Beowulf, OMG!: Hip-hop artist Akala tracks the development of English

Shakespeare has an image problem – but it's all just bad marketing, really. Who was he? Who was his audience? What was London like when he was writing? Despite the factual information to the contrary, the average person's answer to these questions may read: some aristocrat educated at Oxford; the rich and powerful of his day; awfully civilised.

The reality could not be further from our general perception. William Shakespeare did not attend university and, in many ways, the debate about his identity stems from the belief that a man who was not educated "properly" could not possibly have produced work of such genius. Yet more than 90 per cent of his audience was illiterate – he was the people's poet of his day. Of course, the Queen and aristocracy also enjoyed his plays (from the comfortable seats, naturally) but they were by no means the bulk of the audience.

Which brings us to the last problem: that the tremendously sanitised vision of the past which most of us are given at school tends to rob it of any humaneness and thus of any potential connection it might have with our reality today. We all learnt the rhyme about Henry VIII's wives without ever having any serious discussion of what it must have been like for women to live in a society so sexist that a man had the power of life and death over his wife. These were incredibly brutal and unjust times (not that today is not), when kings massacred the poor at will, disease ravaged and cleanliness was a foreign concept.

Yet, even in the late 1500s, London was already becoming a multicultural city. If only this fact were better known, it might serve to connect more people to those times and to Shakespeare's work. I would posit, after working with more than 1,000 young people over the past two years in my Hip-hop Shakespeare workshops around the country – which try to offer a new perspective on both subjects – that it is these images of old England and of Shakespeare that we just cannot relate to, combined with a tendency to forget that he wrote performance poetry. All of this creates a reality in which such an important figure in British heritage is viewed as irrelevant and boring by most.

Hip-hop, similarly, is rarely viewed in its proper historical context: as the latest manifestation in an unbroken chain of African oral traditions tracing back to the griots (or bards) of the medieval African empires, evolving through gospel, blues, jazz, funk and reggae. The pioneers of hip-hop music and culture were well aware of this heritage, and in fact the five elements of hip-hop, as codified by its founding father Afrika Bambaataa, are: DJing, MCing, breakdancing, graffiti and knowledge.

Hyper-masculinity, materialism, dis-respecting women and other stereotypes associated with the genre are not only not part of the five elements; they are much more a reflection of the corporate fantasy and fetishism of inner-city suffering than of the reality of how the hip-hop community and culture defines itself.

It's useful to break down the etymology of the term: as MK Asante explains in It's Bigger Than Hip Hop (published by St Martin's Griffin), "hip" actually derives from the Wolof verb hipi: to open ones eyes and see, while the term "hop" is from the English, signifying movement. Thus, hip-hop is about becoming aware and moving with that awareness or knowledge. It is a term of enlightenment.

While we'd all be surprised if the Queen turned out to be a Public Enemy fan, it has long been a fact that the main consumers of hip-hop are middle- and upper-middle-class children, and in that sense hip-hop has also served as a vehicle to cross boundaries and bridges of ethnicity, class and even gender.

The inventiveness with words, the ability to create worlds with those words, the attempt to grapple with our existence and our collective questions are what made both the Elizabethan theatre and modern hip-hop music the people's voices of their day. If we are to preserve both these cultures properly and allow them to serve as models to inspire artistic and literary excellence in the 21st century, that search for humanity within these words must be the focus of our discourse.

From 'Comedy Tragedy History'

by Akala, available to download from iTunes

"Wise is the man that knows he's a fool
Tempt not a desperate man with a jewel
Why take from Peter to go and pay Paul
Some rise by sin and by virtue fall
What have you made if you gain the
whole world
But Sell your own soul for the price
of a pearl
The world is my oyster and I am starving
Poet or pauper, which do we class him?
Speak eloquent though I am resident
To the gritty inner city, surely irrelevant?
Call it urban call it street
A rose by any other name smells
just as sweet"

The Independent has six pairs of tickets to give away to Akala's show at the British Library on Friday 26 November.

Click here to find out more

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