Rapping like a bard

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied
Rediscovering Shakespeare for the hip-hop generation is just one mission on Writers and Readers Festival visitor Akala’s mind, writes Dionne Christian.

If he could miraculously rise from the dead, what would William Shakespeare make of it all?

I put this question to Akala, a 35-year-old dreadlocked, award-winning hip-hop artist from Kentish Town in northwest London who'll soon be in New Zealand for various writers' festivals.

It might seem like an odd one to ask a rapper who has an older sister called Ms Dynamite and was, a few years ago now, voted the Best Hip-Hop Act at the Music of Black Origin Awards. But Akala - real name Kingslee James McLean Daley - like so many of his peers, is a cultural polygamist.

He's an author, poet, political activist and social entrepreneur who, in 2009, founded The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, which is aimed at "exploring the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and that of modern-day hip-hop artists".

Last year, Akala was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Brighton and published Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, in which he takes his own experiences of being of mixed race, as the son of a Scottish mother and Jamaican father, and uses them to look at the social, historical and political factors that have taken us to where we are now. It's not a pretty picture.

So, perhaps not an irrelevant question after all and answered with a reply that's somewhat sobering.

"I think he'd look around and say it was, in many respects, practically identical to many of the things he wrote about because all of the issues have remained pretty much the same. There are wars overseas, divisions about political alliances and how we want to be ruled, anti-immigrant xenophobia, social divides, poverty, inequality and violence.

"We talk about knife crimes; just look at Shakespeare's contemporaries - Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death; Ben Jonson killed a man in a duel. The ways to be human seem to have changed very little since Shakespeare was around."

When I put it to Akala that surely humanity should be better than this, he says that it's not to say nothing has changed and that, really, it's not all doom and gloom. There's greater freedom of speech, a public health service, free education and we're no longer torturing people in the Tower of London, cracking their heads off and displaying them on spikes around the city.

They're all good things, but Akala worries about how - in the Western world - we regard education, especially the attitude of young people towards it. So, when he comes to the Dunedin Writers Festival in May, he'll be talking about the importance of education, the doors it can open and, equally, those that a lack of it can slam shut.

"You've got boys who get expelled at 12 or 13 and that pretty much dictates the rest of their lives, because expulsion and dropping out of school at that age, well, it's hard to get over and the statistics for their likelihood of ending up in prison ... It creates a ticking time bomb," he says.

"One of the ironies of free education is that it's not valued and it's regarded as `not cool' to be good at school. It's as if it's not clever to be clever. Compare that to the Jamaican ghettos - and they're a lot tougher than the ones in London - where education is regarded as a positive. To get a scholarship and go to a good school, man, that's valued."

Akala didn't go to university; indeed, at high school he says he was put into a special-needs group because his teachers didn't know what to do with the obviously smart working-class boy.

He says by all statistical measures - as a mixed-race child of teen parents who split when he was a toddler, growing up in North London and, as a teenager, carrying a knife for protection - he should have ended up in prison.

Saturdays spent at the Pan-African Society school helped guard against that; so did having books in his house - "we always had towers of library books" - and his stepfather's job at the Hackney Empire, a theatre where he saw up to three or four productions a week and first heard Shakespeare.

The hip-hop and reggae fan saw similarities between the ways contemporary musicians and a 400-year-old playwright used language. He talks about Wu Tang Clan, in particular, as using deliberately elegant language and reggae as sparking his nascent political leanings. He wishes educators could see the ways that those lyrics might have been useful teaching tools.

That's part of the reason why he founded The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, and, in doing so, challenged some of his own assumptions. He figured the "custodians of Shakespeare" - long associated with high culture - would object but on the contrary, they encouraged him! Sir Ian McKellen even went to the launch.

"He didn't even have a smartphone! And he told one of the journalists, who kept trying to ask questions when he was speaking to some of the kids, to be quiet because he was in the middle of a workshop with the kids rather than being there for a PR opportunity.

"I was pleasantly surprised that my beliefs and assumptions were wrong. I think there was relief that someone from the streets - rather than a middle-class person trying to make it cool with the `yoof' - was actually getting involved."

At the festival 

Akala will take part in two public Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival sessions: "Distracted", at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum on Friday, May 10, and "Akala: Natives"  in conversation  about his memoir, at Dunedin Public Art Gallery on Saturday, May 11.
 

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