Akala’s company proves Shakespeare was the first hip-hop star
The British rapper wants to dust off Shakespeare for a new generation
Less than a mile from where William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was built in 1599, sits 28-year-old Kingslee Daley, known professionally as award-winning British rapper Akala.
Born more than 400 years apart, the two have been brought together by a shared love of words, drama and rhythm.
In 2007, live on BBC Radio’s 1Xtra show, Akala managed to fit the names of 27 Shakespeare plays into two verses of a freestyle rap after being challenged to do so by one of the show’s DJs.
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The challenge planted a seed that would evolve into the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, an educational initiative founded and directed by Akala and launched in 2009 at a special workshop attended by classic Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen.
In an underground room at the company’s headquarters in Southwark, just a stone’s throw from the Globe Theatre, which was reconstructed and opened on the South Bank in 1997, Akala, who grew up in Archway, eagerly traces the origins of his venture.
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“I’ve always wanted to do something in education. I’ve always felt the education system in this country kills a lot of creativity, in the way you’re conditioned towards a test.”
Akala’s buzz word is “edutainment” – a term he attributes to American rapper KRS-One, who released an album with that name.
“It’s about trying to do stuff that makes education sexy,” he says. “Having young everyday children think that they should be reading Shakespeare and Plato – if kids that go to Eton can, why can’t they?”
According to Akala, despite four centuries separating the emergence of both art forms, the parallels between hip-hop and Shakespeare’s writing are manifold and, by bringing the two together, as his company does, both benefit from a fresh lease of life.
He points to “the stories they tell, the use of rhythm – the ability to be great with language” as some of the most evident parallels between the Bard and his hip-hop equivalents.
And equivalents are how Akala views hip-hop’s modern-day greats – poets in their own right, creating rhymes and stories about everyday life in just the same way Shakespeare did in Elizabethan England.
“You have rappers like Nas, who comes from Queensbridge Projects in New York City, using metaphors like ‘a dead bird flying through a broken sky’,” says Akala. “When you say that to kids and you ask them whether it’s a hip-hop quote or a Shakespeare quote, they don’t know.”
In the three years since the company’s inception, Akala has taken Hip-Hop Shakespeare workshops to classrooms and cultural festivals all over the UK and the rest of the world – challenging youngsters to decipher the parallels between the art forms and discover the enriching value both offer.
Despite the company’s ever-increasing demands on his time, the rapper is still very much committed to his music.
Since his 2006 debut album It’s Not A Rumour, which saw him crowned Best Hip-Hop Artist at the 2006 MOBO Awards, Akala has taken his music worldwide, supported Jay-Z and Christina Aguilera, and released a further two albums.
“I don’t want to make two hit records and then be gone again,” he says. “I’d rather make 15 albums and be like The Mars Volta who are not pop stars by any stretch of the imagination but they can play the Forum or Brixton Academy. I want to still be relevant in 40 years.”
If Akala does fade into irrelevance in the coming decades, it certainly won’t be through lack of passion.
Unlike the majority of his peers in modern music, he is deeply political, he explores a range of social injustices and global challenges in his lyrics – put simply, he has a lot to say.
During our conversation we touch on his experience of police brutality in Brazil, his views on youth violence in London, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dumbing-down of culture and his study of African heritage.
He’s the kind of guy you could have an informed discussion with about pretty much anything, but during our meeting his focus is hip-hop, Shakespeare and the power they share as a combined educating force.
“I feel Shakespeare has become represented as old and dusty,” he explains. “Shakespeare has become the victim of a classist appropriation of art. He’s now become this property of the elite when in reality he was writing about sex, violence, drugs and political corruption. So I feel he’s been robbed of his vibrancy by academia.
“When we talk about Public Enemy, Saul Williams, NWA – these were young people from a part of society that everyone wanted to ignore, telling stories that people wanted to hear, but didn’t really want to hear, in a manner that was articulate but outrageous. It was racy and sexy – these are all the things that Shakespeare was doing too.”
As for the company’s future, Akala has set his sights on “a cultural revolution of sorts,” explaining: “I want to see it touring – a Hip-Hop Shakespeare theatre production that’s a unique hybrid brand of theatre around the world. Film, TV and education – a 360 model, it’s definitely just the start.”
Check out Akala and the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company in action next month when they perform their live show on May 5 at this year’s Camden Crawl.