Archway rapper Akala merges Shakespeare and hip-hop to inspire teenagers

Less than a mile from where William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was built in 1599 sits 28-year-old Kingslee Daley, known professionally as award-winning Archway rapper Akala.

Born more than 400 years apart, the two have been brought together by a shared love of words, drama and rhythm.

In 2007, live on BBC Radio’s 1Xtra station, Akala, who attended Acland Burghley School in Tufnell Park, managed to fit the names of 27 Shakespeare plays into two verses of a freestyle rap after a challenge by one of the show’s DJs.

The test planted a seed that would evolve into the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, an educational initiative founded and directed by Akala, the brother of singer Ms Dynamite, and launched in 2009 at a special workshop attended by actor Sir Ian McKellen.

In an underground room beneath the company’s headquarters in Southwark, just a stone’s throw from the world-famous Globe Theatre – which was reconstructed and opened on the south bank of the River Thames in 1997 – Akala traces the origins of his venture.

“I’ve always wanted to do something in education. I’ve always felt the education system in this country kills a lot of creativity – you’re conditioned towards a test.”

Akala’s buzz word is “edutainment” – a term he attributes to US rapper KRS-One, who released an album of the same name in 1990.

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“It’s about trying to do stuff that makes education sexy,” he says. “Having young everyday children think that they should be reading Shakespeare and Plato – if kids that go to Eton can, why can’t they?

“I feel Shakespeare has become represented as old and dusty. Shakespeare has become a victim of a classist appropriation of art.

“He’s now become this property of the elite when in reality he was writing about sex, violence, drugs and political corruption. So I feel he’s been robbed of his vibrancy by academia.”

According to Akala, despite four centuries separating the emergence of both art forms, the parallels between hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s writing are manifold and by bringing the two together, both benefit from a fresh lease of life.

He points to “the stories they tell, the use of rhythm – the ability to be great with language” as some of the most evident parallels between the Bard and his hip-hop equivalents.

And equivalents are how Akala, who won a MOBO award for his 2006 debut album It’s Not A Rumour, views hip-hop’s modern day greats – poets in their own right, creating rhymes and stories about everyday life in the same way Shakespeare did in Elizabethan England.

“You have rappers like Nas, who comes from Queensbridge Projects in New York City, using metaphors like ‘a dead bird flying through a broken sky’,” says Akala. “When you say that to kids and ask whether it’s a hip-hop quote or a Shakespeare quote, they don’t know.”

In the three years since the company’s inception, Akala has taken Hip Hop Shakespeare workshops to classrooms and cultural festivals all over the UK and the rest of the world.

As for the company’s future, Akala has set his sights on “a cultural revolution of sorts,” explaining: “I want to see it touring – a Hip Hop Shakespeare theatre production that’s a unique hybrid brand of theatre around the world.

“Film, TV and education – a 360 model, it’s just the start.”

Check out Akala and the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company in action next month, when they perform their live show on May 5 at this year’s Camden Crawl.

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