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Why Akala is the Bard boy of hip-hop

‘There’s a close link between Shakespeare and the poetry of rappers,’ former Acland Burghley student tells theatre audience

21 April, 2017 — By Alex Green

Akala – real name Kingslee Daley – founded the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company

WHAT do rapper Kanye West and William Shakespeare have in common? Ask any English teacher and they are likely to say, “not a lot”. Ask Akala, former Acland Burghley student and internationally renowned hip-hop artist, and you will get a very different answer.

Rapper Akala, whose real name is Kingslee Daley, set up the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company in 2009 to explore the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of Shakespeare and those of modern-day hip-hop artists.

Akala addressed a group of 80 under-25s last week for more than two hours at the Almeida Theatre as part of its Hamlet For Free week, on the similarities between Shakespeare’s poetry and the modern-day lyrical art form of hip-hop.

Akala speaking on stage at the Almeida Theatre

“Real hip-hop is poetry, social commen­tary, it’s a document of history,” Akala told the crowd as he restlessly paced the stage. “Vice versa: Shakespeare dealt with the issues of his time. His lived experience was of a tumultuous time. Shakespeare wrote about the violence around him. That’s also what some, if not all, hip-hop is about.”

Kentish Town-born Akala, 33, dressed in a camouflage sweatshirt and tracksuit bottoms, added: “How do we use these classical figures? Why are they still relevant?” He then challenged the crowd to differentiate between some of the Bard’s lesser-known lines and a selection of rhymes from 90s hip-hop tracks – a game, he said, he invented with Sir Ian McKellen.

“There is a close link between the iambic pentameter – that’s the rhythm and length of each line – of Shake­speare and the flow of many hip-hop artists,” said Akala. “The way that words sit on or off the beat is what makes Shakespeare’s sonnets and hip-hop alike.”

But why, he asked, do many see hip-hop as a cause of violence and not as an art form?

William Shakespeare

“[Hip-hop artists] are held to a moral standard no other art form is held to,” he said, adding: “Does [Quentin] Taran­tino get blamed for the spread of violence, or Francis Ford Coppola [director of The God­father] get blamed for the existence of the Mafia?”

Describing the current government as being in a “Thatcher-like spiral”, Akala called for “desanitising” the way art and music are taught in schools.“Our current education system sanitises Shakespeare and demonises hip-hop,” he said. “Shakespeare was in a position where he had the power to criticise authority, to hold power to account. We need to look at Shakespeare and his work for what it is, not what it has tradition­ally been accepted as.”

He added: “For example, he wrote about colour. In the Dark Lady Sonnets he addresses a woman and he calls her black. He actually calls her black many, many times. But these sonnets have been labelled as addressed to a ‘Dark Lady’. That’s one thing you don’t get taught.”
The Almeida’s Hamlet for Free week was a four-day festival of work­shops, masterclasses and performances for under-25s, all inspired by the making of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays.

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