Akala’s Hip-Hop Shakespeare

YouTube offers some great examples of the work of Akala, the UK based Hip-Hop artist, whose long established and evolving interest in Shakespeare brings questions of race, privilege and access to the fore of Shakespeare’s meaning in contemporary culture. I first became interested in Akala’s work when researching Shakespeare on YouTube and recently had the opportunity to return to it for the special issue of the journal Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism on the Shakespeare quatercentenary.

Akala is well-known as the founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. He is also known for his TEDx Talk, where he suggests that access to Shakespeare prompts the question “Who’s allowed to be the custodian of knowledge and who isn’t”. And he is known too for his track ‘Shakespeare’, a single from his MOBO award-winning album, It’s Not a Rumour (2006), where Akala styles himself the “black Shakespeare” and critically reproduces or performs the n-word: “It’s like Shakespeare with a nigga twist”. Akala’s continued his Shakespearean theme on his next album Freedom Lasso (2007) with ‘Comedy, Tragedy, History’, a track that emerged out of an on-air radio challenge to reference the titles of Shakespearean plays in a rap. Of more recent interest is Akala’s involvement in celebrations for the Shakespeare quatercentenary that suggest the enactment of a more diverse Shakespeare, and at the same time the persistence of raced ways of seeing and their interconnectedness with Shakespeare’s putative universality.

Akala features in The Economist film ‘The World in 2016’, which includes a segment on Shakespeare 400. The video begins backstage at the Barbican, with Alex Hassell in rehearsal for the RSC’s Henry V, and moves to a vox pop from David Tennant. The voiceover establishes how the 2016 celebrations will be marked by an emphasis on attracting a new audience for Shakespeare. The first conduit is technology, with the film profiling the RSC and Samsung ‘RE:Shakespeare’ app (which features Tennant himself and Akala). The second conduit is Akala – as the film’s narrator explains ‘it’s not just a technological transformation that’s taking place’. The film trades on Tennant’s celebrity but I’m also interested in the film’s trajectory – from Hassel to Tennant to Akala, and then back to Tennant – that implies a symbolic passing of the baton of male cultural privilege from one figure to another. While Akala is positioned as the innovator that brings Shakespeare to a new or next generation, the invisible bardic baton gets returned to Tennant as the paragon of the classic Shakespearean actor. The film is less about a conscious appropriation of Akala than a recourse to traditional assumptions and evaluations of proper Shakespeare. The technologically new, the culturally popular, or the non-normatively raced are represented as secondary, or after the ‘thing itself’.

What kind of Shakespeare is being celebrated, commemorated and remembered here? Akala’s own output appears to regard Shakespeare as an effective tool for disclosing normative modes of representation. It further locates value in Shakespeare at the level of language, moving from a political use of Shakespeare to an artistic identification with his works. However, while Akala seeks to disrupt Shakespeare’s cultural whiteness, Akala himself is interpreted as a racial text – or his race becomes semiotically relevant, part of the reception context. In a sense, then, Akala is simultaneously accommodated as visual evidence of contemporary Shakespeare’s diversity and, at the same time, framed in relation to more traditional expressions premised on the transcendent Bard. If Akala’s work and reception demonstrates how Shakespeare’s cultural prestige can be mobilized in the interests of a race and class activism, it also encounters and registers the traditional values, assumptions and prejudices that are embedded in the Shakespeare phenomenon.

As several Shakespeare scholars (especially  Ayanna Thompson, Ruben Espinosa and Ian Smith) have argued, it falls to teachers and practitioners in the field to continually check, destabilize and diversify what contemporary Shakespeares mean. Perhaps we need to be less Shakespeare-centric, in part recognizing that the real issue is less about Shakespeare’s success or failure as a metalanguage for race than about the challenges, complexities and vicissitudes of contemporary race relations, which Shakespeare may or may not bring into focus. I’d suggest that Akala’s brand of cultural syncretism, which locates contiguities and differences between Shakespeare and Hip-Hop, offers a productively creative and critical way to both celebrate and to use Shakespeare as one among a range of meaning-making technologies.

See Stephen O’Neill, “‘It’s William back from the dead’: Commemoration, Representation and Race in Akala’s Hip-Hop Shakespeare”, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 16.2 (2016): 246-256.

Chicken Shop Shakespeare

It is great to see another film short from the North England based collective Chicken Shop Shakespeare, with Henry V‘s “Crispin day” speech getting the group’s distinctive treatment. This short marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. It will be especially interesting to watch out for Chicken Shop Shakespeare this year to see how they mark another anniversary – Shakespeare400.

The Henry V short features Lladel Bryant, who delivers Henry’s call to arms on his way to a football match (the video was shot at Bradford City FC). Director Tyron Maynar makes good use of a hand-held camera to provide close ups, which contribute to Chicken Shop’s cinéma vérité style. The short operates through a discourse of the real – this is an urban, contemporary Shakespeare, a Bard for and of the streets. These reality effects are a staple of Chicken Shop’s videos. They speak of the culture and demographic of the collaborators, and probably help teachers to make Shakespeare (more?) appealing to young students in the classroom. Of course, YouTube offers up  earlier examples of urban or street Shakespeare such as Craig Bazan’s Hamlet on the Street from 2007.


Recalling this video raises the question as to what Chicken Shop’s next move might be in 2016 – perhaps a new style or theme, one that addresses Shakespeare as something increasingly experienced through digital culture? Either way, hopefully we’ll be provided with more slices of Shakespeare from Chicken Shop this year.


For further information see Chicken Shop Shakespeare


What’s Ophelia doing on YouTube?

It is no longer possible to think of Ophelia simply as the restricted tragic girl of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s character has become a recurrent text, image, and even a brand that can be endlessly repurposed and appropriated.

There are several interesting questions to ask about Ophelia on YouTube: What is at stake in the turn — or return — to Ophelia within online culture? To what extent is Ophelia a progressive text? eIf Ophelia productions are indices of the democratic media-making associated with Web 2.0, then to what extent do they signal new, meaningful forms of feminism?

In an essay published in Borrowers and Lenders (http://http://www.borrowers.uga.edu/1281/show), I try to address these and related questions. Building on recent work on Ophelia as a discourse that names and constitutes the contemporary girl, the essay examines a variety of Ophelia productions on YouTube. It identifies particular genres of response and situates them in terms of current debates within girls’ studies, as well as media studies. This essay interprets Ophelia videos in terms of a triptych, “YouTube-Shakespeare-Ophelia.” Each of these terms should be understood as a frame, both enabling and delimiting, through which girls produce and/or perform postfeminist identities online. Ophelia is now a meta-language for a set of negotiations within girls’ culture and the (im)possibility of authentic expression in the contemporary mediascape.

Of course, YouTube is just one among a number of social media platforms where we can find responses to and appropriations of Ophelia. Alan Young’s website Ophelia and Popular Culture (http://www.opheliapopularculture.com/) provides an impressively detailed database of vernacular productions as well as general examples of Ophelia’s citability. Ophelia survives or remains through social media. But in such modes of survival, there is a constant displacement and transformation of the character from Hamlet. Indeed, these new Ophelias alert us to the fundamental indeterminacy of the thing we call Hamlet‘s Ophelia and will invariably come to shape how we regard the character.

What if Desdemona had a Sassy Gay Friend?

Sassy Gay Friend, a series by Second City Network, has become something of a YouTube phenomenon. It might be more accurately described as a meme. In the videos, iconic women from history and literature – including Eve, Ophelia, and Desdemona – are visited from the future by a gay best friend, who alerts them to the absurdity of the plot conventions, cultural myths and patriarchal ideologies that surround them. Sassy Gay Friend: Othello opens with Desdemona on her bed. A voiceover, in a mock-serious tone, explains: ‘Meet Desdemona from Shakespeare’s Othello. She is waiting in her bed to be murdered by her husband. This fate could have been avoided if she had had a Sassy Gay Friend’. Cue the emergence from a closet (the humour is not especially subtle) of the eponymous gay friend, played by Brian Gallivan. The video presumes a broad familiarity with the play’s plot, here comically distilled into its core elements as Sassy Gay Friend explains matters to Desdemona and repeatedly urges her to leave: ‘Tina Turner, we gotta private dance it out of here’. The pun on Turner’s song is indicative of the sketch’s easy humour. But the reference to the singer (who endured an abusive relationship at the hands of her partner Ike Turner) and to this particular song (about a woman who makes her living by dancing for the pleasure of men) has the effect of interpreting Othello as a text of male domestic violence and of the objectification of women.Other puns knowingly exploit established racial stereotypes about black men: ‘Does Moor mean more?’ he asks Desdemona and, as she laughs, adds, ‘now I’m being racist’. The video ends with the series’ catchphrase, ‘Now I’m being a stupid bitch … I’m such a stupid bitch’.

As its idiom and catchphrases suggest, Sassy Gay Friend is largely about the gags. What we have here is a fairly safe form of queerness and of homosexuality, one that presents the gay man as possessing a valuable commodity (his savvy attitude), to be extended back in time to literature’s clueless heroines. Yet the laughter is dependent on the queer advice that Desdemona receives. Perhaps the video ultimately does imply a queer reading of Othello, one that parodies traditional masculinity, while simultaneously questioning the role assigned to women by the forms of heterosexual desire as expressed in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Parody becomes an instinctively queer form here, encouraging us to look again or anew. High camp and fast-paced, Sassy Gay Friend: Othello deploys a postmodern knowingness to debunk the canonical Shakespeare and its complicity with such grand narratives as patriarchy.

You can read more about race and gender in YouTube Shakespeare in Chapter Three of Shakespeare and YouTube: http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-youtube-9781472500281/

The Fan Performance: Mr Shakespeare Reads

Mr Shakespeare Reads offers a playful investment in the human face behind the texts – or at least a simulacrum of the author drawn from popular culture representations. By adding the visual gimmick of Shakespearean disguise and hairstyle, the videos develop the established YouTube genre of the vernacular Shakespeare performance. What we here is a curious animation of an authorial and textual corpus in the form of an embodied performance of the Droeshout image from the First Folio. Through the paratexts that accompanying the videos, such as the channel description (‘William Shakespeare reads “The Complete Works of Me”. Sonnets, speeches, and prose, in full Elizabethan regalia’) and the description below each video (‘William Shakespeare reading from…’), we are encouraged to view the performances as the Bard taking up YouTube’s invitation to ‘Broadcast Yourself’. Holding his book, with a copy of the Folio image on the front, ‘Shakespeare’ reads a sonnet, occasionally looking to the camera. It is no accident that thus far the series has focused on the Sonnets, for it is these texts that have proved most accommodating to the idea of the singular author as literary genius. Mr Shakespeare Reads may signify little beyond the obvious visual gag. In part, the undertaking may be about acquiring the username ‘Mr Shakespeare Reads’ on YouTube and being the first to do so. Yet, as visual registers of the mythic author, the videos posit a Stratfordian Shakespeare. As such, they indirectly engage with the authorship controversy, itself a space where the primacy of individual genius finds ongoing expression in the popular imagination. The videos are continuous with a theme-park Shakespeare, or those street-performers that don Shakespeare disguises for the entertainment of visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon, and other locations of the Shakespeare industry. As in those instances, the simulacrum of ‘the man himself’ in Mr Shakespeare Reads reflects a desire for a grounding authenticity, which permits the illusion of unmediated access to the texts. Read more about fan performance and amateur Shakespeare in Shakespeare and YouTube (http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-youtube-9781472500281/).

The Fan Performance: “Geeky Blonde” Shakespeare

The Geeky Blonde videos are examples of the dynamic and evolving nature of vernacular Shakespeare production on YouTube. The first video in the series, The Merchant of Venice, was posted in April 2011. While moving across Shakespearean genres, with comedy (The Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night), tragedy (Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet) and romance (Cymbeline The Winter’s Tale), the videos are nonetheless consistent in terms of their overall approach and aesthetic. That said, some developments are evident when more recent videos are compared with earlier ones. The productions are noteworthy not only because they each involve one-person performances of the major – and indeed minor – parts by the creator, but also because they range beyond Shakespeare’s most prominent plays. With the shortest of the videos lasting ten minutes, they also challenge YouTube’s reduced attention economy. There is a striking variety to The Geeky Blonde’s performances, with characters differentiated through vocal modulation, facial and other non-verbal expressions, an extensive wardrobe (especially of hats) and well-paced editing. Read more about Geeky Blonde’s videos in Chapter one of Shakespeare and YouTube (http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-youtube-9781472500281/).

What if Hamlet used social media?

In this YouTube video Hamlet Gone Viral, Leia Yen takes the dominant elements from our contemporary mediascape (Facebook, Google search, Google maps, Yahoo, Twitter, Tumblr, Gmail, YouTube, the blog) to tell Hamlet’s story. As the Hamlet plot unfolds through a series of media screens, it’s tempting to interpret the video as instance of what Doug Lanier dubs “post-textual Shakespeare”. But the text of Hamlet remains here. It is also creatively re-purposed. In using Facebook’s update culture as its primary narrative device, the video suggests that posting online through social networking and media are communicative acts, modes of self-formation and even biography. Hamlet Gone Viral captures the tension or paradox of online lives, lives that communication brands (from Facebook to Google) enable and, at the same time, frame and, to a degree, contain. We serve their visibility and value as much as our expression. The video also says something about the role of media in knowledge construction. In this twenty-first century characterization of Hamlet, Google emerges as a form of authority. Search assumes something approaching epistemological standing. In Shakespeare and YouTube (Bloomsbury 2014), I suggested that through the platform, “Hamlet never dies. In their productions, tubers partake in a Hamlet-like desire for story and for remembrance, a desire to leave a digital footprint in the contemporary mediascape, via the paternal Bard”. This video takes things further, noting how expression is not simply filtered through a single platform like YouTube but is rather a function of the interrelation of multiple media. This is social media. This is social media Shakespeare. And all three components carry equal weight. But perhaps we are moving towards a post-Shakespeare phase, never mind a post-textual one. The Shakespeare quotation or reference may primarily function here as a conduit for connectivity. Hamlet Gone viral is, then, less about Shakespeare or Hamlet than about the workings of social media itself. The extent to which Shakespeare might get lost amidst different technologies is evident in an earlier video The Internet Tells the Story of Hamlet

But is loss a productive way of thinking about what is happening to Shakespeare – or Hamlet – in these videos? The description accompanying the The Internet Tells the Story of Hamlet video is interesting: “19 separate programs tell the story of Hamlet”. There is a sense of boast here about the number of software programmes that have been used to make the video. But perhaps there is also a suggestion about how the medium or technology simultaneously displaces and transforms Shakespeare.

For the creators of these videos, using Web 2.0 technologies to respond to Shakespeare may not be about displacement or transformation but simply their default, habitual mode of expression. And because of YouTube’s system of tags, as well as its algorithmic tracking of viewer selections, we begin to notice yet more videos where creators use the language of social media to tell Hamlet. What at first seems to be an original conceit, turns out to be part of a wider practice:

These videos are examples of how YouTube and social media platforms are being integrated into teaching. Students are being encouraged to use their familiarity with social media as an entrypoint into their study of Shakespeare. We encounter plot summary but also video as a form of interpretation and close reading.