Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hip Hop Shakespeare

Found this article cruising Twitter today.  The theme is pretty generic – teaching Shakespeare by putting a “hip hop”, aka “rap” spin on it. 

I like this article, though, because it points out that rap doesn’t have to be all “tits and arse and jewellery,” and that real artists can get real poetry and social commentary out of the medium.

Some of the kids tell me that they hate how Shakespeare is taught at school – how boring the approach is. But will this send them scuttling back to Othello with a fresh eye? Akala says the aim isn't that limited: "It's about showing them what's attainable. And if Shakespeare is presented as the most unattainable, highbrow entity, but then it's made relevant to them, what else might be? It's part of a wider effort to open kids up to what they wouldn't traditionally be interested in."

Emphasis mine, because I think that sums it up.  They also mention in the article how the kids aren’t in it for the Shakespeare, but for the rapping (which pains me, trust me), so they’re the exact audience you want to go after with this kind of approach.  If they’d come in already interested in Shakespeare, well then that’s good, but the guy’d be up there preaching to the converted.


Willshill said...

Over a year ago, as part of a performance introductory to a month long residency, I performed, as Shakespeare, a rap "song" I'd written entirely in iambic pentameter. This was as a finale to a song and patter session in which "Shakespeare" introduced himself and his work to a full school assembly aware of the idea that the members of that assembly would be participating in daily classes for the next month learning about Shakespeare--classes which I (the guy playing the Bard that day) would teach. The main thrust was to inform them as to the common aspects of poetry in general, --general being the operative word, and to "play fair" (since Shakespeare was asking them to learn about something of which they knew little or nothing, so too would he place himself in their shoes and be courageous and interested enough to take a stab at what THEY knew something about.) But there was no intent to stretch a point to insist upon the fact that Shakespeare might have been the Elizabethan Equivalent of some "Rapper" figure--"gangsta" or "artist"--which I made very clear to them, even in the case of the impersonation. To me, there's a very big difference in being "effectively a rapper" (that's within the bailiwick of opinion) and being "a rapper" (which is no longer "opinion"). When the lines get blurred so much to make a point, the point can get more than "effectively lost". And whether or not Shakespeare is "high culture" isn't the issue. EQUATING rap CULTURE with anything other than Rap Culture, the same as an attempt at EQUATING Elizabethan Culture with anything else, is a completely erroneous attempt at comparison.

Duane said...

I was with you (I think) up to the end, Will. What do you mean by "effectively being a rapper" versus being "a rapper" no longer being opinion? Is everyone who can rhyme a poet, everyone who can paint a picture an artist? If not, why not? If so, then what's the difference between "effectively" being so, and not? To effectively be or not to effectively be?

I also don't get your difference between EQUATING rap CULTURE with anything other than Rap Culture. Capitalization noted, but point lost on me.

Willshill said...

From the article:
"By calling things 'high culture', we're viewing something as having more value because of the way it's presented. Shakespeare isn't any more of a high culture than hip-hop," he says. "The most sacred histories of ancient African nations were recorded by a man known as a Griot, who was effectively a rapper. He would recite the nation's history over a beat of a drum. So when hip-hop is put back in its proper cultural context as a tradition that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, you realise that it is the same as The Iliad."

"Effectively" is a qualifier having to do with similarity in "result" or "effect"--and the extent of that similarity can be completely ruled by opinion. It doesn't denote Sameness; although in this case, the attempt is to do just that. This statement is particularly disturbing to me in that context: "...a tradition that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, you realise that it is the same as The Iliad."

Willshill said...

Duane, I guess what I'm trying to say is that Shakespeare was not a "Rapper" of any stripe in any cultural context--not in ours, or even his own cultural context, any more than Griot was a "Rapper" in the cultural context of ancient Africa--a "Rapper" as we (or more importantly, kids) would know a "Rapper" to be. The distinction is important, and I think it's not being made. Bottom line: I think it's more about an attempt to elevate the cultural status of Rap.

Duane said...

I certainly agree with your bottom line (that the goal is to elevate the status of rap). I guess the question, then would be is that a valid goal? Is rap art, or not? I suppose I feel about it much the same way I feel about "street art" versus "graffiti". Perhaps there is some level of talent there, and perhaps a message of value. But if the message cannot reach its audience through the chosen medium, is that the fault of the audience, the medium, or the message?

Although as I say that I find myself wondering the same thing about Shakespeare :). If Shakespeare had something to tell us, the medium being his plays, does the modern audience get it, or not? Or is the answer more universal - is the message all around us every day, by the integration of Shakespeare with popular culture? You don't have to undertand Romeo and Juliet the play in order to get Romeo and Juliet, the concept. You don't have to understand Hamlet to recognize the depth of "To be or not to be."

Willshill said...

Duane said:" But if the message cannot reach its audience through the chosen medium, is that the fault of the audience, the medium, or the message?"

Or maybe He who controls access to the Message and how the message is perceived? (see Shakespeare Tavern thread re: who has controlled access and impression for so long now)

I think you hit the nail with "... is the answer more universal." Absent the ability to italicize please allow my propensity towards the use of capital letters to assert itself once more--UNIVERSAL is, I think THE answer. So universal is the Work, that it can have the effect of causing whatever it touches, even 400+ years later, to attempt identification with its greatness; sometimes stridently so as I think we've seen. Perhaps some 400 years in the future, the attempt will be to do the same with Hip Hop.

Who knows? --Only He who will control access to the message and how it's perceived.