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

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?