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Akala Takes On Shakespeare In Mumbai

UK hip-hop artist will perform songs out of the bard’s sonnets and plays tonight

Megha Mahindru Nov 01, 2012
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Last year, UK hip-hop artist Kingslee Daley, who goes by the stage name Akala, surprised most of his audience gathered at TEDxAldeburgh when he started quizzing them on their Shakespearean IQ. The task at hand was to differentiate a Shakespearean line from hip-hop lyrics.

Drawing a parallel between the bard’s writing and hip-hop, Akala offered the line “Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it’s food for the spirit” as an example, and invited his audience to guess its author”” a hip-hop artist or Shakespeare. Ten minutes into him quizzing his audience, he had succeeded in blurring the lines between the work of the literary genius and MTV artists [the aforesaid line featured in “Renegade” by Eminem with Jay-Z]. 

Today, he plans to take his test forward in Mumbai, as he brings his project The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company [THSC] to stage. The MOBO Award-winning artist, who calls Shakespeare “a people’s poet” hopes to get the audience to shrug off the elitism that surrounds the bard as well as bring hip-hop to its rightful place in art. What binds the two, he adds, is the poetry, word play and lyricism as well as their subjects that deal with human conditions. “Though Shakespeare is now viewed as this high-browed entity, a majority of his audience couldn’t read or write. We have tried to sanitize Shakespeare today and not see him for who he was. Shakespeare’s works were a reflection of reality, just like rap music,” says Akala. As part of his performance tonight, he will perform songs such as “Sonnet 18/Freedom Lasso”, “Comedy, Tragedy, History”, “Othello Prologue” and “Heroes Much Ado/Power Struggles” among others.

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Akala, who is also the brother of Mercury-prize winning rapper Ms Dynamite, didn’t grow up on Shakespeare. “It was because of the dry way I was taught Shakespeare. I rediscovered it later, when I put my lens on it, rather than read it from a solely, coldly, academic perspective,” he adds. With THSC, Akala hopes to bring a new form of alternative education through the performing arts of theatre and music.

In September, he conducted a three-day workshop, supported by British Council, to encourage school teachers from 12 schools in Mumbai to follow an alternative to traditional teaching practices. “It was great. Since they didn’t know much about hip-hop and what it means today, they were not biased. They were open-minded. They even wrote pieces that they will recite in the classroom,” he says, adding that while most teachers couldn’t rap, one of them managed to do so too.

When he’s not playing MC Bard, Akala likes to rant about global politics, covering topics ranging from class struggle, poverty to government and corruption. “I am not bothered about how hip-hop is on MTV, I’m talking about the culture of hip-hop rather than the superficial side of it where MCs only rap about bling, money and girls. If you look at real hip-hop, artistes like Wu Tang Clan, KRS-Ones”¦ it’s poetry as well as social commentary,” he says. Content at being an underground star, Akala says he’ll never trade his 800 people audience for a 10,000 plus at Wembley. “I’m an underground artist and this gives me the freedom of speech. You need to maintain some artistic integrity and complete freedom, which you may lose when you become popular and mainstream.”

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This may be reason why the rapper has consciously resisted signing on to a major music label. “Nobody has offered me what I want,” he says. Though his independent label has saved him from falling into trappings of mainstream companies, Akala has lost a sizeable audience, with his work accessible to few. And while Akala is a known name in UK’s underground circuit, he is set to become as popular in India with his debut on national television this weekend. As part of season two of television jam show, The Dewarists, Akala will collaborate with Piyush Mishra. “When we met each other, we realized that we come from a relatively similar place. Both of us didn’t have faith in the power structures,” he says,  adding “The track is a rap dailogue between the State and the people where I represent the State and Piyush [represents] the people.” The song also features Prashant Mistry from UK dubstep act Engine-EarZ Experiment as well as Indian Ocean’s Amit Kalam.

Akala will perform Hip -Hop Shakespeare live at the Tata Theatre (NCPA), supported by the British Council, today at 7:30pm. Entry free. Akala will also play at Dublin, Chennai on November 2nd; Bacardi NH7 Weekender on November 3rd; CounterCulture in Bengaluru on November 4th.  

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