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.

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.