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.

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