Shakespearean Quote? Or 90s rap lyric? You’d think you’d be able to tell… Akala on Hip-Hop and Shakespeare at WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

"Arise, black vengeance!"

Shakespearean quote? Lyric from a '90s rapper? Or the catch cry of the Black Lives Matter campaign?

It's actually a quote from the great William Shakespeare's play Othello, but you'd be justified in choosing any of these answers. You'd think it would be obvious to tell the difference between quotes written nearly four centuries apart, but there are more similarities than differences between the work of the Bard and hip-hop artists. It was these similarities that Akala spoke about as part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season on Sunday afternoon. 

WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Sunday 12 May 2019. Flickr 2019-05-12-IMG_5223
Akala at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Sunday 12 May 2019. Flickr 2019-05-12-IMG_5223

Akala is a hip-hop artist, author, and social entrepreneur, and the diverse crowd that packed the YMCA's Te Papa Hou auditorium to listen to his Hip-Hop & Shakespeare talk were treated to an hour that catered to many different tastes. There was a traditional Māori greeting, with te reo, waiata, and hongi. The discussion around the use of figurative language features kept the English and literature majors interested. And the musicians in the audience were treated to a performance of 'Comedy, Tragedy, History', a two-part rap where the first half names TWENTY-SEVEN of Shakespeare's plays, and the second is based around famous quotes. Even without any musical backing this was an impressive rap to listen to - in its complete musical format (available to listen to on Spotify) it really is an impressive feat of wordcraft and musical skill.

This talk was promoted as an interactive presentation, and it certainly was. Musical theory, social and legal history, and features of language through the ages - there was a lot of information delivered, but it was done in such a way that the hour just flew by. As an audience member I got to participate in that 'Shakespeare vs rapper' quiz I mentioned earlier, learnt iambic pentameter by rapping out Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 18' (that's 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day', in case you couldn't remember), and shout out answers to the questions he put back on us ... until he told us off, and suggested we raise our hands like we used to as kids 😉 His passion for his work was clearly evident, and I am pretty sure he inspired that same enthusiasm in all who heard him.

Akala grew up in a theatre, and it was a pretty gritty life. He spoke about how he came to love both Shakespeare and rap, and about the different ways these art forms are treated. Shakespeare is sanitised, cleaned, and made more 'appropriate' for public consumption, totally disregarding the fact that Shakespeare's life was pretty colourful, while hip-hop is demonised, and marked as 'inappropriate'. Akala combines these forms of art and music at The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, where he works to bring Shakespeare and hip-hop together to appeal to an audience who might otherwise not see the relevance or beauty in these old plays.

I'm the same age as Akala, and his comment that "it's not Shakespeare that's the problem, it's the crap production" really spoke to me. So often we see Shakespeare presented in a dry, boring way that is totally different to how it was meant originally. I was fourteen when Baz Luhrman's "Romeo and Juliet" movie came out - a movie that kept the Bard's words intact, but presented them in a way that myself and ALL my friends could understand what was happening. Updated, with a cool soundtrack, and a production that didn't downplay the violence, sex, and drugs of the story, all of us learnt this story far better than we would have from our dry high school English lessons. 

The Q&A at the end of the session covered all topics, with audience members asking about up-and-coming hip-hop artists, funding difficulties, and the challenges of working with people who have 'decided that Shakespeare isn't for them'. There really was something for everyone, and by the faces on the people leaving the auditorium that Sunday afternoon, the hip-hopping, Shakespeare-quoting young man definitely inspired more than a few of us to give Shakespeare - or hip-hop! - another go.

Akala. Image supplied.