Sweet Willie: Premiere Poet of the English Language
A Daring Discourse on Hip Hop and Shakespeare
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
~William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Sc. 2
There are so many treasures to be found on You Tube that I feel compelled to introduce some of these important videos to a wider audience by reviewing them and publishing the essay with a link to the video. The videos that interest me cover politics, sport and culture. And the subject of the video under review here is the relationship between the verse of William Shakespeare and the best Hip Hop bards.
The presenter in the video is an Afro-British poet and teacher named Akala, who is the guiding light of a unique cultural experiment that blends the works of William Shakespeare – which were written in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries – with that of 20th century American rappers, demonstrating the similarities between the esthetics and concerns of Shakespeare’s verse and the poetry that arose from Afro-American street bards in New York City during the 1970’s called Hip Hop or Rap, a cultural phenomenon that I witnessed and wrote about. I am also a published Shakespeare critic.
Hence it came as a pleasant surprise when I searched them out and read the mission statement of the London based Shakespeare and Hip Hop Company.
“Both hip –hop and Shakespeare’s theater represent energetic and inventive forms of expression. Both are full of poetry, word play and lyricism. Both deal with what it is to be human, and issues from people’s lives, and of course just like Shakespeare’s work, hip-hop is all about the rhythmic tension of words. The similarities between hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s theater are striking. As a media-savvy popular entertainer and talented businessman, we think hip-hop would have been Shakespeare’s thing – a truly old school Jay Z.”
Jay Z: Hip hop Poet and Super Entreprenuer
He turns street literature into lucre!
Jay Z and beautiful wife Byonce chillin at the apex of power
Rappin with fellow hip hop head Chilly B. Knowledge
Upon reading this I reflected on how my first, and most influential, teachers of Shakespeare’s texts – My aunt Rosa Morgan and Ms. Rosalie Gordon –would have reacted to such a claim. Knowing their reverence for the Bard I suspect that they would have been scandalized. But that is because all English teachers revered Shakespeare as something akin to a demi-god, a divinely inspired wizard of the word – written or spoken.
However the scholarship on Shakespeare has revealed that he was quite a down to earth fellow who held little in common with the pious prigs who are now the keepers of the Western canon – one imminent Yale literary scholar has declared “Shakespeare is the Western canon” – meaning the sacred texts of secular literature; those texts selected by the great scholars of Western literature as required reading in formal classes on English language and literature. Thus we can safely assume that many of the canonical sentries will be fairly alarmed by any suggestion of an affinity, a Sympatico between the verse of the Bard and the rhymes of rappers. In their view the former is high-brow poetry; the latter low brow doggerel….and it shall remain ever thus.
Yet The Bard might have liked hip hop as Akala suggests, for upon closer examination we find some fundamental differences between Shakespeare and those who now interpret his works. To begin with the guardians of the canon are all professional intellectuals, scholars trained by virtue of many years of rigorous university study, guided and tutored by imminent specialists in their field and terminating with the Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree. Most of these professional academics know but little of actual life as it is lived by all levels of society, and they abhor business practices as a kind of amoral chicanery unworthy of one committed to the exalted life of the mind.
Their knowledge of the world is highly specialized, which has resulted in them knowing more and more about less and less. William Shakespeare was a very different animal. He wanted to know everything about the world and how human beings responded in different situations. That curiosity, along with his unique insights and literary genius, accounts for the fact that if one tries hard enough it is possible to find a Shakespeare quote for any human activity…he is more reliable than the Bible; which some students of the King James version believe he wrote.
The son of a leather tanner he learned early on about business practices, and the first lesson every businessperson everywhere must learn is that they must show a profit after paying vital expenses or they won’t be in business long. Without inherited wealth or rich patrons Shakespeare had to figure out how to make a living while he created his art or he would be forced to choose between writing and eating regularly. Evidently the starving artist mystique held no more romantic charms for him than for Jay Z. Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler ably examines Shakespeare’s attitude toward art and commerce in a brilliant and insightful essay titled “Literature and Lucre,” which is a chapter in his seminal book on the changing values and function of literature in Western culture What Was Literature?
The great insight that Fiedler’s text provided for me was his elucidation of how Shakespeare felt about making money from creating art. A practical man, he decided that since he was an actor and playwright he should own and manage his own theater. This decision had a profound impact on how the Bard viewed the purpose of his plays, which affected how he crafted them. His first concern was shared by every theater owner anywhere in the world: putting butts is seats until the room is full for every show.
The second major concern was to write compelling entertainments employing the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy, pathos and bathos that would satisfy the emotional needs of his customers who would then spread the word and keep them coming. Shakespeare understood well that a satisfied customer is one’s best advertisement. He was wearing two hats, businessman and artist, for him there was no contradiction between the aims of commerce and culture that pervades the thinking of so many creative people who think of themselves as fine artists, some of whom regard being commercial as a sign of artistic treason i.e. “selling out.” Although we are left to speculate about how good a businessman Shakespeare was, the texts he left to posterity testifies profoundly to his genius as a poet and dramatis – no one has ever done it better!
I have been fairly mesmerized by the writings of William Shakespeare ever since my Aunt Rosa, who taught English literature in high school when I was a boy, bade me listen to the music of his words. She said to me one day that the way to tell if you had written something well is to read it out loud because, she emphasized, “If a thing is well written it will read well out loud.” Then she picked up a copy of the Bard’s text and began to read it out loud while instructing me on how to listen. I fell in love with the iambic pentameter rhythms of his verse and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime.
My love of Shakespeare’s text soon led to a fascination with the spoken word; this enchantment was partially due to the fact that I suffered from a severe speech impediment in early childhood. And once I overcame it through the patient and loving guidance of my mother, my aunt Rosa drafted me onto her oratorical team, just as she had done with our parents a generation before.
It was during my tenure on the oratorical team under the stern tutelage of my aunt that I began to recite Shakespearian monologues. At the same time I was studying the Bard’s plays under the guidance of Mrs. Gordon, the daughter of college professors who held a degree in English Literature from Boston University, where she dated Countee Cullen, a budding poet at Harvard who hailed from Harlem, then a the most glamourous and accomplished black community in the world.
An actress at heart Ms. Gordon was an impassioned teacher of Shakespeare and when she read from Macbeth we could see the witches in the skies attempting to fill his head with avarice and ambition as he returned from battle. And when she read Lady Macbeth’s cold and calculating monologue bidding her husband to hurry home so that she could stoke those vile ambitions we sat riveted in our seats. I can still hear her even now, over half a century later – “Thine heart is too full of the milk of human kindness/ hie the hither / that I may chastise with the valor of my tongue/ all the that impedes thee from the golden round/ with which supernatural and metaphysical aid/ Hath doth crowned thee withal.” And we agonized with Lady MacBeth as she vainly struggled remove the blood of the murdered King Duncan from her hands: “Out Damned Spot!”
Hence I have had an ear for the rhythm of Sweet William’s verse since boyhood. My fascination with the Bard’s work was heightened when Joseph Papp, producer of the Shakespeare in the Park summer theater – where professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays could be seen at the Delacorte theater in Central Park – mounted a production of Othello. The play starred the Spanish actor Raoul Julia in the role of Othello, and this decision sparked a furious debate among New York theater critics. The essay in the august New York Times theater section “Looking Inside that Outsider: Othello the Moor,” caught my eye. What got my attention in particular is a claim by the Director of the Delacorte production, an Irishman named Joe Dowling, that Shakespeare didn’t intend for Othello to be a black man.
He speculated that this was a recent interpretation motivated by a tendency toward political correctness in the arts. And like most historical ignoramuses he went on to say that Shakespeare could not have intended for Othello to be black because there were no black men in Elizabethan England. However as the Caribbean scholar Edward Scobie tells us in his path-breaking book Black Britannia, there were many black people in England during Shakespeare’s time and cites a report of the Privy Council complaining to Queen Elizabeth about the growing numbers of “blackamoors” in her realm.
Scobie, who was a Professor at New York City College, pointed out that Shakespeare had more than a casual knowledge of the Blackamoors because he was madly in love with his black mistress named “Lucy Negro,” whose heart he stole from a British nobleman and who was described as black and beautiful and a superb actress with the Greys Inn’s Revels. Since I have already written and published an extensive treatise on the question of Shakespeare and race I shall not belabor it here. For those who wish to read my thoughts on the subject see: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard,” in the anthology Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, Howard University Press.
The essay above was inspired by the discussion of Othello’s race in the New York Times article; it was my answer to their nonsense masquerading as authority. As it happens, just before the Othello production a troupe from the Royal National Shakespeare Theater visited New York and performed Macbeth.
It was a fabulous production staged in a massive old Gothic church on the posh East side of Manhattan, and the cast was all black. I thought it the most fabulous production of Shakespeare I had ever seen. I was bewitched by the cacophony of mellifluous voices spoken in exotic accents from all over the black world: Africa, Europe and the American diaspora.
It was a Pan-African production staffed by beautiful gifted thespians of earthen hues that conjured up strains from Duke Ellington’s tone poem Black, Brown and Beige Suite. I was so moved by their performance that I hurried to my computer and wrote a review, “Shakespeare in Living Color,” which was published on the cover page of the Arts section in the New York Village Voice, whose coverage of the Arts scene was unsurpassed in the 1990’s. For instance it was here that serious, literary, criticism of the growing hip hop phenomenon was born. With outstanding Afro-American writers like Barry Michael Cooper, Harry Allen, Greg Tate, Nelson George, Joan Morgan, Dream Hampton, et al. the Voice became the tribune of hip hop.
The reception that greeted the Macbeth review was such that I became known to the producer of the play, who arranged for some of the cast to come on my WBAI radio show one afternoon on their day off, and I had a ball reading Shakespeare with members of the Royal National Shakespeare Theater. I told them the story on air of how the great Afro-American actor Ira Aldridge – unquestionably one of the outstanding Shakespearian Tragedians of the 19th century and the most powerful Othello according to theater critics all across Europe who reviewed his performances – learned his craft at the Grove Theater, a black owned theater in Greenwich Village devoted to the performance of Shakespeare’s plays.
Alas, he was forced to flee to England in order to find a safe space to perform, because ignorant racist white thugs routinely attacked them for daring to perform Shakespeare. Aldridge would go on to become a sensation in Europe playing Othello and Aaron, Shakespeare’s two magnificent Moors in whom he invested virtue and vice, their dramatis personae symbolizing the extremes of good and evil. It was these experiences – meeting the black Shakespearians, writing about their performance, the controversy over Othello’s racial identity – that led me to write the extended treatise on Othello. At the time of my meeting with the black Shakespearians Aldridge was the only black actor with a chair in the Shakespeare memorial at Stratford Upon Avon, The Bard’s birthplace.
The Greatest Othello of the 19th Century?
During this period I had an experience that began my enlightenment about the predicament of black artists in Britain. At the time I was writing regularly for the London Guardian – which was then the venerable Manchester Guardian – and when Senior Editor Alan Rushbridger visited New York, accompanied by a group of writers, I took my London colleagues to lunch at B Smiths, a first class restaurant located in the Broadway theater district owned by an Afro-American high fashion model. As one would expect, this was a smart and stylish crowd. The cuisine was superb and we were serenaded by a first rate Jazz trio as we dined.
The senior editor looked about the plush environs in wonder and then confided “There is no smart affluent black scene like this in London.” Although it struck me as odd, I was in no position to dispute him, considering that on a previous business trip to London when I was a boxing promoter I split my time hanging out with millionaire white businessmen at the Dorchester – which they assured me was London’s finest hotel – and black Jamaican gangsters in Brixton. (see: “On Being Black in London.”) And since I had never experienced anything but the warmest collegiality at the Guardian, my fail-safe racial bullshit detector was powered down. But when the editor went on to tell me how happy they were to have me writing for the Guardian because there were no black writers of my caliber in England, the flashers began to go off in my head and I could hear the warning voice saying “beware of bullshit tips!”
Although I had no evidence to dispute him I knew Rushbridger’s astonishing claim couldn’t possibly be true. A few days later my suspicions were confirmed. I was browsing through a book stall at the famous Papyrus book store, located right across the street from Columbia University, which is a great place to be if you are into used books, and I stumbled across a book titled “The Struggle For Black Arts in Britain.”
The book was an anthology composed of essays by a variety of writers, all of them black and residing in Britain. The English prose composition was finely crafted, innovative, and animated by a flash of Pan-African spirit; its polyrhythmic phrases seemed to dance off the page. I was stunned….how could such gifted writers be so ignored? They struck me as prophets without honor in their own land.
All of these memories were conjured up as I watched the lecture demonstration on the relationship between Shakespeare’s literary project and the concerns of hip-hop artists by the Afro-British poet Akala: spoken word artist, insightful intellectual, Shakespeare devotee, thespian and theatrical innovator. It is hard to imagine a more effective spokesman for this bold movement to combine the work of Shakespeare and hip hop artists in live performance to hip hop beats.
This is something really new, a genuine innovation, and they are not just floundering about trying anything, but are building a new genre of Rap performance that is extending the artistic ambitions of the form. They are about the business of establishing an original voice in the world of hip-hop, a dazzling new voice that combines verbal virtuosity with a deep knowledge of poetry, a celebration of lyrics that prize intellect and elevated notions about the role of the poet in contemporary society.
There are speakers who have much of importance to say but say it badly, and there are those who have nothing of real gravitas to say but say it so well that the can bewitch the crowd with the power of their oratory alone. Like being told to go to hell in such attractive language you actually look forward to taking the trip. One speaker puts the crowd to sleep from boredom as if they had been feed sleeping pills instead of words. The other entertains the crowd but teaches them nothing. In both instances the audience is cheated and little learning takes place. But there are special occasions when a speaker has something of value to say and says it well. That’s when we really learn something. Akala is that kind of teacher.
Innovative Rapper and Shakespeare Scholar
From the introduction of his subject of the commonalities of hip hop and Shakespeare, it was clear to me that Akala knew his stuff. One gets the impression that by now he has heard all of the objections of the naysayers who are offended by the comparisons and conducts a clever exercise that removes all doubt that he is on to something real and we are not about to be subjected to a display of buffoonery conducted by some barely literate special pleader who knows not the grave offense that he is perpetrating.
He tells the audience that he is going to recite some lines and form Shakespeare and some lines for US rappers, and although they were written over 400 years apart in different regions of the world he challenges the audiences to vote with a show of hands which lines were written by Shakespeare and which by rappers. Although I thought the idea preposterous I nevertheless sat up on the edge of my chair anxiously anticipating his recitations.
The first quote was “To destroy the beauty from which one came.” The second line was “Maybe its hatred I spew….maybe its food for the spirit.” The audience voted overwhelmingly that both lines were authored by Shakespeare, and since this was an audience nurtured on the texts of the Bard I knew they could not be easily deceived…but they were. The first lines were penned by Jay Z and the second were written by M&M. He then Recited lines from the Wu Tang Clan, and fooled the audience again.
That little demonstration made Akala’s point in a powerful way, the fact than nobody expected it made it all the more effective. The experience was like getting hit over the head with the truth; from that moment on he grabbed our attention and held it tight. The audience became so confused and intellectually intimidated that when he quoted lines authored by the Bard only half the audience got it right…and I didn’t do much better. It was a revelation….but Akala’s presentation goes much deeper.
He discussed the class structure that existed in England at the time, and pointed out that the country was rife with violent conflicts and 90% of Shakespeare’s audience was illiterate and explained that, like the rappers, Shakespeare’s art had to appeal to the untutored masses. Akala gave a remarkably cogent analysis of the origins of hip hop culture among the Afro-American population of New York City; cited the great innovators in the development of hip-hop like African Bambatta, D.J Red Alert, Kool Herc et al, and explained the African origins of the word “hip” a term Afro-Americans introduced into the English language.
Bronx Bard and a Founding Father of Hip Hop
DJ Red Alert!
A Pioneering MC
One of the Holy Trinity of Hip Hop
I had never heard of its connection with Africa, but serious students of Afro-American culture and speech have identified several words of African origin. What was most enlightening is how similar the meaning of the word is in African and Afro-American cultures. His discussion of rappers as latter day neo-African griots is also fascinating. Yet as impressive as the intellectual discourse is it is Akala’s performance as a spoken word artist/rapper that steals the show. The boy’s got skills big time!
Akala is a verbal virtuoso who spits out words like bullets from a machine gun. At one points he recites the Bard’s Sonnets over hip hop beats, and demonstrates the similarity between some rappers flows and Iambic pentameter, Sweet Willie’s favorite flow. This came as a surprise to me because I had always thought of the French playwright Moliere as having the most in common with modern day rappers by virtue of the fact that he told his stories in rhyme, as in his much celebrated play “The Misanthrope.”
After listening to Akala’s presentation one begins to understand why Professor Henry Louis Gates included the verse of rappers in his canon building Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, a move many intellectuals believed to be a sacrilegious act. So sit back in your favorite chair and check out this video; let Brother Akala take your mind on a fantastic journey. Among the surprising revelations this video unveils is the fantastic influence hip hop has had on the popular culture of the world. After all, this is an art invented by young working class blacks and Puerto Ricans with a compulsion to make music but were denied the opportunity to receive formal training in the art of music due to the severe cuts in funding for public education in New York City.
This is the result of pragmatic philistines who cannot distinguish between what students need to know in order to make a living, and what they must know in order to make a rich and satisfying life. In word and deed Akala testifies to the positive influence of hip hop on contemporary popular culture whose appeal flows over all borders. It is a bravura performance, unlike anything I have ever witnessed in a spoken word exhibition, and it is accompanied by an ongoing intellectual discourse which is distinguished by erudition and eloquence. Bravo!
Double Click on link to see Akala’s presentation
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 24, 215