Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company

Written By: Anachan - Apr• 09•17

Not too long ago, I stumbled on a video of a TED talk, entitled “Hip-Hop & Shakespeare?”

The title intrigued me. As my readers (or, rather, the computers which keep trying to post spam on my website) have probably guessed by now, I greatly admire Shakespeare. But what may be not quite as obvious is that I have not had nearly the same kind of respect for hip-hop. I tend to view it as only so much noise, punctuated by profanity and other such material with which I do not wish to clutter up my brain.

That said, I know many of my students do enjoy hip-hop, and they do not have nearly the same admiration for Shakespeare. So, in an effort to see if there were ways in which I could bridge the gap for them, finding connections between something they enjoyed and something they didn’t, I took the time to watch the video.

What I saw made me rethink my assumptions.

I had not realized, for instance, that there was a big difference between those who originated the hip-hop movement and many of the current artists. I had not realized that some of the premises those original artists espoused were ones I could definitely support. And I had not realized that one could draw so many parallels between the themes in Shakespeare and the themes in early hip-hop.

In addition, I loved the explanation the speaker gave about iambic pentameter, a rhythm pattern in which almost all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are written. Trying to get my students to “feel” the rhythm of the lines has been one of the most challenging aspects of teaching poetry. Some students have an innate sense of language rhythm, while others persist in attempting to force a line to match a particular pattern, even though in order to do so, they must accent syllables which are never accented in speech. (When even some English teachers tell me that rhythmic patterns in poetry depend entirely on how the reader reads it–because they can’t just “feel” it, themselves–I can see how difficult it might be for students.) The speaker equated the rhythm of iambic pentameter with the rhythm of a heartbeat–something I had never thought about and something the students can easily understand.

I realized that, while there is much in hip-hop I do not have to respect (for that matter, there is much in modern hip-hop which the speaker, himself, does not appear to appreciate), there are things I can respect in hip-hop, as well, particularly in its original underlying philosophy.

I used a portion of the above video recently in my sophomore class, when my students, who had just read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, asked if they could write a rap for their assignment to write an original poem.

“Here’s something to think about,” I told them. “We don’t see a lot of pure poetry books published these days, and yet we know there are people out there writing poetry. So where are they?”

The students looked at each other and shrugged.

“In the music industry!” I said. “Many of the people who would normally be writing poetry are now writing lyrics to songs, including raps.”

“But, Miss,” one said, “Most of the time, adults say they hate our music. They say it’s nothing but trash.”

I smiled at him. “Well, just as in anything, there is good writing and there is bad writing. There are books which are well-written and books which are not. Your job is to learn to recognize when something in your music has been well-written and is worthwhile.”

I went on to explain they probably didn’t know that some hip-hop artists actually use iambic pentameter. And then, of course, we had to watch Akala rapping Sonnet 18. My students loved it, as well as the part where Akala invites the audience to guess whether a line he is saying comes from hip-hop or Shakespeare. They exclaimed in delight when they recognized the names of the artists he cited.

Hip-hop is still not my favorite type of music, but now I do have a new respect for some of the artists and some of their work. I am also appreciative of the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company and their efforts to teach students to understand and appreciate the messages in Shakespeare while applying those messages to their own original works.


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