Thinking you can steer a conversation with 24-year-old New York native Daniel Dickson, better known by his stage name AKAI SOLO, isn’t as foolhardy as it may seem. For a person whose art is literally attached to his words, AKAI cares what you’ve been thinking more than most. He cares about how other people see and move in the world. He cares about the thoughts spiraling out of other people and the circumstances they navigate. The people refine AKAI’s worldview. Everything is fuel.
The ubiquity of fuel is why New York is such a formative setting in AKAI’s work. “You get hit with all of it,” AKAI SOLO tells me over the phone. “You get hit with not being able to afford food. You get hit with not being warm. You get hit with not being able to have any space to think. You get hit with all types of existential dread to a certain degree.”
This description of New York, as a place of physical and existential conflict, set the city’s image in context: beats erected as spaces of solace in a hot urban jungle at the dawn of hip-hop; the perception that faded into the menacing coat of grime the incendiary social circumstances of the 80s wrapped the 90s in; the sound lining the work of modern-day New York sounds echoing out of NY’s brand of drill, or the work of Medhane or Standing on the Corner.
New York is the setting that introduced a sixth-grade AKAI to rap by way of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. Seeking to connect with his students, AKAI’s math teacher played them some Aesop Rock, and hearing their classmate’s name, Shamar—dropped in reference to Vordul Mega—hooked them. But this first introduction didn’t exactly stick.
“I didn’t get the context of the lyrics, the alternate portrayal of New York—all that shit that makes that a masterpiece didn’t hit me then,” AKAI reflects. “So, when I came back to it in college and had somewhat of an autonomous way to investigate hip-hop, I just started to hear and study that shit.”
AKAI studied. The rapper’s third release of 2019, Black Sand, a collaborative project with rapping-singing-producing wunderkind Pink Siifu, was the next step. Following 2019’s Alone Throughout Heaven and Earth and MAD MOON and predating the recently released MAD SPACE and Like Hajime—Black Sand matches AKAI’s stifling flood-water lyricism with Siifu’s elusive production and vocal stylings. A sense of haunting creativity fills the record.
“We [AKAI and Pink Siifu] chilled one night,” AKAI tells me. “We went to dinner [at] like three in the morning, and we ate. That was what solidified [our friendship].” Later on, AKAI recalls how the music started: “He started playing shit, and I started rapping. We started making a couple of tracks before we were even making a project. A couple tracks in we were just like, ‘Yo, let’s make a tape!’ Just cause niggas wanted to, and nobody could tell us we couldn’t. The rest just became the rest, and that’s the word for this whole process: Organic.”
Black Sand itself is a moody suite of sounds sticking AKAI’s brand of breathless impressionist raps atop Siifu’s brand of hazy genre-fluid hip-hop. That description, “impressionist,” comes from the pen of Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce. AKAI admits the word set him off at first, but in true AKAI fashion, the unknown meant something to research. He told me he wandered down holes of art theory to unlock the meaning behind the brush strokes of the impressionists.
This feverish need to learn and study led AKAI to the Jean-Michel Basquiat documentary, a film measuring the weight that New York’s, mostly white, art scene dropped on a young Basquiat. Even as curator Chaedria LaBouvier reasserted Basquiat’s work into the world—especially his 1983 piece “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)”—the white vice grip, fearful of relinquishing an ounce of its power, attempted to silence and write her out of the exhibit.
AKAI’s music stands in opposition to these patterns of white supremacy. Or rather, his music is made for the Black people he wants to empower and inspire critical thought. To him, everything is a spark for critical thinking. He’s used anime as reference points for album art, lyrics, and sometimes whole tracks. AKAI notes how the late 2000s freestyles and energy of Kid Cudi normalized an alternate image of Blackness that sparked him to take words seriously. He reassessed his words and our cultural moment after the “mindless, weak tragedy” taking one of our “fighters” from us when rapper Nipsey Hussle was murdered this past year.
Malcolm X once wrote, “Anything I do today, I regard as urgent. No man is given but so much time to accomplish whatever is his life’s work.” Nipsey’s death in 2019 reified the necessity of urgency in AKAI’s work. That loss inspired “Hussle’s Ghost,” a standout from Black Sand, with the explicit purpose of breathing power to life and paying tribute to Nip.
Urgency and militancy penetrate AKAI’s music. “I feel like artists are the general of the people,” AKAI tells me. “The movement is going to be sparked and maintained by the steps we take. So, the best thing I can do is sharpen my entire soul. Everything I stand for. Make sure it’s correct. Make sure the things I put in my music are the things I want to fuel.”
AKAI’s participation in liberation and Black empowerment movements works because he thinks of himself as a student. Knowledge means being self-aware: acknowledging how little you know to learn and be malleable.
“I always remind myself I don’t know shit,” AKAI says. “That’s where I’m at. That’s how people need to progress. You need to be honest about where you are so you can have an honest idea of where you want to head. I don’t assume I have a finite understanding of anything, and I’m constantly trying to crack my head. That’s the approach I walked into this shit with, and that’s what’s keeping me going.”
The combination of humility and integrity makes AKAI a student worth following. Someone prescient enough to call the Internet a joke and not to be taken too seriously, but who simultaneously see its value as a space for connection. A rapper whose work is a proving ground of teaching and learning in equal spades. A counterpoint to thoughtlessness and art crafted without a more significant cultural struggle in mind. AKAI’s music is unique because it is an amorphous catalog of growth and learning in public—the humility that creates great art and keeps movements churning.