‘A vital voice in modern culture… active witness in the world… absolutely proper,’ is how BAFTA & MOBO award-winner Akala was introduced to the packed Humber Mouth crowd, inside Hull Central Library. Akala was well pleased with being described as ‘absolutely proper.’
Bouncing on stage full of energy and enthusiasm, hip-hop artist and historian Akala, opened the event by turning the tables, to see how much the audience knew or thought they knew, about hip-hop and Shakespeare. The quiz called ‘Hip-hop or Shakespeare’ asked audiences to identify the origins of a series of random phrases. Playing about with hip-hop stereotypes Akala challenged the way we think about language. Each drew out parallels between the words of the bard and nineties hip-hop artists like NAS or the Wu Tang Clan.
‘Wu Tang are the only ones who can get away with using a word like cometh.’
Looking more closely at hip-hop, he talked about the radical and political power of urban music: rap as part of a global curriculum. ‘KRS-One was a homeless guy in the Bronx, now he’s lecturing at Yale.’
Highlighting the differences between Received Pronunciation and the kind of speech that might have been heard in Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare was writing, Akala pointed out that the accent has changed dramatically. ‘There was no R.P. in Shakespeare’s day,’ he says. He invited the audience to check out O.P. Original Pronunciation to hear how Shakespeare might more authentically be heard.
It is when he gets on to rhythm and musicality, he really gets into his stride talking about the hundred different songs in Shakespeare’s plays and Sonnets: each having allusions to early English folk tunes.
Joining in the debate over whether Shakespeare should be re-invented, reinterpreted or whether such treatments of the works are in some way sacrilegious, he pointed out that Shakespeare was just updating other peoples’ stories. The plays were never meant to be cast in stone.
Perhaps appealing to the theatre elite, Akala explains how Shakespeare has a global reach and following. How different versions of Shakespeare’s plays are produced and performed all over the world. Yet in this country, perhaps because this is where his roots lie, we remain reluctant, even paralysed to break free from traditional readings.
More audience participation; this time using word patterns to remember the first four lines of Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
You can see using rap and hip-hop, just how he could turn around reluctance in engaging with Shakespeare, literature and learning. As an advocate for why everyone should learn about Shakespeare and hip-hop, Akala is textbook. After listening to him talk so passionately about how the two art forms compliment each other, you can’t help but be convinced.
Getting scientific he quotes Gravediggaz – 12 Jewelz – this is rap with astrophysics.
The pre-existence of the mathematical biochemical equations
The manifestations of God, Earth Air Fire and Water
We are so far now from the stereotypical hip-hop themes of hate, sex, violence and bloodshed. Back in Elizabethan England they were the main topics for discussion, power struggles, legitimacy, love and desire and consequences. So quickly he’s flipped it.
Akala founded the music theatre production company The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company in 2009 to explore the social, cultural and linguistic parallels ,between the works of Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists. He shares a flava of the work they do with a video clip re-imagining Shakespeare’s Richard II for the 21st century, as a concept album.
Raising the mic Akala steps up with ‘Comedy Tragedy History’ disguising and secreting lines and Shakespeare titles, inside the rhyme.
Excerpt from ‘Comedy Tragedy History’
Akala, Akala, wherefore art thou?
I’m the black Shakespeare and
The secret’s out now
Chance never did crown me, this is destiny
Some of the most interesting parts of this participatory lecture from Akala, came during the question answer session including the negativity usually associated with hip-hop and rap. Akala addressed this by suggesting he didn’t have a problem with the negativity, just that it didn’t reflect reality.
Looking at the wider picture he talked about the different roles Shakespeare and hip-hop can play, when addressing contemporary issues in societies across the globe. Most interestingly Akala looked at the hypocrisy and imbalance, between artists who get airplay and those who don’t. The way media platforms control and act like gatekeepers of the culture, feeding the masses what they think they want.
‘Nobody on radio is singing about issues today, the way Marley or Dylan did bruv.’
Go to: Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company
Go to: Akala Music