How Hip-Hop Can Bring Shakespeare to Life

Akala performs Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 to various hip hop beats at TEDxAldeburgh. (TEDx)

Artistic director Michael Kelly had been bringing Shakespeare to schools in the greater Toronto area since 1987 with his company Shakespeare in Action, creating presentations and workshops for ages kindergarten through high school. Though the programs had changed and morphed over the years, the students remained enthusiastic and receptive to their style, which was first teaching kids about Shakespeare’s life and the times in which he lived and wrote, followed by getting kids up on their feet and speaking Shakespeare.

“The axiom I go by is, you learn Shakespeare by doing Shakespeare,” he said. “And the idea [of the workshops] was to get kids up on their feet and speak Shakespeare aloud.”

Then two years ago, at the suggestion of a fellow actor, Kelly decided to take a different tack: Incorporate music, specifically hip-hop, into a typical workshop. He pulled apart one of his traditional presentations featuring Shakespearean speeches from different plays, and revamped it with hip-hop beats and music. They focused on the rhythm and poetry of both art forms, and even designed a rap version of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet, comparing it with the themes of some present-day hip-hop songs. “We will say [to the students], ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting? 400 years ago this guy was talking about this [suicide, indecision], so really, nothing has changed, has it?”

When they brought it to high schools, “Shakespeare Meets Hip-Hop” was an instant success. “The presentation itself, they loved,” Kelly said. “They’d go bananas when we would do it, and they loved all the musical stuff we put in there.”

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No one has championed the connection between the centuries-old literature of Shakespeare and hip-hop music more than MOBO Award-winning UK rapper Akala, born Kingslee Daley, who was so moved by the similarities between the two that he founded The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company (THSC) in London. Focusing on productions that meld the two styles in experimental ways, THSC also provides workshops aimed at students to expand their understanding of what Shakespeare is, and what it could be.

Akala said he’d first seen Shakespeare’s genius and “subversive potential” when he was a teenager, for which he credits good English and drama teachers at his inner-city London high school. “I grew up listening to Chuck D and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, and all kinds of really deep, political social commentary forms of music,” he said. “So when I encountered Shakespeare in school, I immediately recognized the kind of genius in his work -- elaborate characterization and the rhythm, particularly.”

Part of the unofficial mission of THSC is to knock Shakespeare off its “high art” pedestal, which it certainly wasn’t considered in its time. Akala said that Shakespeare was viewed by Elizabethans the way hip-hop is viewed today by middle-class Americans or British: “It was considered a little bit risky, a little bit naughty and dangerous.”

Both art forms also feature some raw human behaviors and emotions — sex, jealousy, plotting and killing, to name just a few. But when first approaching it in high school, that’s a side that students don’t often see.

“Shakespeare, like all great poetry, deals with what it means to be human: love, tragedy, war, violence,” Akala said. “Think of Titus Andronicus -- one guy doesn’t like some other guys, so he cuts them up and puts them in a pie and feeds them to the other guys’ parents. If Biggie Smalls told that same story, people would say, ‘Why is Biggie promoting violence?’ ”

Both Shakespeare and hip-hop stretch and shape the usage of the English language, using imagery and especially rhythm to tell the story in a powerful way. In a recent TEDx Talk, Akala gave multiple examples of hip-hop songs that mimic the iambic rhythm (de-DUM de-DUM) that Shakespeare used for the vast majority of his verse -- the language and rhythm fused together in a style so similar that the audience had difficulty deciphering which verse was Shakespeare and which was hip-hop. Watch Akala perform Sonnet 18 at 5:20 here:

Peggy O’Brien, director of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., said often the study of Shakespeare can focus too much on what the words mean and not enough on what they sound and feel like.

“[Shakespeare] is the only book that we give to students that has footnotes everywhere, footnotes and glossaries, where we tell kids practically what every word means,” she said. “And so what happens is, we focus only on the meaning, and we forget that a ton of what Shakespeare is about is what it sounds like with the language, the meter and the rhyme. But hip-hop and freestyle and beatbox, which is all about meter and rhyme, is a fabulous way to enter that world. And you can get to meaning after that.”

O’Brien said that Shakespeare has been adapted to different times in history since nearly the moment he wrote the plays, and calls the trend to bring hip-hop and Shakespeare together a great one. When asked if teachers can use hip-hop to connect students to Shakespeare, she said, “Students can use hip-hop to connect themselves to Shakespeare. If Shakespeare were around today, he’d be doing what Lin-Manuel Miranda has done.” Miranda used hip-hop to tell the story of the "$10 founding father," Alexander Hamilton in this year’s smash Broadway musical, Hamilton.

But beyond finding the rhyming parallels between Jay-Z and the Bard, Akala seems to be on a broader mission, and that’s to bring a message to students that Shakespeare, or what many consider any “great” art, doesn’t belong to any one group. Growing up in London as the grandson of Jamaican immigrants, Akala felt commonalities with the roots of American hip-hop, which was born in the tumultuous neighborhoods of the Bronx in the 1970s.

“Coming from a socioeconomically privileged background doesn’t make you more intelligent than anyone else. You just have more access,” he said. “In the sense of, if you’re not white and you don’t speak in a particular way and you don’t have money, then you’re not a 'legitimate' custodian of the knowledge. For people from my background -- children of working-class, immigrant populations -- we were inspired by Wu-Tang Clan, from the projects of Staten Island. Listen to the words that Wu Tang had the audacity to use: words like cometh and benevolent. They talked about Socrates. And for me, growing up thousands of miles away from New York in London, it gave me a sense at 13 years old that intelligence was sexy, that it was interesting and attractive.”

In Kelly’s experience performing "Shakespeare Meets Hip-Hop" in schools, students get the connection. “Both rappers and Shakespeare, they’re talking about the struggle of humanity. That’s what’s interesting about the two art forms,” he said.

O’Brien is eager to incorporate hip-hop into the programs at the Folger, and said she’s actively looking for musicians and hip-hop artists to work with.

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“It’s a captive audience because kids have to take Shakespeare in school,” she said. “So if we can get that first intro to Shakespeare [through hip-hop], not even the language adapted, but just the way he wrote it through the meter and the rhyme -- that’s a great way to open that door.”

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