Mix hip hop with Shakespeare? Why ever not?


Thank goodness one brave speaker at the Tory conference had the guts to stand up and identify something in today's society that is "positively evil" and a blight on inner-city kids. What was it? The bedroom tax? Cuts to benefits? George Osborne's new hairstyle? Oh no. Setting Shakespeare to a hip-hop beat is the dangerous affront to Britain's youth, according to Lindsay Johns, an incredibly smart and passionate youth mentor and writer who nonetheless manages to give the impression of being created by Michael Gove out of a 3D printer and a stick-on beard.

Mr Johns blamed "vacuous PC educationalists" for their "incredibly patronising" and "viciously racist" assumptions that "black and brown kids in the inner cities will only 'get Shakespeare' if it's set to a hip-hop beat and presented in three-minute, MTV-Base-style chunks". He's sort of right, in that if that were actually happening it would be quite stupid. It's not, of course. There are some crazy leftie radicals – among them Sir Ian McKellen and the hip-hop artist Akala – who perform Shakespeare and hip hop at the same gig. (One fun game is "hip hop or Shakespeare", in which Sir Ian famously misidentified the quote "I am reckless what I do/ To spite the world" as a hip-hop lyric – it comes from Macbeth, Act 3 scene 1.)

At no point do these performances forbid young people from seeing Shakespeare's plays as they were originally written, but to hear Gove's lot you'd think that anyone offering a modern spin on a classic text was burning all the First Folios and teaching kids that poetry was invented by Jay-Z. You'd also think that nobody else in the past 400 years had ever offered a modern interpretation of Shakespeare.

Mr Gove wants children to read (not watch) two of Shakespeare's plays by the time they are 14. And so they should, they'll love them. But – accuse me of "genuflecting at the altar of youth" if you will – which role model is more likely to inspire kids to like something: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis or Michael Gove?

Mr Johns calls it "positively evil to deny inner-city kids access to the manifold joys of hearing their national poet's true voice". But what is really more cruel: forcing kids to sit in classrooms reading plays to a deadline, or letting them see Shakespeare's work performed live?

A similar furore has emerged this week over the "Austen Project", in which contemporary authors write novels inspired by Jane Austen's and set them in the modern world: Alexander McCall Smith will "do Emma". But don't panic! The real Emma will still be there. I'm equally keen on Sathnam Sanghera's new novel Marriage Material, which reimagines Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale but is set in the Sikh community of Wolverhampton. He has reinterpreted the original, not hidden it.

You can tell classic literature by the way that each new generation grabs it and bends it to its own ends. Nobody owns how it is performed. Shakespeare? I think he can survive a little hip hop.


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