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
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Stinson Hunter and his associates Stubbs and Grime in Channel 4 documentary The Paedophile Hunter

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
This Banksy mural in Clacton has been removed by the council
art
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
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.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?