happy. He’s not going to pay me per minute to discuss with him what white supremacy is and what white privilege is, and what white entitlement is, what white fragility is and what white comfort is… I just don’t do that anymore. And maybe somebody would have continued the conversation with him but I decided that I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to dignify or defend what I do, so I just went about my business.
Speaking of things like white supremacy and Fanon and all these interrelated things, clearly from a young age you took an interest in social issues, reading your Assata Shakur and the like… My personal feeling is that there are some gaps in the teachings… where the climate in which they were living is quite different from what we are living right now even though a lot of what they had gone through concerning black culture has certainly not changed. What would you say then, has happened since those times that hasn’t been contextualised for young people today?
That’s such a loaded question… there’s so many different answers for that and it’s so pregnant with things to discuss. Um, I would say that it’s obvious that Malcolm and Assata and Garvey and Biko and all our great revolutionaries are still relevant today because we are not free. But there are so many things that have happened that made it so that people started to believe…
For example I was in Johannesburg at the end of last year and there was a woman, a white woman who came and said to me ‘We don’t have racism here in Johannesburg.’ I was there during the #FeesMustFall movement and this woman after the concert went on to say that ‘race doesn’t exist here, that’s not our problem, that’s an American thing. I don’t see colour.’
And again I don’t want to defend or whatever so I just exited the conversation but I feel like maybe one way to answer that question (because there’s so many different things that happened in the last 40 at least years alone and so many things that have not changed at all) the Internet for example has created a space for people to mobilize around issues and come together and be more visible and critique and call out what they see.
Yes, people particularly in South Africa now are losing their jobs over racial slurs online. So things have sort of mutated with time in a way, but there is so much to see even if some would choose to be blind to them…
Yeah. And you have all these ways in which people also make it seem like white supremacy doesn’t exist so that people believe in this false idea of a post-racial society. So it’s like because now you might see people in certain positions and in some places where the violence for example is not as direct as it was in the past, people think they can gloss it over. Other places people can say that they don’t see race but then again there are white people who said the same thing as they’re saying now in the 50s. ‘I don’t see race. it’s not an issue’ or whatever.
And it’s 2016, so some people have gotten comfortable, so it’s not as easy to detect racism.
I think those revolutionaries I mentioned are still absolutely relevant and that’s why we still have to read all those things like Baldwin’s critique on America’s race problem. Some things have changed and some things have stayed exactly the same. And it’s 2016, so some people have gotten comfortable, so it’s not as easy to detect racism. We all get caught up in thinking that we’re free, but deep down we know that it’s not true.
So, what is the best atmosphere that you find opens you up and enables you to deal freely with life and turn it into something like The Journey Aflame or The Miner’s Canary?
It depends on what I’m creating, it depends on the song… I mean there have been songs that just came to me out of nowhere at 3 o’clock in the morning and then boom… Or just walking down the street. And then there are other songs that took more time. I like to write in the morning. I need three notebooks, I need to burn some incense and it needs to be morning… And normally if I’m writing to music, then I just let the song repeat. So I don’t ever turn it off and I got to bed with it in the background, and when I wake up I turn the volume back up again. At some point I feel like the spirit of the song starts writing itself.
From The Journey Aflame to Miner’s Canary, what was it like moving from something amassed by a bunch of people you came to know intimately through the music, along with Digflo to creating something that came almost entirely from your own hand, finished with all these new collabs?
It was totally different for me, getting there actually. Like the Journey Aflame was kind of like, it took me six months from beginning to end and it was me working with a producer or other producers who were making beats that they would send and then we would choose and then after a while there was a musical path that was created and we’d decide, ok this sound didn’t match it. So the music was basically finished to a certain degree. I would say, oh let’s add a trumpet or a live guitar or or let’s add a live bass and take the programmed bass out.
There were no samples — it’s all live and original music and everything you hear is real; strings, organs, horns.
That was the extent of my involvement in terms of the music production. I really just focused on writing and what I wanted to say. I didn’t learn as much which was enough for that time. When I did the Live album, we did that in two days. There were 11 songs and we were in studio over a two-day period.
And then when I did The Miner’s Canary, it was clear I had to… the album was all live. There were no samples — it’s all live and original music and everything you hear is real; strings, organs, horns. It took me over two years. I wanted to get the music to sound exactly what I wanted it to sound like and it was scary at first to be honest. But at some point I started to try things out and began to like what was happening. I played it to other people and they would say ‘wow I like that,’ and then I’d go back to the studio and try some other stuff and it came together. Two years of really hard, focused, intense labour. Over every single sound. So when you hear the snare in Boom Bap Back, that is a layer that took me three weeks to get exactly the way I wanted. Those drums are a treatment that I designed over three weeks!
Would you say the fundamentals of hip hop have fallen by the wayside or is hip hop one of those things that should evolve? Do you feel like hip hop itself is a sort of ‘miner’s canary’ for black culture?
I would say that, yes. But I think that hip hop is… well what are we talking about, are we talking about the sounds that came out of Texas or Louisiana were not the same as what was coming out of Northern California or what was happening in New York? The time periods even, sounds of the 80s are not the same as what the late 90s sounded like. I think there are people that still love hip hop and respect the art and communicate amazing messages. I mean I heard a brother here in Sudan, and he was killin’ it!
Do you remember his name?
I don’t know, but I’ve been trying to find out. Even when I was in Zimbabwe there were some brothers and sisters in studio rapping in Shona. Absolutely slaying, killin’ it. So what I’m saying is there are people who are living and breathing the culture but we have to look across the world now. Playing with different languages and different styles.
Hip hop is still here. It’s just the mainstream part is showing a different side and that’s the most visible, so people are thinking that’s the dominant reality of hip hop. It’s not! There’s so much more. The people I meet and have met are onto something else…
So then with the mainstream as it stands right now with so few women having to ‘elbow their way to the mic’ more than men do, do you feel a responsibility to say the right thing while you can?
Of course I do. It’s sad that in the mainstream there are only one or two representations of what it means to be a woman. But that’s the beauty of things like the internet. There are way more voices that we can have access to. Now independent artists have a following all across the world and people can connect and make music across borders. Like someone like Blitz The Ambassador, when I was in Johannesburg, he was there too. How did we find out? The internet. And he came to the show! I love Blitz so that was great and now getting to travel and see new venues and promoters and all of that is possible. We don’t have any more excuses.
There are so many women who are killin’ it. It’s time to yes, enjoy mainstream music but now we can also step back and align ourselves with people who can relate to our stories and speak to who we are as well and put their money behind that.
Sistas in the States, Sa-Roc, Dynasty… Yugen Blakrok from South Africa? She came to the show and blazed it. She destroyed us! How would I even know who she is if it wasn’t for technological advances? We have to use what we have now and mobilize to support each other, and we’re doing that.
Find out more at akuanaru.com