Akala and Hip-Hop Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 78

“Is it Shakespeare, or is it hip-hop?” British poet, rapper, and educator Kingslee James Daley, who goes by the stage name Akala, likes to recite a passage and then challenge his audience with this question. Even an acclaimed Shakespearean actor like Sir Ian McKellen can’t always answer correctly. 
 
Since 2009, under the auspices of his “Hip-hop Shakespeare Company,” Akala has been going to community centers, prisons, and schools in immigrant and underserved communities, using the tools of hip-hop to spread an understanding of the relevance of Shakespeare’s poetry.
 
Akala is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
 
Listen on iTunes, SoundCloud, Google Play, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published July 25, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, The Poet’s Pen Turns Them to Shapes, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Joe Philip at Covered PR, from Mariama Abudulai, and from Ryan Pate at the Dub Room Studio in Los Angeles. 

Learn more about The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company (THSC).

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: This is a Shakespeare podcast so let’s start by reading some Shakespeare. “Maybe it’s hatred I spew. Maybe it’s food for the spirit.” Wait, is that Shakespeare?

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director and, no, I’m not going to give you the answer right now. But you’ll learn it in a second because, as you’ll hear, asking the question, “Is that Shakespeare or is it hip-hop?” is often the opening gambit that launches a conversation about poetry and prejudice for the British poet, rapper, and educator, Kingslee James Daley, who goes by the stage name Akala. Since 2009, under the auspices of his Hip-hop Shakespeare Company, Akala has been going to community centers, prisons, and schools in immigrant and underserved communities using the tools of hip-hop to spread an understanding of the relevance of Shakespeare’s poetry. How? Well, like this.

 [CLIP from Akala’s track, “Comedy Tragedy History”]

AKALA:

That boy Akala's a diamond fella.
All you little boys are a Comedy of Errors,
You bellow but you fellows get played like
The cello. I'm doing my thing,
You're jealous like Othello.
Who you? What you gonna do?
All you little boys get Tamed like the Shrew.
You're midsummer dreamin',
Your tunes ain't appealing
I'm Capulet, you're Montague, I ain't feeling.
I am the Julius Caesar hear me
The Merchant Of Venice couldn't sell your CD
As for me, All's Well That Ends Well
Your boy's like Macbeth, you're going to Hell.
Measure for Measure, I am the best here
You're Merry Wives of Windsor not King Lear
I don't know about Timon,
I know he was in Athens.
When I come back like Hamlet you pay for your actions.

MICHAEL: Akala works for the most part in the UK but recently he was in Los Angeles and stepped into the studio to talk with us about his work. We call this podcast The Poet’s Pen Turns them to Shapes. Akala is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

[CLIP from “Comedy Tragedy History” continues]

AKALA:

Wise is the man that knows he's a fool.
Tempt not a desperate man with a jewel.
Why take from Peter to go pay Paul?
Some rise by sin and by virtue fall.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, part of me just wants you to rap for half an hour. But let’s talk a little bit first…

AKALA: Let’s do it.

BARBARA: I want to start by picking up on something you use at the beginning of the presentations that you do, usually, and it’s the, “Is it hip-hop or Shakespeare?” bit.

AKALA: Yep.

BARBARA: So, and for people who haven’t heard it, you recite a passage, I gather, and you ask the audience, do they think it’s hip-hop or do they think it’s Shakespeare.

AKALA: Yeah.

BARBARA: So, try me.

AKALA: Okay. I will do. “Sleep is the cousin of death. Sleep is the cousin of death.”

BARBARA: Okay. I’m gonna say that’s not Shakespeare.

AKALA: Okay.

BARBARA: And?

AKALA: And it isn’t. It’s Nas. Nasir Jones. Well done. The second…

BARBARA: It’s Nas?

AKALA: It’s Nas.

BARBARA: Okay, that I didn’t know. Okay, cool.

AKALA: There was a … it has echoes of Hamlet. You know, so some people get confused there.

BARBARA: That’s right. I mean it certainly could be Shakespeare.

AKALA: Oh, of course. Of course.

BARBARA: Yeah.

AKALA: The next one. “Maybe it’s hatred I spew. Maybe it’s food for the spirit. Maybe it’s hatred I spew.”

BARBARA: Well, spew is such a Shakespearean word, I think. But I’m gonna say no, again.

AKALA: Okay.

BARBARA: I don’t think that’s Shakespeare.

AKALA: Okay.

BARBARA: I can’t think…

AKALA: Well done. It’s Eminem.

BARBARA: Oh, cool.

AKALA: Yep.

BARBARA: Okay.

AKALA: Next one, we will go for, “I was not born under a rhyming planet.”

BARBARA: I still don’t recognize that line from Shakespeare.

AKALA: Okay. So, you’re going hip-hop again?

BARBARA: I think so, yeah.

AKALA: Okay. That one’s actually from Much Ado About Nothing.

BARBARA: No. Oh, that… well, there you go.

AKALA: That’s fine. It’s all right.

BARBARA: I was not born under a rhyming planet.

AKALA: I was not born under a rhyming planet.

BARBARA: Okay, I gotta file that one away.

AKALA: “I am reckless what I do to spite the world.”

BARBARA: Also, I’m still gonna go no Shakespeare.

AKALA: Okay. It’s Macbeth.

BARBARA: Oh, no, really striking out.

AKALA: That’s all right. I mean it’s… listen, I don’t like to embarrass people but we did a workshop, one of our launch workshops. Ian McKellen came. And even he got a couple wrong. I mean we’ve got hundreds of these that we do. The point is you’re supposed to get them wrong, which we’ll discuss in a minute. I’ll do a couple more and then we’ll talk about what the point of the exercise is, I suppose.

BARBARA: Well that … let’s talk about that.

AKALA: Okay.

BARBARA: So, what is the point?

AKALA: Well, it’s to think about language, perception of language, language out of context, linguistic techniques, metaphor, simile, alliteration, rhythm. But mainly it’s to challenge people’s perceptions. The English language has not changed as much as people would like to believe. And, actually, 95 percent of all the words in Shakespeare’s canon we still use. There’s only five percent that are old words. And any good poet of any era employs similar themes and similar techniques. So the point is to just show you that once you remove the baggage of what you think Shakespeare’s about and what you think hip-hop’s about, the… all of a sudden it becomes much more difficult to differentiate.

BARBARA: Well, what… when you do that exercise, then, what misperceptions do you find that people have? Do they say, oh… do they always think it can’t possibly be Shakespeare because it sounds so modern?

AKALA: Sometimes. I mean I deliberately when… so when I designed this exercise, I deliberately obviously didn’t pick certain instances from Shakespeare with line…

BARBARA: Right, and the “haths” and the whatever.

AKALA: Right. And obviously I deliberately picked rappers that were eloquent, rappers that were good, rappers that use… I mean, we’ve got a line in there where the RZA says, “the most benevolent king communicates for your dreams.” You know, we’ve got another line from—the Wu-Tang in particular were one of my favorite groups growing up—where they say, “judgment day cometh, conquer, it’s war.” People hear the word “cometh” and obviously, naturally would assume it’s Shakespeare. But I think some of the perceptions are because of the way a lot of commercial modern hip-hop is, that basically it doesn’t take much intelligence to be a rapper from people that don’t know about hip-hop. So it depends on the audience.

But, actually, perceptions of Shakespeare can be problematic. I am one that I sometimes am critical of mainstream hip-hop and the violence and the misogyny and whatever else. But at the same time, in Titus Andronicus, one guy gets annoyed with another guy, so he chops him up, puts him in a pie, feeds him to his enemy’s parents, you know? If Biggie Smalls told a story like that, people would say, why is he glorifying violence? So, we sanitize Elizabethan England quite a lot and project onto Elizabethan England this kind of sense of properness and the Elizabethan theater that absolutely just didn’t really exist at the time.

BARBARA: Do you also run into this idea that, “well I can’t even… I don’t think any of the things that you’re quoting to me could be Shakespeare because I just don’t even know Shakespeare.” That people have a sense of who’s allowed, or have a misperception or a bias about who’s allowed to know Shakespeare well enough to even identity it?

AKALA: Yeah, I mean the politics of class, really, in the UK, even in a lot of Britain’s former colonies, actually, there’s less of an intimidation, ironically, towards Shakespeare than in the UK itself, where if you’re in India, for example, you know, a society where they have their own three millennia long tradition of, you know, literary history, people I worked with in India, I… even children from tougher backgrounds were just like, Shakespeare’s… yeah, he’s another writer. There was kind of a sense of “we don’t have to, you know, reverence Saint Shakespeare, he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, and he can only belong to the people at the top of the society.” It’s really interesting. In the UK, Shakespeare has become a symbol, in many ways, of the British class system, and there’s a perception that you have to be like basically as smart as Albert Einstein to enjoy Shakespeare.

BARBARA: To crack the code?

AKALA: Right. And the point is, the guy wrote performance poetry and great stories that were about sex and violence and love and tragedy.

BARBARA: Well, and that’s the irony, too. Shakespeare was… he wasn’t the kind of guy who would know Shakespeare if …

AKALA: In modern perception. I mean he was not Oxford…

BARBARA: Yeah, certainly not in class terms, yeah.

AKALA: Well, he wasn’t from the bottom of the society. You know, he went to a grammar school. He wasn’t, you know, top of the top. He became part of the elite in a way. He became very wealthy.

BARBARA: He bought himself into it.

AKALA: Right.

BARBARA: Yeah.

AKALA: But also I mean the Elizabethan theater itself was not, you know, the Globe was on the south side next to the bear baiting and the prostitution. It wasn’t allowed to be in the city because it wasn’t considered proper by the religious establishment of the time. So, I think, like I said, there’s a lot of pro—even Received Pronunciation. So, for those who don’t know what that is, I’m gonna do my BBC accent now. So, when you turn on the BBC, you’ll find that people speak like this. This is a totally manufactured way of speaking. It doesn’t come from any region in England. This is heavily raised class. Ninety nine percent of England doesn’t actually talk that way. Yeah?

So, if you come to England, you’ll hear more people that sound like me but that way of speaking, Received Pronunciation, so-called Queen’s English, did not exist in Shakespeare’s time. So, even that in England people think, “Shakespeare was posh,” which, again, is a, you know, a statement of class and a statement of that way I was just talking. And so, Shakespeare is related to that whole politics of the British class system.

BARBARA: Well, what I find interesting about peoples’ misperceptions, I mean this gets back to this relationship between hip-hop and Shakespeare that you talk about, is that Shakespeare really was the original mash-up artist as well.

AKALA: Yeah.

BARBARA: I mean he was rewriting and borrowing and…

AKALA: Of course.

BARBARA: And kind of the ultimate re-interpreter.

AKALA: Yeah, he was sampling other peoples’ stories. Hamlet is not his story. Othello is not originally his story. Yeah, a hundred percent.

BARBARA: Yeah.

AKALA: He was like, I like this stuff. You know, Ovid, Pluto, the Bible. Obviously, he added stuff that is incredibly original. But many of these stories are not original stories. Part of my job, I think, and part of our job with hip-hop with Shakespeare is to sort of undo this undue reverence. And what I mean by that is he was a human being, he was a great writer.

BARBARA: Well, we’ve been talking about a lot of these misperceptions of Shakespeare but what are the common misperceptions of hip-hop? And you mentioned a few of them. But I do think it’s interesting that a lot of people who don’t know hip-hop have this negative opinion of it without even knowing it.

AKALA: Yeah, well, I mean they think they know it. You know, they watch MTV and they see MTV’s version of hip-hop culture, which is ironic given that, you know, Viacom is this massive big corporation. As someone who grew up listening to KRS-One and  Lauryn Hill and The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron and that whole incredible tradition of the music of the African diaspora in America, for me, I never had that problem. The first person I saw give a lecture was KRS-One. So, I never ever had this sense that hip-hop was just what I saw on the television. I always recognized that hip-hop had a range of expressions. So, I don’t have a problem with some of the negativity in hip-hop. I have a… or so-called. I have a problem with that being the only voice that cuts through and being seen as the dominant perception. And a lot of people still have the belief that that’s all kind of hip-hop has to contribute, has to say.

BARBARA: Well, as you say, they haven’t ever been exposed to this tradition of there’s this, you know, bifurcation in hip-hop. You have the commercial, the mainstream hip-hop which is commercialized and it’s mainly put out by these large corporations, again, primarily historically probably white owned and operated. And then you have this tradition that you’re talking about which comes… and tell us a little bit more about that because it comes out of this… the griot and the drum circle that came out of the African diaspora.

AKALA: Well I think one of the challenges we often have when interpreting the culture of the African diaspora is for a very long time, I think there’s been a lot of great work done over the last half a century to repair but still to some degree because of the problems that many countries in Africa face today, we project those problems into the past in a time when they might not necessarily have existed. So, for example, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the great, you know, historian from Oxford University, he has a book called Millennium. In the 1400s, the main kingdom he speaks about in that book is the Empire of Mali. Mansa Musa I, the ruler of that kingdom is, you know, many economists estimate the richest human of all time.

There are three quarters of a million books surviving in the University of Timbuktu, which was the main university in that kingdom, though there were three universities. So, you have some, you know, highly sophisticated centralized structures of government in early medieval West Africa. So, the type of societies that West Africans came from to the Americas has often been oversimplified. You know, sometimes when I ask young people, for example, I say, where, you know, where does black America music come from? They say, slave music. And I get that point of reference. But it’s a dangerous point of reference to think that people suddenly started making music under the condition of enslavement. They made music in spite of the condition of enslavement.

BARBARA: And as with everything that came before it, it’s just this blank slate.

AKALA: Precisely. And it’s not always peoples’ fault. That’s the historical perception. So, when we understand in Mali, for example, you have a character called the griot praising, you know, often on the payroll of the king—you know, wrote long poems, the most famous of which is the Malian epic of Sundiata—genealogist, a historian, a musician that would actually go to school for 21 years: seven years for speech, seven years for musicianship, seven years for singing. So, when you understand this context, when you understand the type of instrumentation in West Africa, it becomes much more easy to explain how these musical cultures were created in the Americas. And so if we take, say, jazz and we bring it all the way up to hip-hop, we talk about Congo Square.

French Louisiana was one of the only places in the Americas at that time where enslaved Africans had a day off. And so people would gather. There was a long tradition of gathering at Congo Square on a Sunday and when we understand this griot tradition and the drums and call and response and African polyrhythms and everything that came before it, we can literally plot a line through jazz and blues and gospel and reggae music in the Caribbean up to hip-hop. So, we can play you the Golden Gate Quartet, who are a gospel quartet. You listen to a song like “Preacher and the Bear.”

[CLIP of the Golden Gate Quartet singing “The Preacher and the Bear.”]

Lord, look here, you know you delivered ol’ Daniel from the lion's den.
And you delivered three Hebrew children from the fiery furnace, and then…

AKALA: And then you listen to Rapper’s Delight, it’s the same flow.

[CLIP from the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”]

BIG BANK HANK:

So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which is really on the wall.
I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball.
Hear me talking 'bout checkbooks, credit cards, more money, than a sucker could ever spend…

AKALA: What we now call hip-hop, really, the main thing that changed with hip-hop was the production technique rather than the art of rhythmically rhyming over the beat of a drum that had been going on for hundreds of years.

BARBARA: You have a rap about this, right?

AKALA: Yes, I do.

[CLIP of AKALA rapping]

But they never vanished,

Made it through the middle passage,

Never gave up the habit,

Passing on the stories and traditions so that we could have it.

I saw as clear as day a griot trapped beneath the deck,

Buried in [expletive] and vomit up to his neck,

Lying shackled next to his younger sister, already dead,

Her own corpse don’t even smell no more, ‘cause he has lost the sense.

Still we sung the song of the warrior, giving heart

To all the others trapped, rebellion ready to start.

That is art:

That’s poems that bleed, songs mold history

The greatest gift ever given, a true mystery.

Even when the drum was outlawed on the plantation,

She kept beating it and singing in secret and maintainin.’

I could see the start of the Haitians in revolution,

And what did they start it with? It’s invocations and music…

BARBARA: Well, I mean we’re talking about the oral tradition.

AKALA: Yeah.

BARBARA: And the other interesting thing when you consider what you’re saying and drawing this line from… way back into the past is that anyone, even if you don’t know any of this history, you can hear hip-hop and you can immediately like get it or like it. You know, it can appeal to you. But kids, and adults even, often read Shakespeare before they see it, before they hear it, which just seems so cockeyed.

AKALA: It’s terrible. I mean if I gave you Lauryn Hill, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” one of the most complicated but brilliant raps, ever…

[CLIP of Lauryn Hill’s “The Mystery of Iniquity.”]

LAURYN HILL:

Materially corrupt,
Spiritually amuck,
Oblivious to the cause,
Prosperously bankrupt.
Blind leading the blind,
Guilty never defined,
Filthy as swine,
A generation pure in its own mind.

AKALA: You’d be like, forget it. Whereas if I play you Lauryn Hill performing it on MTV Unplugged, immediately you’re like, I didn’t understand half the words. You know, if you’re 12 how would you understand… the fact it’s even called the “Mystery of Iniquity” or RZA, “12 Jewelz,” he’s gotta rap about physics, right? So, sitting people down and forcing them to read Shakespeare… Performance poetry has to be performance first. It has to be rhythm first. It has to be sung…

BARBARA: Was it performance first for you?

AKALA: Yes, it was, because my step-dad was the stage manager of, you know, to be crude, London’s equivalent to the Apollo. There wasn’t… we didn’t actually program any Shakespeare there. But it meant that unlike most kids, you know, culturally we were very rich and so it was a weird juxtaposition where I was probably exposed to more… a greater cultural offering than most rich kids in England. So, when I came to Shakespeare, I was starting from a radically different point to anyone in my class because I’d grown up with… equally with the tradition of theater and with the Jamaican sound system. Both my dad and my step-dad run sound systems and hip-hop.

BARBARA: This reminds me of this wonderful presentation that you do which shows the relationship between iambic pentameter and how it fits with hip-hop and the rhythmic relationship between the two.

AKALA: Yeah, what we try to… I show young people, adult or anyone, I think as a songwriter, for me, actually, any songwriter should be engaging with Shakespeare’s work, if you’re interested (a) in lyricism, but (b) in rhythm. Throughout his entire career, he was experimenting with different forms of rhythm. Most people know the iambic pentameter, but if you look at something at like The Tempest, it’s not in pentameter at all. It’s all over the place.

BARBARA: It’s all over the place, yeah.

AKALA: … describes it as jazz. It’s literally all over the place. And that isn’t an accident. But what we look at… one of the things that’s interesting about the iambic pentameter, anyone who’s an MC will know that it’s very difficult to write a verse that is transferable. So if you write a verse on a regular tempo sort of hip-hop beat, 70 to 90 BPM, it’s very difficult to write the verse in such a way that it transfers onto what we in the UK call “grime,” which is 140 beats per minute. One of the interesting things about the iambic pentameter is, because of this very consistent 10-syllable structure, you can do exactly that. And you could take any verse of Shakespeare that’s in iambic pentameter and you can put it on most regular 4/4 hip-hop and you can put it on most of what we call in the UK “grime”—it’s a very transferable rhythm. So, if someone, you know, if you’re an artist who wants to write a verse that you can go into a cipher with and be confident that whatever beat that the DJ puts on you can flow with it, the pentameter is a great rhythm to do that.

BARBARA: Awesome. Hit us up.

AKALA: So, yeah, let’s play the first beat. You’ll recognize this as Sonnet 18.

AKALA raps the lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 over a 90 BPM beat.

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.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

BARBARA: Now, you said even when you then change the rhythm it’s fine. So…

AKALA: I’ll give you another example.

AKALA raps Sonnet 18 again over an uptempo grime beat, closer to 140 BPM.

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.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

BARBARA: It has a very different… completely different atmosphere.

AKALA: Right, completely different atmosphere, completely different style of beat. I mean and a lot of… even some of the Shakespeare’s most famous stuff, the opening of Romeo and Juliet, you know, “two households both alike in dignity,” that is iambic. Some of the stuff that doesn’t rhyme. So if artists wanna learn how to make stuff rhythmic that doesn’t rhyme, you think of Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving…”

BARBARA: So, what is it about iambic pentameter that does this?

AKALA: It’s… well, (a) it’s the rhythm of the human heart. But it’s the consistency, I think. So, a standard bar of music, you know, four beats and if you put a ten over four… if you can visualize it in that way, where you’ve got ten… think of it like high hats. Yeah, so if you’ve got a four bar beat but you’ve got ten clicks of the high hat across those four bars, that’s sort of the way I would visually insert what your voice is doing and what the syllables are doing rhythmically within the kind of pattern of the drum structure. So, if we take the sonnets, 154 sonnets, all ten syllables each, all end up rhyming.

AKALA: How difficult that is to do to make sense, to rhyme, to be semi-autobiographical and to put ten syllables in every single line. That’s not an easy feat and…

BARBARA: Herculean task?

AKALA: Yeah, exactly, right? And so if poets today try and do that, it’s like poetic mathematics. You know, you’re being poetic but at the same time you’ve put these very serious constraints on you but what the iambic pentameter, I think, gives you, it makes it a lot easier to memorize and as we’ve now discovered, you know, we can see that over modern music is a pretty good way for a person to learn how to flow. And when you hear a song, same thing. So, in a lot of… so our last production as a company was of Richard II which was, we did essentially a concept, rock opera, if you like, think, you know…

BARBARA: This is The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company, your company?

AKALA: Yeah, we did a production of Richard II which we’re revamping and will go on tour soon. But it was essentially a concept album with key passages from the text kept.

[CLIP of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company’s “Draw For Your Sword”]

BOLINGBROKE:

Harry of Hereford, Lancaster, and Derby
Am I, who ready here do stand in arms.

MOWBRAY:

We possess the speech.

Draw for your sword and settle your quarrels.

Draw for your sword or

See to it your knees meet and greet the ground,

Bow! Surrender yourself to the floor.

BOLINGBROKE

Draw for your sword or

See to it your knees meet and greet the ground,

Bow! Surrender yourself to the floor.

Mowbray: come, come, settle down,

Don’t spit away your blood when you don’t have a crown…

AKALA: But then the band and the actors who are also rappers and singers rewrote the rest of the story of Richard II as a collection of songs. And even the portions of the Shakespeare and text that they sung sit perfectly over music because he wrote in this rhythm and because it’s very musical.

BARBARA: Well you also do this interesting exercise… I saw a presentation of yours in India where you asked people to find the pocket of the rhythm in a Shakespeare passage.

AKALA: So what we do with that is we take five different verses and we play a beat, any kind of beat and we… there’s… so not all of them are iambic. So, for example, if we take the end of The Tempest:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is—

You can hear immediately that is not the same as “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” It doesn’t have the same roll to it. So we give people all different sorts of verses to show how versatile Shakespeare was and how much he experimented across his career. But also to show that there’s still a rhythm in it. And actually it’s a different challenge now and iambic pentameter is very easy to find the rhythm of because it’s consistent, whereas the stuff in The Tempest is much more difficult.

BARBARA: And what about rhyme? Because you talk, also in that presentation, about how rhyme differs from place to place, from language to language which I’ve never thought about it that way. That’s kind of fascinating.

AKALA: I think there’s two points in there. Rhyme differs even in English. So, accent has changed so much. You look at the end of a Shakespearean text and they’ll be the word “mood” and “blood.” And you’ll be like, why have that in there? And it’s ‘cause it was “mood” and “blood” or “loins” and “loins,” which means loins and lines. There’s lots of stuff that doesn’t rhyme anymore because the accent of English has changed. One of the things I learned, going all around the world and working with hip-hop artists in Brazil and Algeria and all sorts of different places—in fact, one of my good, good friends is a legendary Brazilian rapper called MC Marechal…

[CLIP: MC MARECHAL raps in Brazilian Portuguese]

Quer ser o melhor vai ser o melhor pra tua comunidade

Um som por semana?

Não sou esse tipo de MC

Eu faço um som por ano

E tu não fica uma semana sem ouvir

 

Mensageiro sim senhor

Vagabundo se emociona

Porque sente o espírito dos ancestrais, Griot!

AKALA: And spending time with him and hearing him rap, in Brazilian Portuguese, I was like, “the rhyme is not the same.” What I would hear audibly as a rhyme in English isn’t exactly what a rhyme is in Brazilian Portuguese. And that was really weird to me. It was the first time I realized… ‘cause we know this about music, right? If you’re not an expert on jazz or on classical music, it can all sound the same till you get into it, right? Your ears literally don’t have the vocabulary to understand it. You listen to Chinese music and be like, I can’t tell it apart. Your ears and your brain literally are not yet trained to understand the vocabulary of that music. Well what happens when you hear rappers rap in French or in Brazilian Portuguese or in—I went to Zimbabwe—Shona. You won’t always be able to pick up the rhyme.

AKALA: Because actually the sounds that rhyme to a Brazilian Portuguese accent are not exactly what we perceive musically to be rhymes in English and it was a really interesting thing that I kinda found and heard. And I was like… so people would hear a rhyme differently in different languages.

BARBARA: So, you’re talking about the work that you do with The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company.

AKALA: Indeed, yeah.

BARBARA: What do you want the takeaway to be for your audience? I mean I hear… I hear and I respect this message that Shakespeare is kind of the ultimate virtuosic hip-hop artist, that you really kind of see this connection between the two. But what do you want people to go home with?

AKALA: I think there’s a lot of different things and it depends where you are. You know, for us in the UK and perhaps to an extent here in America, I don’t want people to feel culturally intimidated by something that they’re told is beyond them.

BARBARA: The whole icon Shakespeare…

AKALA: Yeah, I mean he is an icon. He is an icon and that’s fine. But Bob Marley’s an icon. No one feels intimidated by Bob Marley, though. For me, it’s that sense of cultural property, of not being told, “You are X. This doesn’t belong to you. It’s for me…”

BARBARA: Well this is politics. I mean this is…

AKALA: Yeah, it’s political, a hundred percent.

BARBARA: Yeah, who owns culture?

AKALA: A hundred percent. And in the UK, Shakespeare’s very, very political. I’m saying what Nas rapped about was profound and incredible. I’m saying what RZA rapped about was… or  Lauryn Hill or any of these great artists, to me, they are my Shakespeares, they are my philosophers, they’re the people who got me into history.

BARBARA: Well, that’s a really important and controversial point because there’s this huge amount of skill required in that level of rap, right? And I think that’s something that gets completely lost in a lot of, well in kind of popular understanding of what hip-hop is.

AKALA: Of course. I mean you gotta remember when blues was around, you know, in the UK, we have a paper called the Daily Mail, a favorite right-wing paper. They call blues “devil’s music” and they called it “the Negro’s revenge.” That’s an actual quote from the Daily Mail. What was the popular perception of jazz when jazz was the dominant youth culture for black America? It was low culture, it came from the ghetto, that it was fake classical music, all this other stuff. Today, everyone’s like “Charlie Parker, of course he’s a genius. Miles Davis, of course he’s a genius.” It’s similar with hip-hop. If rapping was so easy, we’d all be Nas, right, or we’d all be KRS-One or we’d all be Lauryn Hill.

But the fact is, similarly with Shakespeare’s sonnets, to take a coherent narrative, to rhyme it over the beat, to actually have flow and persona, like any art form is very, very difficult. And if you think of the millions of people all around the world, that rap, only a handful of them are actually genuinely incredible. Like playing… being a virtuoso classical pianist or playing violin or being a great actor. And so it’s that… I want people to take away the fact that culture’s there to be enjoyed. It’s not there to beat you over the head with. You don’t have to like Shakespeare and you don’t have to like hip-hop, either. But if you do like them, that’s absolutely fine, too, and you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission.

And performance, you know, go… I think for me, culture is… has… I unapologetically see culture as a tool for liberation, for people to come together, to better human society. I think if you look at hip-hop in particular, in London, the most diverse audience you’ll ever see at any gig you ever go to, without question, will be a hip-hop show. I remember Wu-Tang, particularly, was the first group that all the kids that listened to heavy metal…

BARBARA: Oh, you went straight to Wu-Tang from…

AKALA: Right, no, it really… it literally… before that, I guess hip-hop in the UK for a long time was… came to the kind of British Caribbean community, via our cousins in New York. And before it became fully mainstream, you know, groups like the Wu-Tang and others, you know, made it mainstream but to a really credible audience. And that’s what great culture does. It doesn’t matter that it’s from the projects of Staten Island. When you listen to Inspectah Deck say “I bomb atomically, Socrates philosophy and hypocrisy…”

[CLIP from the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph”]

INSPECTAH DECK:

I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies and hypotheses

Can't define how I be dropping these mockeries.

Lyrically perform armed robbery,

Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me,

Battle-scarred Shogun, explosion when my pen hits,

Tremendous…

AKALA: I don’t care who you are. You must know that this guy is clearly good at putting words together. Similarly with Shakespeare, if you watch the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet or, you know, Laurence Fishburne as Othello, I mean if you can’t enjoy that, I would suggest that there’s something wrong with you, maybe? You know, it’s…

BARBARA: Well maybe you’ve already answered this question but, you know, every age relates to Shakespeare in a different way, and it’s the cliché to say that every age relates to Shakespeare. What a miracle. But it is still mysterious how that works and since you look at Shakespeare through this lens of both politics and music, I’m curious what you think makes Shakespeare’s work timeless or relatable.

AKALA: I think a number of things. The fact that he dealt with the flaws of humanity. You think of Shakespeare’s best characters. You know, Othello is okay. Iago is the great character in that play. You know, he’s not… do you know what I mean?

BARBARA: The horrible ones are the interesting ones, yeah.

AKALA: Right, Tybalt, he’s a great character, much better character than Romeo and… or Juliet, right? You think of full stuff. Shakespeare’s characters are… the best ones are all imperfect. In a way, they’re kind of more perfect characters, if you like. It’s almost like he’s poking fun at them. Cause they’re not that interesting. They are quite bland. They’re a bit naïve and it’s, for me, it’s this ability to convey what it is to be human, the human frailties but these timeless characters, more than even the plays themselves, these… they’ve become real people, if you like. Everyone has a perception of those characters. And great stories that really are cross culture, that we see from every culture around the world sort of in myth forms.

You know, the hero, the rise and fall, redemption, jealousy. So I think all of these big themes, all of these character—obviously, you know, writing in English helped. I don’t think we can divorce Shakespeare’s global success from British imperialism and if India colonized the world, would we be reading the Mahabharata and the Rāmāyaṇa and these wonderful texts of Indian spirituality in the way that we read Shakespeare, as universal human text? Maybe ‘cause they are bloody brilliant, lots of them. And are unapologetically… I think in 400 years people will look back on a Toni Morrison or a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or a lot of the great novel… Dostoyevsky, do you know, Bertolt Brecht, there’s so many people we could look to who I think given an adequate length of time will go into that canon. Even…

BARBARA: So you do the Hip-hop and Bertolt Brecht Company?

AKALA: No, I don’t think that has the same ring to it. I don’t think it has the same ring. I don’t… no, definitely not. I think there’s something about Shakespeare as a brand, but I think that comes as much from what has been written about him as what he wrote. He’s become a global icon for a whole host of interconnected complicated reasons. I do think they’re partly just his brilliance but I think they’re also related to, you know, wider issues of politics and culture and all of that sort of stuff.

BARBARA: Well I’d love to hear your Dostoyevsky rap, but I’m gonna content myself with your Shakespeare ones.

AKALA: Yeah, I don’t have a Dostoyevsky one, but it’s all right. Coming soon, maybe, who knows?

BARBARA: Thank you so much.

AKALA: No, any time.

BARBARA: It was such a pleasure to talk to you.

AKALA: No, absolute pleasure. No, thank you very much.

MICHAEL: Kingslee James Daley, he’s better known as the rapper Akala. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. You can learn more about Akala’s work at www.hiphopShakespeare.com. “The Poet’s Pen Turns Them to Shapes” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Joe Philip at Covered PR, from Mariama Abudulai and from Ryan Pate at the Dub Room Studio in Los Angeles.

If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing the podcast on whatever platform you get this podcast from. It helps us to get the word out to people who haven’t heard it, people who might enjoy it. We’d really appreciate your help. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folgers Shakespeare Library, home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection. The Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.