The following is the full transcript of Hip hop artist Akala’s TEDx Talk: Hip-Hop & Shakespeare? at TEDxAldeburgh where he explores the connections between Shakespeare and Hip-Hop.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Hip-Hop & Shakespeare by Akala at TEDxAldeburgh
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. If I could request the resetting of the clock, it’s on at four minutes at the moment, I presume from the one before. Fantastic!
Okay. So, my name is Akala. I’m from the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. And before we get into the philosophy of our work, what that means, what the intention is behind it, I’m going to challenge you guys to a little bit of a pop quiz. And we’ve done this pop quiz quite a few times, we’ll talk about it after we do it.
I’m going to simply tell you some quotes. One line quotes, taken either from some of my favorite hip hop songs, or some of my favorite Shakespearean plays or sonnets. And you’re going to tell me by show of hands, whether you think it’s hip hop or Shakespeare. Does that make sense? Okay.
So the first one we’ll go for is: “To destroy the beauty from which one came.” To destroy the beauty from which one came. If you think that’s hip hop, raise your hands please. If that’s Shakespeare, raise your hands please. Brilliant, okay, that’s 70% towards Shakespeare. It’s from a gentleman known as Sean Carter, better known as Jay-Z, from a track called “Can I live?”
We’ll go for another one. “Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it’s food for the spirit.” Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it’s food for the spirit. Hip hop? Shakespeare? Getting overwhelmingly towards Shakespeare. Interesting. Anyone heard of a gentleman known as Eminem? He’s not Shakespeare. That’s from a track Eminem did with Jay-Z actually, called “Renegade.”
We’ll go for a couple more. “Men would rather use their broken weapons than their bare hands.” Men would rather use their broken weapons than their bare hands. Hip hop? Shakespeare? Pretty even spread with a Shakespearean lean. That one is from Shakespeare, it’s from a play known as “Othello.”
We go for: “I was not born under a rhyming planet.” I was not born under a rhyming planet. Hip hop? Shakespeare? That one is Shakespeare. It’s from “Much Ado about Nothing.”
We go for two more. We’ll go for: “The most benevolent king communicates through your dreams.” The most benevolent king communicates through your dreams. Hip hop? Shakespeare? Ah, 50:50 there. A gentleman known as the RZA who’s the head of the Wu-Tang Clan. We’re going to be revisiting the Wu-Tang later, we’ll be talking about him a lot. He’s one of the main exponents of hip hop philosophy, someone, or a collective, that had a huge influence on me. But we’ll revisit them.
Last quote of the day. Let’s go for, “Socrates, philosophies and hypotheses can’t define.” Socrates, philosophies and hypotheses can’t define. Hip hop? Shakespeare? Overwhelmingly towards hip hop. And that one, that is hip hop. That’s Wu-Tang again, that’s from a gentleman named Inspectah Deck. Interestingly, that quote comes from a single, or track, known as “Triumph” from the album “Wu-Tang Forever.” Wu-Tang Forever was the first hip-hop album to go number one in this country. So that was what made hip hop cross over with this kind of lyricism, but we’re going to revisit that a little later and revisit the Wu-Tang, as I said.
So, as you can see, it wasn’t as clear-cut as many of us may have thought. The language used, the subjects spoken about, various things make it very, very difficult once the context is taken away, once our perception is taken away. And we have to look at just the raw language of the two art forms. And don’t worry, we’ve done that exercise over 400 times, and as of yet, no one has got them all right. Not even some of the most senior professors at some of the most respected Shakespearean institutions in the country, I shan’t name names. But needless to say: it’s challenged a lot of people’s perceptions and we extend from that, we look at some of the other parallels between hip hop and Shakespeare, at some of the other things they share.
One of the main things that is shared between the two is of course rhythm. Iambic pentameter — dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum. Five sets, two beats, it’s actually a wonderful rhythm to use in hip hop music and translates in a way that even artists writing today find difficult. What do I mean by that? So it’s very difficult to take, even as an MC, who is a professional MC, a lyric written over a grime beat, grime is a 140 bpm. Very, very fast tempo. And then take that same lyric and put it on what we consider to be a traditional hip hop beat, 70-80 bpm. A very, very difficult skill. Even writing now, with the music to hand.
Yet, the iambic pentameter allows us to do just that. I’ll show you what I mean rather than tell you. So listen up. Cue music please. [Music] What you’re about to hear, some of you may know of it, some of you may not. It’s Shakespeare’s most famous poem, Sonnet 18. I haven’t adopted it to make it fit to the rhythm, but just listen close. Okay. Yo.