Akala, the new Shakespeare? Where unfathomable worlds collide…

“Words are more treach­er­ous and power­ful than we think” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Since the begin­ning of time words have been the world’s most potent weapon. They can be a source of com­fort, of battle, and both equally a divider and a uni­fi­er. To many it would appear that hip hop, that is, the art of using the spoken word over a back beat, is a more recent phe­nom­ena, and par­tic­u­larly with­in pop cul­ture had only  had not long ago burst onto the scene. But this widely held notion, one that views hip hop as hav­ing emerged in 1970s New York, is his­tor­ic­ally, polit­ic­ally, and philo­soph­ic­ally, pure myth­o­logy. It can be traced through dis­par­ate music­al tra­di­tions right down to the Afric­an gri­ot tra­di­tions of West Afric­an empires. This demon­strates what a power­ful and mis­un­der­stood art hip hop really is. When we view it in this way, through the lens of its real, rather than assumed his­tory, we can take it away from the ste­reo­type of rap. That is, the young miso­gyn­ist­ic black man speak­ing of bitches, money, and dis­play­ing greed and wealth. While there are many will­ing to propag­ate this image, so much so that Brit­ish rap­per Akala once called rap “the miso­gyn­ist­ic, mater­i­al­ist­ic hand­maid­en of Amer­ic­an cap­it­al­ism”, there is a rich­ness with­in hiphop that is deeply reflect­ive, con­scious, diverse and sadly hid­den in the under­ground.


Cred­it: Akala Offi­cial Face­book

It is import­ant to remem­ber that hip hop was con­ceived with a pur­pose. That pur­pose included res­ist­ance to oppres­sion, break­ing down ste­reo­types and bar­ri­ers, not to accept the norms imposed on you by soci­ety depend­ing on your social status or eth­ni­city. Ulti­mately, it stood, and still stands, to be the voice of the voice­less. And this is where we can begin to draw par­al­lels with oth­er means of expres­sion. Sim­il­arly Wal­lace Steven’s, an early 20th cen­tury poet, once described poets as being “the priest of the invis­ible”

For many, the ulti­mate draw of hip hop is in its lyr­i­cism. Words are the key to its power.  And what many sadly fail to hear is the won­der­ful world of words which some artists cre­ate. The artic­u­late, the con­scious, the rap­pers still fight­ing injustice are not always heard. Those artists to me, people like Akala, Lowkey, and under­ground acts such as Phoenix Da Ice Fire, plus those bet­ter known like Dead Prez, Eminem, Kendrick Lemar, are both intel­lec­tu­als and poets. Many may lack “main­stream edu­ca­tion” but edu­ca­tion and intel­li­gence are far from the same thing. Accord­ing to the philo­soph­er Albert Camus: “An intel­lec­tu­al is someone whose mind watches itself”. All the afore­men­tioned rap­pers do pre­cisely that. They describe both their intern­al and extern­al real­ity in a way that many with a phd would struggle to do.

There is also no doubt that we can call some of these rap­pers ‘poets’. The Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tion­ary defines a poet as “a per­son pos­sess­ing spe­cial powers of ima­gin­a­tion or expres­sion.” Sounds famil­i­ar? For Wil­li­am Wordsworth, a 19th cen­tury poet: “Poetry is the spon­tan­eous over­flow of power­ful feel­ings. It takes its ori­gins from emo­tion recol­lec­ted in tran­quil­ity”. That a quote two cen­tur­ies old res­on­ates so clearly in that it describes many artists we have men­tioned, we can­not dis­band the notion that good con­scious hip hop is most definately poetry. We have already made clear that hip hop’s main role was, and still is for many, to break down bar­ri­ers. Robert Frost, the great Amer­ic­an poet at the begin­ning of the last cen­tury once said that “writ­ing free verse is like play­ing ten­nis with the net down”.  Con­scious hip hop aims to do just that, pull down whatever stands in its way and just let go.

So it is of no sur­prise that a hip hop artist, see­ing the sim­il­ar­ity between his and fel­low artists work and that of his­tor­ic­al texts decided to devise a scheme to encour­age young people to engage in these his­tor­ic­al works that they felt had no rel­ev­ance to them. In this instance, it was Shakespeare. The artist in ques­tion, Akala, has a track called Shakespeare and it is from this basis that he decided to take the whole concept a step fur­ther.

Akala, real name Kingslee James Daley, was born in Lon­don in 1983. His stage name is a Buddhist term for “immov­able”. He began his record­ing career in 2003, released his first album ‘It’s Not a Rumour” in 2006, and once daubed him­self “the black Shakespeare”. It is on this basis that he launched him­self into an edu­cat­ive role, aimed at using his skills to immerse young people into the work of the likes of Shakespeare.

Firstly he set up the The Hip hop Shakespeare Com­pany in 2008. “Both hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s theatre rep­res­ent ener­get­ic and invent­ive forms of expres­sion.  Both are full of poetry, word­play and lyr­i­cism.  Both deal with what it is to be human, and issues from people’s lives, and of course just like Shakespeare’s work, hip-hop is all about the rhythmic ten­sion of words.  The sim­il­ar­it­ies between hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s theatre are strik­ing.  As a media-savvy pop­u­lar enter­tain­er and tal­en­ted busi­ness­man, we think hip-hop would have been Shakespeare’s thing – a truly old-school Jay‑Z.”

Akala notes that both hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s have been  mis­rep­res­en­ted in that hip-hop is not giv­en the “intel­lec­tu­al cred­it it deserves in an aca­dem­ic, lit­er­ary or poet­ic sense”.  At the same time, Shakespeare, he pos­its, is often presen­ted from a cul­tur­ally “high brow” view­point which for many young people makes his work seem irrel­ev­ant to their lives and there­fore bor­ing. He offers up writ­ing work­shops for young people, and has a tour­ing theatre com­pany that per­forms his adapt­a­tions of Shakespeare’s work.

His track, ‘Shakespeare’, states: “I’m sim­il­ar to Wil­li­am, but a little dif­fer­ent, I do it for kids that’s illit­er­ate, not Eliza­beth…. It’s like Shakespeare with a nigga twist… it’s wil­li­am back from the dead from the dead, but i rap bout gats and I’m black instead”

Akala on his Hip Hop Shakespeare Theatre web­site declares that, “After rap­ping about Shakespeare in some of my songs I developed the monik­er “the Rap Shakespearean” among the press and my fans.  In 2008, I decided to look for ways to spread my own love of Shakespeare to oth­er young people in a more struc­tured manner….from which THSC was born.”

Towards the end of last year art­icles began appear­ing in the press con­cern­ing this com­par­is­on between Akala and the Shakespeare, this country’s most fam­ous word­smith. Typ­ic­ally this involved the most mod­ern tech­no­logy, a com­puter app, that high­lighted the com­par­is­on between Akala’s work and that of Shakespeare. Cre­ated by the Roy­al Shakespeare Com­pany in col­lab­or­a­tion with Sam­sung, the notion was simple. It proffered up quotes and asked the user where the quote ori­gin­ated from, Akala or Shakespeare. Many failed to dis­tin­guish between the two. This sur­prised many who held the afore­men­tioned ste­reo­type of rap. But for those more aware of con­scious hip-hop born from deep­er roots, this was not news.

It may be a good idea in the­ory that by devel­op­ing a “fun new app” to engage kids into learn­ing his­tor­ic­al texts via mod­ern cul­ture, we could encour­age learn­ing. And as Akala asserts so often, includ­ing in an album bear­ing this name, “Know­ledge is power”. Quotes like. “Strange is the fruit that nour­ishes Not the bring, this is more than soph­ist­ic­ated sav­agery” sound pretty Shakespeari­an right? Wrong. It’s Akala. But for me, the pro­ject is lack­ing a dimen­sion. The aim is to take pupils back in his­tory. But it would be far more power­ful if instead of using Akala as a key to open­ing anoth­er door, we also teach these artists in their own right as examples of mod­ern day “poetry”. This is an era where young people need power­ful intel­li­gent idols in the here and now. His­tory is vital to the way in which soci­ety is con­struc­ted, and how we con­struct ourselves in it. It con­tex­tu­al­ises everything. So yes, Shakespeare is, and always will be fun­da­ment­ally rel­ev­ant. But we also need to look at the here and now. Akala, for example can teach us about his­tory. In his tracks he ref­er­ences vari­ous icons from Mar­tin Luth­er King, to Mal­colm X, to Bob Mar­ley.


Photo Cred­it: Lowkey Offi­cial Face­book

Lowkey on the track Cradle of Civil­isa­tion takes us back through his iraqi her­it­age and the dev­ast­a­tion of both Sad­dam Hus­sein and the sub­sequent Amer­ic­an inva­sion on his “moth­er­land” and the desec­ra­tion of Bagh­dad. The stun­ning voice of Mai Kahill singing “Oh how beau­ti­ful is free­dom” in Arab­ic is so incred­ibly beau­ti­ful, and his lyr­ics so power­ful, that he again tran­scends ste­reo­types and can teach anoth­er side to people about that facet of polit­ics and his­tory, and it is a side we rarely hear. With each artist, we listen, and we learn. The death of his broth­er by sui­cide, expressed in “Bars for my Broth­er” teaches us the raw pain of loss.

Again, Mic Right­eous in his BBC radio 1 Fire in the Booth ses­sion points to the polit­ic­al here and now, from the riots of a few years ago in Eng­lish cit­ies to those on a more glob­al level: “there’s a war going on out­side our doorstep…Pakistan’s an ocean, bod­ies in the brown water float­ing, people for­get. As Syr­ia falls apart, we watch the prob­lems  pro­gress, when will it end?”. Again more teach­ing to be offered up from cur­rent events that may oth­er­wise go missed by cer­tain young people.

There are hip hop artists in Brazil, in Iran, in Gaza, in Israel, in fact in vir­tu­ally every nation one can think of, bring­ing their own fla­vour through their own unique cul­ture with them. The UK is no excep­tion, yet many gif­ted artists such as Lowkey, have been shunned from the main­stream.

People have often poin­ted to hip hop as a dan­ger­ous force. Often quoted are the the rap wars that were highly pre­val­ent in the United States espe­cially in the 1980s and 90s and equate it with viol­ence. Many still think of rap as being syn­onym­ous with gang war­fare, espe­cially that which erup­ted in the notori­ous east/west coast divide that is allleged to have cul­min­ated in the deaths of two of hip hop’s biggest names, Big­gie Smalls and Tupac Shak­ur. And yes, there must be care from those in prom­in­ent pos­i­tions. Social icons do have a big respons­ib­il­ity. After all, as Sartre also said, “Words are Loaded pis­tols”

But we can look at this through anoth­er lens. That rather than caus­ing social prob­lems, we can see hip hop as just an expres­sion of them. It is an often bru­tal expres­sion. But it is also a neces­sary one. It is a cath­arsis that allows those who might oth­er­wise engage in viol­ence, chan­nel those feel­ings in anoth­er way.

Ben­jamin Zephaniah, the fam­ous Brit­ish poet, com­men­ted on why he wrote his nov­el ‘Gang­sta Rap’: “I love Rap music. Many people say that teen­age boys are not inter­ested in poetry but Rap is simply street poetry. Why do kids get embar­rassed when you call it poetry? I used to. I love poetry, but poetry reminds lots of kids of dead slow words writ­ten by dead white men. Rap tells it as it is. It might grate or upset you, but people who are study­ing youth trends should just listen to Rap music as that’s where it’s at. Rap is street poetry owned by young people. Nowadays every kid on a street corner is a rap­per and that’s all good”

This col­li­sion of seem­ingly dif­fer­ent worlds is becom­ing more overt. It’s been a long time since Ice T burst onto the rap scene in the 1980s. The one time “Cop Killer” sing­er has very recently begun to engage with the links between hip hop, poetry, and oth­er forms of music like jazz. He was approached to nar­rate the live jazz-poetry piece Ask Your Mama, ori­gin­ally penned by poet Lang­ston Hughes in the 1920s

When asked if he sees a gulf between his own exper­i­ence of rap cul­ture and the Amer­ica inhab­ited by a gay, rad­ic­al poet of the 1920s his answer again points towards the hid­den intel­lec­tu­al­ism under­ly­ing con­tem­por­ary hip hop.

“People may not asso­ci­ate rap with intel­lec­tu­als such as Lang­ston Hughes. But look at stuff from Pub­lic Enemy, KRS-One, Nas… it’s highly intel­lec­tu­al. Rap is like any­thing else: there’s some high-tech stuff that’s going on and there’s basic stuff too.”. Ice‑T per­formed this work at The Bar­bican Centre in Lon­don at the end of last year.

And what true hip hop lov­ers know inher­ently is being con­sol­id­ated aca­dem­ic­ally. In Feb­ru­ary 2015 Lin­guists from Manchester Uni­ver­sity revealed some find­ings from research that had been under­taken examin­ing the work of hip hop artists. Examined were rhym­ing pat­terns, vocab­u­lary size, rhym­ing struc­ture. Imper­fect rhymes, they say, do not come nat­ur­ally, but they found for rap­pers they had become “second nature”. The Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tion­ary cred­its Shakespeare with coin­ing up to 2000 words we use today. But these lin­guists found that the likes of Eminem and Akala are more adept at cre­at­ing poetry and prose than the 16th cen­tury poet. Louise Middleton, who con­duc­ted the research, quotes Rap God by Eminem, “For me to rap like a com­puter must be in my genes”. This, she says, sup­ports her the­ory that rap is often out­side con­scious con­trol

“I think that hip hop has the most soph­ist­ic­ated rhyme of any genre and when writ­ten down it reads like poetry” oth­er research quoted sug­ges­ted rap­pers have a bet­ter vocab­u­lary than many schol­ars.

Jaqcui O’Hanlan RSC edu­ca­tion dir­ect­or: “Shakespeare dealt with ter­rible, deadly, dan­ger­ous things through the most beau­ti­ful lan­guage” Lan­guage is power for hip hop artists and they use it to pro­voke, chal­lenge and move people like Shakespeare did” Of course we must also recog­nise that there will always be dif­fer­ences giv­en the con­text: “Every age has its own poetry; in every age the cir­cum­stances of his­tory choose a nation, a race, a class to take up the torch by cre­at­ing situ­ations that can be expressed or tran­scen­ded only by poetry” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

What may come of these apps remains to be seen. But it is encour­aging that the world is wak­ing up and start­ing to real­ise that with­in hip hop there is a power­ful use of lan­guage, and a love for words that needs to be nur­tured, not neg­ated. And that can only be a good thing. For the first time we are enter­ing an era where there is a recog­ni­tion that hip hop can quell rather than cause the social unease it has been address­ing.

Akala, at least, has been hav­ing fun with his games. In an inter­view in the Observ­er in 2013, he throws a line at the inter­view­er, “Sleep is the cous­in of death”. Macbeth? the writer guesses. Nope, that one was from “Nas”. The next one, “Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it’s food for the spir­it”. The answer? Eminem. Finally, he offers up a simple reas­on why many may be con­fused, it’s “The same sub­jects and themes… just 400 years apart”.


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Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor is a Lon­don based writer whose Interests are based primar­ily on music and art and also the philo­sophies and polit­ics that accom­pany them. In addi­tion she has an Msc in psy­cho­logy, has worked as a ther­ap­ist, and paints abstract art pieces.

About Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor
Kate Taylor is a London based writer whose Interests are based primarily on music and art and also the philosophies and politics that accompany them. In addition she has an Msc in psychology, has worked as a therapist, and paints abstract art pieces.