“Sleep is the cousin of death. Sleep – is the cousin of death. Hip-Hop or Shakespeare?”

Benedict Welch 3 May 2016

This question kicks off Akala’s address at the Cambridge Union, a change to the usual type of event found in the programme of the annual Cambridge Literary Festival. Not since Freshers’ week, when debates and talks at the Union were free have I seen the Chamber so full. Even the presence of Rev Jesse Jackson Sr. for the 50th anniversary of the Baldwin vs Buckley debate couldn’t garner so large a crowd. Admittedly though, this audience was not a student one, but instead contained people ranging in age from 6 to 76.

Before watching his address at the Oxford Union last year, I had never really paid attention to Akala. Growing up I wasn’t a huge rap fan but loved a bit of Kanye, Dizzee, and Wretch. But after watching Akala take centre stage in the Chamber at the Oxford Union, I became fascinated by him. Over the course of 76 minutes, he put forward his case for a 'revolutionary, people-centred global teaching of history' by drawing attention to just how cherry-picked and white-washed what we’re taught in academic institutions really is. If you haven’t watched the address yet, I would strongly urge that you do.

The content of his Cambridge address however, was more fitting of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. By focusing on language, Akala highlights just how hard it is to differentiate the lyrics of famous hip-hop songs from lines of Shakespearean plays. True to form, he also schools us on more than just Shakespeare, interspersing titbits of knowledge, like the fact that RZA worked on the Kill Bill soundtrack, and that Mali was home to the first university in the world, into his speech.

So how did he get so interested in Shakespeare? Two words. Baz. Luhrmann. Like many of us, he was enthralled by the Luhrmann’s 1996 production of Romeo and Juliet and how a play that was centuries old could be set against the backdrop of 1990s Mexico City but still retain its authenticity. He was also shocked to find words like “cometh” and “spew” present in his favourite raps were rife in Shakespearean literature. Unlike most people though, it sparked a passion in him which, with the support of Sir Ian McKellen, saw the formation of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, a music theatre production company, in 2009. The Company travel all around the world putting on events, theatre productions and workshops with a twist on the 'traditional' presentation of Shakespeare’s works. The Company will be going on tour again at the end of the year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The Shakespearean element of Akala’s address ended with a rap he made in 10 minutes when he featured on Radio 1Xtra. It features 27 of Shakespeare plays, from Hamlet to Titus Andronicus, all woven in so well that by the time the rap ends, I’d only managed to count four or five at most.