In a community hall in Hoxton, London, a small piece of alchemy is taking place. A group of teenagers who only minutes before were fidgeting with their mobile phones, are up on stage reciting one of Shakespeare’s best known sonnets in rap. It’s on a damp spring morning that they’re comparing thee to a summer’s day, but how did they get here?
Well, it seems they’re a part of the burgeoning hip-hop theatre scene…
It’s a rapidly growing exploration of hip-hop as a performance culture being undertaken by at least nine different theatre companies around the UK. The Arts Council is providing funding to at least four companies which specialise in hip-hop theatre, while the likes of Hype Dance Company in Sheffield and Zoo Nation are taking the dance elements of the culture that gave the world breakdancing to a new audience.
Mobo award-winning rapper Akala (also known as younger brother to Mercury-prize winning Ms Dynamite), meanwhile, is running a series of workshops that tease out the links between hip-hop and Shakespeare. But why? “I actually did a song called Shakespeare three or four years ago,” says Akala, “It was a comedic parody that I was the rapping reincarnation of Shakespeare. Not that I am, but there is a genuine relationship between poetry of all forms and that song made me ask – if Shakespeare was alive today, would he have been a rapper?” My kneejerk reaction would normally be to reply: wouldn’t he just be a playwright? We do still have those. But Akala makes a compelling case: “Rap gets a hard time based on this new school of MCs from America who only rap about tits and arse and jewellery. But if you look at real hip-hop, your KRS-Ones, your Chuck Ds, it’s poetry, it’s social commentary, it’s documenting history. And in three or 400 years, people will probably look upon it as such. There were those who frowned upon Shakespeare’s work in his time, but it was a reflection of reality.”
Akala has convinced at least one of our teenage attendees, AJ, who is busy exploring the thematic similarities – love and desire, wealth and poverty – between rap and Shakespeare. AJ says: “Because hip-hop tells stories, Shakespeare is a good subject. And with the music and the beats and the rapping, it makes an old subject brand new.” He’s also made a convert out of this rythcynic. As a former teenage rapper (a dismal one), and a writer about hip-hop for the last 18 years, I was convinced such a project would manage to demean both Shakespeare and my beloved music by softening their more difficult edges in order to slot them together. But it’s precisely their spikiness, their engagement with real life, their playfulness with language, that makes them such perfect bedfellows. Hip-hop and Shakespeare might seem like madness, “yet there is method in’t”.