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Akua Naru A Woman’s Voice in Hip Hop

It’s not easy to pinpoint a modern day female hip hop artist, let alone an embodiment of the plight against gender inequality.

There used to be a fair number all queuing on a conveyer belt awaiting production – Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shante, MC Sha Rock, Lauryn Hill. But since the commercialisation of hip hop, a style of music that became fundamental in giving people a voice to express their realities, women were ironically silenced.

Marketability became the key, and as part of the entertainment industry women were expected to maintain a certain image. If you weren’t deemed profitable, investment would be withheld.

But for every force of disintegration, a positive emerges. Acclaimed poet and hip hop artist Akua Naru argues that this generation lacks sufficient social commentary. “Women have been denied a voice in hip hop,” she said. “There is a body of knowledge we have not had access to on so many levels in the mainstream.”

A purveyor of “political, soulful music”, the 37-year-old firmly believes in the profound and significant effect that rap music can have on shaping culture. “I love the power of hip hop,” she said. “How it can connect people, empower, educate, and speak to my experience. Imagine how much men, for example, could learn about themselves by listening to how we paint them in our music?

“In what ways could our experiences get spoken to as women when we listen to other women? My music is a contribution to that body of knowledge.”

Culture, of course, refers to the way we interpret the world. It is the sum total of the learned behaviour and codes of interaction that become engrained in us and act as a powerful force that shapes common ways of talking and making sense of the world.

Clearly undeterred by the pervasive nature of being born into a culture, Akua as an individual strongly believes in constructing a society that is ever-advancing. She refuses to see herself as a mere recipient of culture, but rather as a builder.

On both of her albums, The Journey Aflame (2011) and The Miner’s Canary (2015), she focuses on her experiences in American and European culture. Her jazzy compositions feature an eclectic mix of keyboards, violins, saxophones and, above all, a distinguished beat, with lyrical content – through hip hop and spoken word – about love (‘Seraphim’), the hip hop industry (‘Heard’), community suffering and police brutality (‘Walking The Block’).

She has cited Noble Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison as one of her strong influences, even titling one of her songs ‘Toni Morrison’, whom she credits as paramount in her development as a writer and enthusiast of the black literary tradition.

Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Akua was brought up in the Pentecostal church, an institution that boasted plenty of gospel music and black female leaders. It comes as no surprise, as visible examples of an empowered black community likely gave her a more crystallised vision of a future society she wants to create.

The poet found hip hop through her uncle, an aspiring producer, who is said to have snuck hip hop records into a family household that had banned secular music. At just nine years old, Akua used her early strengths in expressing herself lyrically and rapped over beats provided by her uncle.

Akua will perform in Manchester for the first time on 12 October at Band on the Wall. “I have never been to Manchester, so I am excited to see what it’s like. I heard that people love hip hop in that city. I think [the music] is varied and unique. A lot of dope stuff [is] coming out of the UK.”

The Miner’s Canary, as Akua has previously described it, is a metaphor for the black community and for black women. And more so it encapsulates the suffering they endure as a consequence of structures that are in place which prevent a population from fulfilling their true potential.

You can certainly see parallels with the hip hop industry, but Akua is holding the lantern and wants to guide the masses into a more elevated state of consciousness.

“You will have to listen to it and discover it for yourself,” she said, when asked about the album. “It’s about hip hop and jazz and justice and love and everything in between.”

Akua Naru performs at Band on the Wall on Monday 12 October.

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