The mouth is almost like a percussive instrument. If you use it in the right way, your flow can have melody coming from the vowel sounds, but then percussion coming from the consonant sounds. And your flow of how you divide up these consonants and vowels determines how nice an instrument your rapping can become.
Akala juggles consonants, vowels and meaning like a master in his song Carried Away. He sings the first line: ‘Another hearse roll up slow,’ with intensity, but the words maintain their funeral pace. He chose them for that purpose. Another begins with the most ‘nothing’ sound in English: a schwa sound, followed by a soft n followed by another schwa, followed by a soft th (which he pronounces with a Londoner’s v). Every sound adds to the picture: the dull, tongue slowing effect of the double ll in roll, the vanishing r sound at the end of another, the dead vowel sounds in another, hearse and up and, finally, the round rhyme of the vowels in roll and slow. All chosen to weave sound and meaning into a physical sensation.
A warning about Akala’s video. It pulls no visual punches. I think everything in it is necessary, but if you want to hear the words without the images, there’s an older, static version here.
The whole song is threaded closely around carry and carried away. Simple English words with complicated hearts. Like all ancient everyday words, carry has grown meanings like moss over the centuries, adding layers to its roots in the Latin carrus: ‘wheeled vehicle’.
Many of carry’s varied meanings come into play as Akala’s song develops: to support or move from one place to another, to support the weight of, to be pregnant with, to be infected with a disease and liable to transmit it to others, to hide an item (money, weapon) about your person, to use a gun or similar weapon to propel a missile to a specified distance, to assume or accept (responsibility or blame) and to have as a consequence. You can read more meanings for carry here.
Carried away can mean, simply ‘carried to another place’. As a phrasal verb, carried away adds emotion to the mix. The phrasal verb carried away can involve delight: ‘I lost track of time because I was carried away by the music’ or anger: ‘I’m a pacifist but when I saw him bully my little sister, I got carried away and I punched him’. Or anything in between: ‘I got a bit carried away at the Christmas party’. Taking action because of emotion is in Akala’s song. Being overcome by emotion and doing things you wouldn’t normally do is also in his song. One of the masterstrokes of Akala’s word choice is that the song moves between carried+away and carried away. All meanings are present.
Akala chooses singer Josh Osho to deliver the sweet, soaring hook of Carried Away. Josh makes Away float and gives Carried extra depth and width. He dwells on their sounds. He intensifies the song’s poignancy. The hook is full of sounds that writhe and dip and spin and turn, like the eɪ diphthong double vowel sounds in naked, face it, away, crazy and blatant, or the long ɜ: vowel sound in turn and the long i: vowel sound in really, carried and believe. The hook, as a creature built of sound, is the personification of carried away.
It would have been harder for Akala to switch from the relentlessness of the imagery in the rest of the song to such a swooping hook. Josh is like another instrument in the orchestra. The clarinet to Akala’s piano and percussion section.
Josh Osho’s sweet voice has been called up by other vocalists:
As far as Akala’s song goes, I think one of the saddest words in it is qualifications, as it refers to the young man who joins the army:
All he wanted was qualifications
So he could carry his family places
Better than those that he was raised in
Never really thought, he’d ever have to go to war
Now who’s gonna tell his kids daddy can’t
Carry them no more?
Qualifications is set up to be a memorable word. It has more syllables than any other word in the song and Akala pronounces each one carefully. We always notice long words. Qualifications rises and falls like breath as it undulates, with the short /ɪ/ vowel sound lifting it twice in the middle. When you hear qualifications, near the end of the song, you also hear the echo of the rhythm and placement of the short /ɪ/ vowel sounds in the hook: When this world strips me naked or I’m crazy, it’s blatant. Each line of the hook has the same stress pattern as qualification: qualification, with a secondary stress on the qua. In the hook we hear I’m crazy, it’s blatant and when this world strips me naked. Patterns repeat for a purpose.
Akala says here that the song was originally written in response to deaths of young men on the streets of London and in the Iraq War:
The song’s content was inspired by two forms of death, one being young people from poor backgrounds in the midst of one of the richest cities on earth killing each other for a whole host of reasons that I would argue are part of a larger structural violence… The other form of death was inspired by young working class soldiers (I wrote the song in 05 so Iraq was relatively recent) who think because of propaganda and nationalism that they are going to war for their country, only to find out they are actually fighting, killing and dying for banks and oil companies. I felt that, particularly post Chilcot, this still carried relevance.
I’d say that his choice of words did those young men proud.