by Lauren Cole
Bashy x Akala, Richard II – ‘Being So Great’, Hip-hop Shakespeare Company, SBTV.
What if we could experience brand-spanking new Shakespearean-style verse on a daily basis? Well, it’s closer to popular culture than you’d think…
Sir Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed a new production of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine this summer. In an interview he compared the rhyme, rhythm and density of language in Elizabethan drama verse to the flow of rappers such as J Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Their understanding of the “complex […] elusive, coded, symbolic, metrical speech” of rap lyrics, would mean the only problems young people could have with Marlowe are “one or two vocabulary points.”
Artist Associate to The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company, Anthony Anaxagorou, reiterates the flexibility of the English language. He challenges the classist idea that slang (a key part of hip-hop) is improper, and likens the rise of new slang to how words and phrases first penned by Shakespeare are now accepted as ‘real’ words. Only time will tell if the same happens with rap colloquialisms.
Data scientist Matt Daniels created an interactive graph of unique words from rappers. Daniels included Shakespeare as a comparison. Going toe-to-toe with him are well-known artists including Outkast and the Beastie Boys, adding some substance to Boyd’s claim.
But Shakespeare had no bigger a vocabulary than most of his contemporaries. Similarly, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Master P are some of the artists on Daniels’ graph with the fewest unique words – but also among the top 25 richest rappers of all time. Lyrical celebrity is not only down to revolutionising language…
Perhaps it’s the iambic pentameter and similar rhyming elements of Elizabethan verse and hip-hop that make for the most successful comparison. Linguists go as far as to argue that rappers’ innovative sentence structure and more “sophisticated” grasp of half-rhyme surpasses Elizabethan dramatists’ more stylistic “traditional verse” and perfect “rhyming couplets”: a rapper’s sixth sense is sniffing out inventive half-rhymes and successfully testing the boundaries of syntax.
The links between Elizabethan drama and rap haven’t gone unnoticed by those in the music and arts sectors. Hip-hop is used to revitalise Shakespeare for modern, younger audiences.
Supported by Sir Ian McKellen, British BAFTA and MOBO award-winning Kingslee James Daley – stage name Akala – founded The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company in 2009. Interactive live events see artists, such as Ed Sheeran and Akala himself, rap Shakespearean verse or lyrics about Shakespeare. This alludes to the linguistic and stylistic complexities of hip-hop, whilst also encouraging people to realise the relevance of Shakespeare by presenting his works and hip-hop as one and the same.
Perhaps we should be more open-minded to how artists from all genres can show incredible craft. While the comparability of Shakespeare and rap will continue to be debated, acknowledging the parallels between them will do wonders for many stereotypes: including the inaccessibility of Elizabethan drama and hip-hop’s reputation as a ‘low’ art form.