Hip-Hop & Shakespeare? Akala at TEDxAldeburgh


Translator: Judith Matz
Reviewer: Sebastian Betti Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. If I could request the resetting of the clock,
it’s on at four minutes at the moment, I presume from the one before…
Fantastic! Okay! So, my name is Akala, I’m from the Hip Hop
Shakespeare Company. And before we get into
the philosophy of our work, what that means, what
the intention is behind it, I’m going to challenge you guys
to a little bit of a pop quiz. And we’ve done this pop quiz
quite a few times, we’ll talk about it after we do it. I’m gonna simply tell you some quotes. One line quotes, taken either from
some of my favorite hip hop songs, or some of my favorite
Shakespearean plays or sonnets. And you’re gonna tell me
by show of hands, whether you think it’s
hip hop or Shakespeare. (Laughter) Does that make sense? Okay. So the first one we’ll go for is: “To destroy the beauty from which one came.” “To destroy the beauty from which one came.” If you think that’s hip hop,
raise your hands please. If that’s Shakespeare,
raise your hands please. Brilliant, okay, that’s 70 percent
towards Shakespeare. It’s from a gentleman known as
Sean Carter, better known as Jay-Z, from a track called “Can I live?” We’ll go for another one. “Maybe it’s hatred I spew,
maybe it’s food for the spirit.” “Maybe it’s hatred I spew,
maybe it’s food for the spirit.” Hip hop? Shakespeare? Getting overwhelmingly towards
Shakespeare. Interesting. Anyone heard of a gentleman
known as Eminem? (Laughter) He’s not Shakespeare. That’s from a track Eminem did
with Jay-Z actually, called “Renegade.” We’ll go for a couple more. “Men would rather use their broken weapons
than their bare hands.” “Men would rather use their broken weapons
than their bare hands.” Hip hop? Shakespeare? Pretty even spread with
a Shakespearean lean. That one is from Shakespeare,
it’s from a play known as “Othello.” We go for: “I was not born under a rhyming planet.” “I was not born under a rhyming planet.” Hip hop? Shakespeare? That one is Shakespeare. It’s from
“Much Ado about Nothing.” We go for two more. We go for: “The most benevolent king
communicates through your dreams.” “The most benevolent king
communicates through your dreams.” Hip hop? Shakespeare? Ah, fifty-fifty there. A gentleman known as the RZA
who’s the head of the Wu-Tang Clan. We’re gonna be revisiting the Wu-Tang later,
we’ll be talking about him a lot. He’s one of the main exponents
of hip hop philosophy, someone, or a collective, that
had a huge influence on me. But we’ll revisit them. Last quote of the day.
Let’s go for… “Socrates, philosophies and
hypotheses can’t define.” “Socrates, philosophies and
hypotheses can’t define.” Hip hop? Shakespeare? Overwhelmingly towards hip hop.
And that one, that is hip hop. That’s Wu-Tang again, that’s
from a man named Inspectah Deck. Interestingly, that quote
comes from a single, or track, known as “Triumph”
from the album “Wu-Tang Forever.” “Wu-Tang Forever” was the first hip-hop album
to go number one in this country. So that was what made hip hop cross over
with this kind of lyricism, but we’re gonna revisit that a little later
and revisit the Wu-Tang, as I said. So, as you can see, it wasn’t as clear-cut
as many of us may have thought. The language used,
the subjects spoken about, various things make it very, very difficult
once the context is taken away, once our perception is taken away, and we have to look at just
the raw language of the two art forms. And don’t worry, we’ve done
that exercise over 400 times, and as of yet, no-one
has got them all right. Not even some of
the most senior professors at some of the most respected
Shakespearean institutions in the country, I shan’t name names.
(Laughter) But needless to say: it’s challenged
a lot of people’s perceptions and we extend from that,
we look at some of the other parallels between hip hop and Shakespeare, at some of the other things they share. One of the main things that is shared
between the two is of course rhythm. Iambic pentameter —
dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum. Five sets, two beats,
it’s actually a wonderful rhythm to use in hip hop music
and translates in a way that even artists writing
today find difficult. What do I mean by that? It’s very difficult to take, even as an MC,
who is a professional MC, a lyric written over a grime beat, grime is a 140 bpm.
Very, very fast tempo. And then take that same lyric
and put it on a… what we consider to be a
traditional hip hop beat, 70-80 bpm. A very, very difficult skill.
Even writing now, with the music to hand. Yet, the iambic pentameter
allows us to do just that. I’ll show you what I mean rather
than tell you. So listen up. Cue music please. (Music) What you’re about to hear,
some of you may know of it, some of you may not. It’s Shakespeare’s most famous poem,
Sonnet 18. I haven’t adopted it to make it
fit to the rhythm, but just listen close. Okay. Yo. “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: Sometimes too hot
the eye of heaven shines, And often is his
gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair
sometime declines, By chance or nature’s
changing course untrimm’d; But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession
of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall Death brag thou
wander’st 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.” (Applause) Now as you can see,
it sits right there in the rhythm. It’s right in the pocket of the beat. Now we’re gonna try a completely different
style of beat, different tempo of beat. You’re gonna see the same lyric,
because of this consistent rhythm, can fit. Let’s try. (Music) “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 dimm’d; And every fair from fair
sometime declines, By chance or nature’s
changing course untrimm’d; But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession
of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall Death brag
thou wander’st 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.” (Applause) What I’d like you all to do is just
put your hand on your heart for a second. Now… If you feel your heart, hopefully, your heart should
be beating in sets of two, one off, one on, dee-dum,
or an iamb, as we call it. If it isn’t, I do suggest you
consult a doctor as soon as possible. But because of that —
you can take your hands off your hearts now — But because of that, that’s why
this rhythm is so intrinsic, where, really, music is imitating
the rhythm of life, the sounds of life. The heartbeat of life. And so, this rhythm, iambic pentameter,
even though being such a simple rhythm, is intrinsic to so many forms of music. Other places in the world, they
have different sorts of rhythms. Like the West-African rhythms,
it’s on the three, people speak in triplets, essentially. Well, we found that this rhythm
really acts as a mnemonic device, for young people to remember the lyrics. But also, really, as a way to understand
some of what is being said. The rhythm helps us understand it. It helps us to communicate feeling. And of course, in hip hop, tonality, the way you say what you’re saying, the mood with which
what you’re saying, the rhythm with which
what you’re saying, is as important as what
you’re actually saying. But revisiting the philosophies and the perceptions or conceptions
of these two art forms, these two things we think
we know so much about, we’ll start with Shakespeare. Over the course of the past
three or four years, having worked with hundreds,
thousands of young people now, at hundreds of workshops, we found out very interesting things about people’s perception
of Shakespeare. Who they think he was, what the inherited beliefs
of the time in which he lived, the people he was surrounded by,
his background, are. Some of them are of course,
just as with hip hop, complete nonsense. This idea for example
that Shakespeare spoke, as people say to us, posh,
or the Queen’s English. Received pronunciation. Well, received pronunciation
we know wasn’t invented well after 100 years
after Shakespeare died. He’d never heard what we think
of today as the Queen’s English. When he was alive, people
spoke a bit more like a mix between people from
Yorkshire and Cornwall. So for example, the word “hours”
was pronounced “urrs.” “Urrs and urrs and urrs.” Or: “mood” and “blood” … rhyme! “mu:dd” and “blu:dd” was the way
in which people would pronounce those words. The times in which he lived, you know, the chasm between rich and poor
being larger than it is today, though we seem to be doing our best
to recreate that chasm. But… you know, he was living in very
tumultuous, very violent times and we really receive almost
a sanitized vision of that violence, you know, coloring our view of the past. We know over ninety percent
of Shakespeare’s audience couldn’t read or write. So how is it that in the
21st century in Britain that he’s come to be viewed
as almost the poster child for [elitism], and even within that now
we’re getting a debate: Did he even write his own plays? Because of course, this comes down to who’s allowed to be the custodian
of knowledge and who isn’t. Shakespeare was someone
who didn’t go [to uni]. He wasn’t Oxbridge. He’s seen — by some —
they need to see him that way — as someone who’s not entitled to be
a custodian of knowledge. So we have to find an explanation
for his intelligence rather than just accepting
his intelligence as an actual fact. Which brings me on to hip hop. Many people have opinions of hip hop — of course, the media’s had some
very loud opinions of hip hop. But I’ve found again over this
working with thousands of people, and these hundreds of workshops, and interactions with these institutions, many people who have
an opinion of hip hop know absolutely nothing about it. Zero. Zip. What do I mean by that? So… the very words “hip hop,” the “hip” in that word comes
from the Wolof word “hipi,” Wolof is a Senegalese language, it means “to open one’s eyes and see”
as a term of enlightenment. The word “hop” from the English
signifying movement, thus “hip hop” means
“intelligent movement.” Hip hop contains five elements as codified by its founding
fathers in New York City. It contains five elements. DJing, MCing, break dancing, graffiti art and the fifth element, which is the one
I want to talk about today: Knowledge. An element we don’t see so much
in the television or the radio, perhaps. But of course the representations
of that culture today are not owned by the people who founded that culture. But when it’s understood, if we go back to the medieval
West-African empires of Mali, Songhai, Gao, ancient Ghana, you have a character that
the Malians refer to as a griot. These griots still exist today,
well, who was the griot? The griot was a rhythmic,
oral poet, singer, musician, custodian of the history,
of the spiritual tradition, etc. etc. etc., of those empires, of that culture. When we start to understand how those musical oral cultural traditions
manifested in many complex ways, in the Americas, and helped
influence jazz, blues, funk, up to hip hop, we get a much greater sense
of what the founding fathers, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool DJ Herc
and Grandmaster Flash were trying to do when they codified this culture in this way, and understood in that context, of course, hip hop becomes a very
different proposition to a way in which much of the time
it has been represented, when we understand what
was going on in New York City in the late seventies, early eighties. People coming out of
a post-civil rights era, aesthetic influence by the literature
of Amiri Baraka or James Baldwin, influenced by the persona
of a Muhammed Ali, influenced by the funk
of a James Brown. James Brown the drummer, incidentally,
is the most-sampled drummer in history. His famous loop becomes
the basis of all hip hop music. And that is the only
intellectually honest context in which to place hip hop as a culture. And that’s kind of what I grew up in. That’s what I was massively influenced by. And it became, really… Up until
the mid-nineties, it was still normal for the most commercially successful rappers
to boast about how clever they were. To talk about kicking science,
dropping knowledge, spreading mathematics,
while simultaneously talking about what life was like
in the projects of New York City. There was no contradiction between
both of those elements, and again, it was about who
was custodian of the knowledge. Who was choosing to pick up that
baton and run with it? And one of the things that was
so inspirational about hip hop was that people who were told
they were not supposed to do that, without trying to be anything they weren’t, without dressing any different, without speaking any differently, they decided, they made the decision: “We’re going to become
custodians of this knowledge. We’re gonna educate ourselves and we’re gonna transmit
this knowledge through the music.” The main exponents of that in my life,
the main influence on me, was this group I already
told you about, the Wu-Tang Clan. When “Wu-Tang Forever” came out,
when I was in school, it was the first album that united people
that listened to all different sorts of music. And up to then, hip hop, still, in London,
really only appealed to a particular segment of the people,
in my school, anyway. And then “Wu-Tang Forever” came out, and all of a sudden, kids
who listened to Heavy Metal, kids who were into Blur and Oasis, everybody was united around
this one sort of album. And what was it about? It was this openly proud,
intelligent discourse that was so undeniable
that really appealed, in my opinion, and pulled everybody in. And I’m gonna show you
an example of a poem, well, what I would call a poem,
but some people would call it rap, by the lead member of this group,
a gentleman known as the RZA. I spoke about him earlier. He actually produced the music
for the film “Kill Bill” as well, so some people may know him
better in that capacity. There was a poem he wrote called
“Twelve Jewels,” and this will give you just a sense,
as someone, as I said, who was one of the most
successful MCs of his time, how normal it was to be so boastful
about one’s intellect. It’s a piece called “Twelve Jewels,”
you can look it up on the internet. I’m only gonna share a little bit. It goes like this: “In pre-existence of the mathematical,
biochemical equations, the manifestations of
rock, plant, air, fire and water, without their basic formations,
solids, liquids and gases, that cause the land masses
and the space catalysts and all matter that exists
and this dense third dimension must observe a
physical comprehension. It takes a nerve to be struck. Wisdom is the wise poet spoken to wake up
the dumb who’ve been sleeping. The fourth dimension is time.
It goes inside the mind. When the shackles energize
up through the back of your spine. So observe as my Chi energy
strikes a vital nerve. One swerve with the tongue
pierces like a sword through the lung. Have you not heard that words
kill as fast as bullets? When you load negative thoughts
from the chamber of your brain, and your mouth pulls the trigger
that propels wickedness straight from hell. From the pits of your stomach
where negativity dwells.” That’s just a little piece
of the RZA’s “Twelve Jewels.” But it’s interesting. Because when you understand
that kind of lyricism, you realize that hip hop carries
that same power as with Shakespeare. You know, the transmute philosophy,
as with any great art, to question the world around us. And this brings us, really,
to the conclusion about what the work we do with
the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company from theater productions
to education productions to hopefully film and TV,
which we’re working on at the moment. What it’s all about it’s about who is going to be
custodian of the knowledge? And in the 21st century, particularly
moving towards post-industrial societies, where we don’t need masses of workers, we’re not training masses of workers
to go and work in factories anymore, these are big questions. What is the purpose of education today? What are we teaching young people? What are we training the
next generation to do and form? Are we training each individual
human being in a society where, increasingly,
the success or failure of a society is going to be dependent on the mind,
or ideas, of the people within that society? Are we training people to aspire
to be the best they can be? To reach their full potential? Wherever they’re born in that society or are we still working in the old,
stratified ways of thinking that people have stations
and places they need to be, or are we encouraging people
to think as big as possible? Because maybe, I don’t know
who in Shakespeare’s life encouraged him to become
a custodian of the knowledge, but if he was not able to do that,
we’d be missing his section of work, similarly with hip hop. So really, that’s what
we want to think about. Education, who does it belong to,
who doesn’t it belong to. And using these seemingly
disparate art forms, these two seemingly disparate worlds, and putting them together, to show ourselves
a unity in human culture, a unity in the ideas
that humans pursue, in activities humans pursue. And to inspire people
towards their own form of artistic, literary, cultural
and societal accents. I’m gonna share with you
a little bit… one final piece. It’s a bit more…
I don’t want to say “fun,” but a bit more of a game
and a challenge. It came out of a radio,
“Freestyles” on Radio 1 Extra, about two and a half,
three years ago. And as a bit of a joke,
the DJ said to me, “Here’s a list of 27 Shakespeare plays, attempt to fit them in a freestyle.” Luckily, we did it, I don’t know how,
we had about ten minutes, though, so it wasn’t a true freestyle
in the truest sense, but we did it as a track that we then,
subsequently, put on the album, so the first part contains
27 Shakespeare plays, the next parts contains 16 of Shakespeare’s
most famous quotes interwoven. It’s entitled “Comedy, Tragedy, History,” you can look it up on the web,
and it goes like this. I’m just gonna do it here,
let’s see how it goes. “Dat 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’re you? What’re you gonna do?
Little boys get Tamed like the Shrew. You’re mid-summer dreamin’,
Your tunes aren’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 to 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 at Athens. When I come back like Hamlet
you pay for your action. Dat boy Akala,
I do it As You Like It. You’re Much Ado About Nothing,
All you do is bite it. I’m too tight, I don’t need 12 Nights.
All you little Tempests get murked on the mic. Of course I’m the one with the force.
You’re history just like Henry IV. I’m fire, things look dire.
Better run like Pericles Prince Of Tyre. Off the scale, cold as a Winter’s Tale
Titus Andronicus was bound to fail.” That’s 27 plays. (Laughter) (Applause)
Listen up. And there is one final bit, this contains
16 of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes. “Wise is the man that knows he’s a fool
Tempt not a desperate man with a jewel. Why take from Peter to go and pay Paul?
Some rise by sin and by virtue fall. What have you made if you gain the whole world.
But sell your own soul for the price of a pearl? The world is my oyster and I am starving.
I want much more than a penny or a farthing. I told no joke, I hope you’re not laughing.
Poet or pauper which do you class him? Speak eloquent, though I am resident
to the gritty inner city, surely irrelevant. Call it urban, call it street.
A rose by any other name, smell just as sweet Spit so hard, but I’m smart as the Bard.
Come through with a Union Jack, full of yard. Akala, Akala,
wherefore art thou? [I rap] Shakespeare and
the secret’s out now. Chance never did crown me, this is destiny.
You still talk but it still perplexes me. Devour cowards, thousands per hour.
Don’t you know the king’s name is a tower? You should never speak it, it is not a secret.
I teach thesis, like ancient Greece’s Or Egyptology, never no apology.
In my mind’s eye, I see things properly. Stopping me, nah you could never possibly.
I bear a charmed life, most probably. For certain I speak daggers in a phrase.
I’ll put an end to your dancing days. No matter what you say it will never work.
Wrens can’t make prey where eagles don’t perch. I’m the worst with the words
’cause I curse all my verbs. I’m the first with a verse
to rehearse with a nurse. There’s a hearse for the first jerk who turn berserk.
Off with his head, ‘cos it must not work. Ramp with Akala, that’s true madness.
And there’s no method in it, just sadness. I speak with the daggers and the hammers
of a passion when I’m rappin’ I attack ’em. In a military fashion the pattern of my rappin’
chattin couldn’t ever map it. And I run more rings round things than Saturn.
Verses split big kids wigs when I’m rappin’. That boy Akala, the rap Shakespeare.
Didn’t want to listen, when I said last year. Rich like a gem in a Ethiopia’s ear.
Tell them again for them who never hear.” It’s a pleasure. (Applause)

Comments 100

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *