“Biggie Smalls” is a reference that comes up constantly in our conversation with Akeem Jahat. For the 27-year-old Woodlands rapper, the East Coast’s Notorious saint has the upper hand over the West Coast guardian Tupac Shakur. “Biggie is a poet; Pac rants”, he tells us, closing the book on rap’s most enduring debate. Where most would sit on the fence and fret over the merits of both, Akeem hands it to you straight – just like in his music. If you’ve heard his work—including the excellent SeluDOPE mixtape—you know that he spits pure fire in a measured, instantly distinctive English-Malay flow that exudes unflappable verve. Bars, beats and uncompromising spirit are crucial ingredients in hip-hop and Akeem has them all. Ahead of his first solo show at Canvas, he takes us behind the philosophy of his pen.
Hey Akeem. Take it back: how did all this begin for you?
I was a real hefty dude in school and I wanted to impress the girls, but I found self-esteem in Biggie Smalls. Look him: He’s got an asthmatic wheeze and a wandering eye but he was dating the Beyoncé of his time. And when he gets on the mic, it’s a whole different story. It was through him that I learnt about the culture of hip-hop. When I was 16, one of my boys entered me into a rap competition, Beat Society’s Platform 6, without asking me – and I won it. That got me into writing original material. It took off from there and the vision changed.
How did it change?
My circumstances changed and I started to figure out myself more. I realised how powerful songs could be for the person listening. When I was 21, I found that people were taking my music seriously and with that, the responsibility kicked in. The scary thing is that kids were following the examples I set in my songs. That took me aback. The intent wasn’t that, but at the end of the day, intent doesn’t matter if you don't fix the problem.
Your lyrics are incredibly layered and detailed. What’s your writing style like?
I read a lot. And I never stop reflecting on my life. I’m a method writer – I have to experience things before I can write about them. There’s stuff in my songs that you can’t find in gangster movies. When people ask me how I came up with something in a song, I say, “’Cos it actually happened”. That’s why there’s that level of conviction in my delivery. I mean every word I say. Beyond that, the process is undefined. Like, I just finished a song that took me two years to write.
What have you read that’s influenced you in a profound way?
I like storybooks. But you’d be surprised if I told you who my favourite writer is: Mitch Albom. Tuesdays With Morrie has inspired me since I was 21. His writing is so vividly detailed that he won me over. He can take an emotion and stretch it into a shape, and sometimes, a character. To me, he’s an action-movie writer who writes about human dramas.
Hip-hop has always been about “keeping it real”. What’s your take on this?
I keep it realistic. I don’t like the term “real”. Its definition has become so diluted today. How “real”? What’s “real”? But keeping realistic is something else, entirely. If you can $5, spend $2. Don’t front in a wack attempt to “keep it real”.
And lastly, where do you think your music stands in relation to current trends in hip-hop?
I don’t like the term “banger”. It’s not healthy if everyone sounds like Lil Jon. It means that you’re making music on someone else’s terms and that’s just not what I’m about. I figured out that I’m not going to make bangers. If you factor out the time spent sleeping and working, the average person commutes for about one to two hours a day – that’s the time I want to own. I want to be their choice. There’s so much music out there that lacks conviction and emotion. There’s no takeaway. But mine is different – that’s what I bring to the table. Watch out for my upcoming album, $ua.