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Interview | Athian Akec

June 26, 2024 5 min read

“I think I realised that everyone's lying”: The social visionary uses his voice to speak for those who struggle to find their own


The Times They Are a-Changin: from speaking in Parliament to featuring on Loyle Carner’s third album, the 21-year-old activist unfolds his incessant search for justice.




 “I'm not a politician by the way,” Athian Akec says, almost as if he’s trying to convince me of the statement. I don’t need persuading though, politicians aren’t renowned for talking with Akec’s clarity.

I’m sat in the Barbican Centre with one of the most impressive young men in the country. Athian Akec is an activist, a former youth MP, an educator and a published writer. He’s also only 21 years old. He speaks with the poise and understanding of someone far beyond his tender years—measured and elegant in his phraseology, he never strays from the core of his beliefs. “[To] recognise the value in everyone's life,” he tells me is his ideological centrepiece. “To think about how normal people can profoundly shape things. Because it's a collective effort, right?”

During our 40 or so minutes together, Akec’s knowledge of culture, political science, history, philosophy, music – and their intertwinement – becomes apparent. He references rappers (Kendrick Lamar, Nipsey Hussle and Vince Staples amongst others), legacy activists who have inspired him (Claudia Jones, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon) and quintessential readings (Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed). These aren’t empty references though; they act as a plethora of evidence for the personal manifesto that he untangles.

The psyche of Akec is compelled by change. Raised in the heart of Camden, his loving but complex relationship with the borough laid foundations for his passion for societal improvement. “Witnessing a lot of the stuff that was happening with youth violence and knife crime in Camden,” he answers when I ask what shaped his drive to pursue such propulsive work. “I think Camden is such a beautiful place with so many beautiful things happening there. But it's also very deeply unequal.”

His observations growing up have proven a launchpad for his ambition for positive impact, a journey that began in his teens. He’s since spoken at the House of Commons on knife crime (gaining him virality), guest lectured at London Metropolitan University, delivered talks in schools and a workshop at South London Gallery in Camberwell and written for a wealth of publications on topics spanning Black history to social activism amongst young people. His self-defined best work to date is an article penned as part of an essay collection called Mandem, looking at “how Black men deal with trauma by trying to get rich,” he explains.

Akec’s, perhaps, most far-reaching cultural milestone saw him feature on a record with one of his musical heroes—Loyle Carner. The South London rapper is known for his advocacy for societal permutation and found clarity and purpose in Akec’s aforementioned talk at Parliament. Carner DM’d him with the desire to sample the speech as a spoken word segment that closes “Blood On My Nikes”, a standout cut from his third album, hugo. Akec was listed as a featured artist on the album and went on to appear on its accompanying tour, which included a now legendary appearance at Glastonbury. “When I was in school, I was putting people onto his music, so being on his album was an incredible moment. He’s someone who I think has contributed so much towards the British cultural landscape.”  



The lens of love and respect from which Akec views Carner is reflected back on the rapper’s side. At the aforementioned Glastonbury show, the rapper spoke about Akec with incredible warmth and passion. “My energy is better spent on people like Athian; I don’t give a fuck about the last generation; I’m bothered about the next one,” he said, on stage, in front of thousands of onlookers. “Athian has the rare ability to make you burst out in tears or laughter at the flick of a switch,” Carner told me, via email, on their collaboration. “He makes big ideas seem simple. The future’s in safe hands.“

Personal accolades may have come thick and fast for Akec, but as someone galvanised by being a vessel for decisive development, he sees beyond his own flowers and into the desolate fields that surround his own burgeoning growth. “I think ultimately we're not winning,” he says. “When I walk around in my community and see the levels of homelessness, drug addiction and just general collective pain, it's kind of sobering. There's way more work to be done.”

Akec is a realist, unafraid to face the actualities of life within the contemporary context he exists in. But he also remains “irrationally optimistic,“ and, in that vein, adversity inspires action. “I think I realised that everyone's lying,” he sighs. “Like literally your entire socialisation… when you think about the logic of education, you need to follow these rules, sit your exams, go do this… I sound like such a hippie, but that can't be what we're here for, to just follow what people are telling us to do. For me, it's like, 'how do I think on a generational level and use the platform that I have to help create a political consciousness amongst our generation?' It's basically 3D chess. We have to be strategic as well.”

A dichotomy can often be seen in Akec’s own generation and their engagement in current affairs. “We have very politicised subcultures that are hyper-political and then we have people who are kind of like, ‘Yeah I don’t want to be involved in that.’ I think sometimes we see it in cultural escapism. It's kind of like, ‘The world is too crazy so I'm going to retreat into this corner.’ I think the way you bridge it is to abandon the idea of a generational mission,” he continues. “We've seen various social movements that haven't delivered the results that were expected. So people would be like, ‘I invested [in it] and it didn't really amount to much.’ I think the way to shift beyond that is to look at politics from a much less reactive space. It has to be like, ‘How can we set the agenda for what's happening? How do we view power as something that goes beyond the formal systems of politics?’”

Setting hard and fast goals for the future of his own work is something he would only do with caution. “I always hesitate because I think the best way to do it is to just do it,” he says ardently. “But it’s about rejecting an idea where we exist in a world in which we think things are over, that everyone is just ransacking for what they can take and they don’t believe in humanity anymore.”

He may not be one, but Athian Akec has ascertained what all politicians should strive to be: a champion of people.

Interview taken from Man About Town Spring/Summer 2024

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