Athian Akec Talks … Mandem

Mandem is an anthology exploring Black masculinity.

The collection of short essays are written by some of our finest contemporary Black writers with themes of vulnerability and raw honesty.

20-year-old Athian Akec has guest lectured at London Metropolitan University, given talks at the Houses of Parliament about knife crime, and sitting on the board of a racial justice organisation.

We spoke to the writer an social activist about his addition to the Mandem Anthology and what he hopes his essay will inspire …

Please introduce yourself …

My name is Athian Akec. I’m 20 and live in Camden via South Sudanese heritage. I find it hard to say what I do but at its root it’s about synthesising my perspective on race, class and climate issues across different mediums and communicating this to the world. That manifests as me writing and presenting a series for i-D magazine called “Beyond Black history month” which presented stories of Black history not included in the mainstream such as the Haitian Revolution, a speech that I gave on knife crime being a socio-economic issue as a teenager being included on Loyle Carner’s latest album or currently doing a project with the National Literacy Trust in schools teaching kids about writing as a medium for social change.

Can you tell us why and how you got involved with Mandem?

A mutual friend of Iggy and myself (shout out to Nate Agbetu) told Iggy about my work. We then got in contact and spoke about a bunch of ideas. Eventually settling into the idea of my essay being focused on the phenomenon that I’ve observed from close in, the Black men I know and am related to but also more broadly – that Black men try to deal with trauma by trying to get rich. I think in terms of why I hope that the essay I wrote can be picked up in 20 years or whatever by a 20-year-old Black kid and help them in some kind of way, I’ve become interested in the idea of autoethnographic expression which at its root is the idea of academic researchers engaging with wider societal issues/phenomena using their own direct lived experience as something that wider points can be taken from. Mandem is a form of that.

Please tell us about your contribution to Mandem

The title is, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. It’s about the phenomenon of Black men trying to deal with their trauma by getting rich. The essay starts by challenging the perception of Black men as being inherently violent and calls into question the violence we receive at the hands of society (social exclusion, poverty and beyond). The essay also examines through research done by the charity Mind, how many Black people’s first interaction with the mental health system is through having the police called on them or other violent interventions. The essay then looks at how we internalise the ideals of meritocracy and how this translates into people thinking they can elevate their way out of poverty through amassing material wealth.

Tell us about your writing process …

The idea of exploring the essay’s subject matter had been in the back of my mind for a while but I kind of kept it there – the process was much about external research as it was about me attempting to dissect parts of my psyche.

Rap music is the soundtrack to my life. And a hallmark of the genre is the obsession with the idea of self-determination (particularly expressed through amassing absurd amounts of money). As I began to listen more closely to the lyrics it became clear that a hallmark of the form of expression is that obtaining wealth represents more than having money in the bank and represents somewhat of a kind of psychological break with traumatic experiences rooted in poverty.

The other major component was academic studies commissioned by various mental health charities that looked at how many Black people’s interactions with the mental health system were through forceful intervention or having the police called on them.

There are many more layers; the essay takes a kaleidoscopic approach to dissecting the issues it touches on. Another big part was regularly meeting with Iggy to talk through revisions and changes (I think we met 7-8 times)

What does being a Man mean to you and when did you discover its meaning?

That’s a kinda difficult question bearing in mind I’m pretty young. But I think Malcolm X is one of my ultimate heroes. And his genius in the X was that our lives are great sites of possibility and that this exists in the site of community (and other things that are bigger than ourselves). Also, something deeply admirable about Malcolm X was how his life was a constant story of progression and reinvention. I think I want to be a man who is ambitious for more than just myself (there’s a Vince Staples lyric I love where he says “Won’t stop until the whole Hood Fed”)

I’m definitely still in the process of figuring that out.

What does Mandem mean to you personally?

Everything. I remember someone telling me once that if you don’t tell your story someone else will but they’ll do it wrong. Mandem is really a chance for us to reflect our multidimensional complex experiences. Also from an archival perspective it allows us to speak to the future through our own voice rather than depictions distorted by bias.

Tell us about a challenging moment during this project that you had to dig deep to get through?

The most challenging part was writing this in the middle of A levels prep.

A sentence, a moment, a paragraph in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that defines what you want the reader to understand about you and why you said yes to being a part of Mandem

“The crushing weight and pressure of not having money in an expensive society does not suddenly lift when you achieve material success. Bleak memories are not erased by shiny floors, foreign whips and nice holidays (no matter what your favourite rapper might tell you). Memories of overdrafts and council letters that threaten to shatter your world do not suddenly disappear when you become wealthy

Considering your career evolution, where does this project sit on your checklist?

This project has been super important in terms of me letting go of expectations and speaking from a more vulnerable place (one of the most damaging effects of our ego is that it can have us become averse to risk).

What’s next?

There’s a kind of paradoxical thing I’m noticing about life, the more you talk about doing things the more energy you detract from actually just doing it.

How do we keep up to date with you and your work [socials]?

I’m @athianakec_ on Twitter and @athianakec on Instagram.

Where can we get a copy of Mandem?

All good bookshops.


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