"I'm more well-rounded now": Burnley rapper MeLeon on music, racism, mental health
"It was difficult growing up in Burnley as a mixed race person," says Leon. "It was like a ghetto. But if it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be the person I am today."
Identity has defined rapper Leon Akbar's life, for good and bad. For a Burnley-born former Habergham High School pupil who went from chess club, writing poetry, and feeling like a 'weird kid' to performing alongside Tinchy Stryder and taking part in the Channel 4 show Naked Attraction, it's been a hell of a ride.
When he was younger, Leon, 28, admits to feeling like a black sheep. "I had a lot of Asian friends and a lot of white friends, but I also got targeted by both," he said. "Anxiety had always played a part in my life and I think that comes from knowing I am different."
Music was his outlet.
"Music was a big thing in my life," Leon explained. "It kept my spirits high and helped me grieve. I listened to a lot of dance music and there was a big scene around Burnley and Colne; I'd see MCs crowd hyping and think 'yeah, I'd like to do that'. I was very confused as a teenager identity-wise, but music was my place."
But there were pitfalls, too. Embroiled in the 'escapism' of drugs, Leon was hoping to go to university in an effort to steer himself away from becoming 'just another statistic'. But he had his son, Leon Akbar Junior, at the age of 19, and had to get a job to pay the bills.
"I ended up working in a slaughterhouse," he says. "I went from a position of creation in an almost-fictional world where anything was possible, to being stuck in a physical world where I literally worked on a deconstruction line. Having a child, bills, and working 65 hours a week played havoc on my relationship with my son's mother and I was suffering with depression."
But there was another flicker of hope.
"As soon as I had my son, my music changed: it didn't satisfy my ego, it satisfied my soul," said Leon, who performs as MeLeon. "I started to write stuff for myself and it changed me as a person. Performing has always been a sanctuary, satisfying a part of the ego, but when you're on stage, you've got to put yourself into what you do.
"MeLeon is not only a character on stage, but a way of protecting me," he continued, having recorded four albums and dozens of singles. "It can be like therapy; it helps me not only get things off my chest, but put it out there, and when people say that it resonated with them, that really impacts me."
As he became more involved in the music scene, a few concerning factors have begun to stand out for Leon, however. One is the slow creeping return of casual racism blanketed in "humour" and the other is the dwindling investment in the arts for more deprived areas of the country, including Burnley.
"We're all visitors in the evolution of music, and people need to be a bit more careful," said Leon. "After all the years of overt racism, to see it humourised... There's a lot more diversity these days, but I see more casual racism. People don't know the repercussions of what they say and of the memes they share.
"There are many forms of discrimination," he added. "I see people from the hip-hop community be casually racist and I think 'how can you do that when you're a part of what represents black culture so strongly in the Western world?' People should find out about where things come from; the original influences, the roots."
But instead, he explains, everything is increasingly fleeting in a world dominated by social media.
"Everything's trending, music's trending: it's anybody's right to express themselves, but with that comes responsibility," Leon said. "Social media projects a version of people that doesn't exist 100% of the time and it creates a cesspool of depression."
Having himself grappled with the dark arms of depression, Leon is similarly bereft at the havoc austerity has wrought.
"Art's only there for people who can afford it and that breaks my heart," he said. "The people who have nothing are the most passionate and artistic: that's all they have. There's so many people out there with something to give, and all they get is a nine-to-five.
"People don't have the time to be creative because it doesn't pay," Leon added. "There's no culture behind community anymore, we're just a workforce."
While he admits that at times exuberance masks his innately more shy persona, Leon nevertheless says that things like Naked Attraction have boosted his confidence and helped him quell his mental health troubles. He even got round to attending university, completing a degree in Media and Journalism with a year of Music Studies at UCLan Burnley.
"I'm more well-rounded now," says Leon. "I still have my days and I'm rough around the edges, but what I've learned is to accept that some days I'm not going to be alright and that's okay. Naked Attraction was a good laugh and people were like 'oh, wow, the confidence!', but it's taken me a lot to go from that kid in poetry club to being starkers on TV!"
"I feel like my depression came from pretending I was alright and ignoring the problems in my life," he says. "Sort the present out to work towards the future and surround yourself with people willing to empower you."