Akala – Making it cool to be clever

Award winning hip-hop artist, education activist and author, Akala received an honorary doctorate from Oxford Brookes in June 2018. We caught up with him before the ceremony to discuss his theatre production company, The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company and his lifelong love of learning. 

“Hip -hop or Shakespeare?” is a challenge that Akala puts to lecture audiences including eminent Shakespeare scholars. Can they identify which lines of verse are from hip-hop songs and which are taken from the works of England’s most famous poet and playwright?

Nobody gets them all right.

The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company explores the parallels between two seemingly quite different art forms. In doing so not only does Shakespeare become more accessible to younger audiences but, for some, more enjoyable to both watch and perform. For many who were intimidated or just plain bored by Shakespeare at school, it’s a revelation.

“England still has this Victorian hangover in the way we teach Shakespeare,” Akala explains. “He has been co-opted as being just for people who speak in a particular way but there was no RP (a form of English pronunciation associated with higher social classes) in Shakespeare’s times!

“So I felt it would be radical to take this symbol of elitism and say ‘no, that’s not what he was in his time and he is still relevant today’.”

“Hip-hop Shakespeare is true to his way of writing”

Using hip-hop to explore Shakespeare is not as unlikely as it might sound. As Akala points out there are over 100 songs in Shakespeare’s plays and iambic pentameter – a poetic meter with five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables per line – is used as much in hip-hop songs as it was in the sonnets.

“Musicality was central to Shakespeare. He played with rhythm and language so it’s natural that to enjoy him we should do the same. So Hip-hop Shakespeare is true to his way of writing. And one element of hip-hop was always knowledge. So what we’ve been trying to do is in keeping with its educational tradition.”

Hip-hop Shakespeare brings together several strands of Akala’s own life: his music, his knowledge of theatre (his step-dad was Stage Manager at the Hackney Empire) and the huge value he places on education.

“Characters in stories I’ve read are like my friends”

“There is no way to overstate the importance of education. Not just to a person’s ability to get a job but to their emotional and psychological wellbeing. And to their power of imagination – characters in stories I’ve read are like my friends, to me they live and if they die I grieve for them.

“So you learn to articulate your feelings and that is really important. One example of that is in conflict mediation. A lot of young boys don’t know how to express their emotions and that leads to conflict because they end up articulating them with their fists or worse.”

“I benefited from a radical tradition”

Akala was brought up to take his education seriously. He got books as Christmas presents every year and his mum Heather studied Caribbean History as a mature student even though she originally came from a rather different group of islands – the Outer Hebrides. Both she and the British Caribbean side of Akala’s family encouraged his learning.

“I was lucky. I benefited from a radical tradition of Pan-African Caribbean self-education and went to a special Black Caribbean Saturday school in Camden – The Winnie Mandela School. When British Caribbeans migrated to the UK after the war, they were dissatisfied with the level of education their children were getting. So they set up Saturday schools.”

And just as children from the Windrush generation didn’t always receive a satisfactory education, so the precociously talented Akala had his own problems at school.

“The majority of my teachers were really, really good. But some thought I was just a little bit too bright for someone like me. At age 9 I was put in a special needs group for kids who didn’t speak English without my parents knowing.”

This was a boy who had already read Lord of the Rings and was tackling The Autobiography of Malcolm X – far ahead of anything he was being taught in school. It wasn’t just prejudice that affected his schooling but also the “one size fits all” approach. Akala admits to having some sympathy with the idea of streaming by ability, despite this being a view associated with those well to the right of his own politics.

“I’d get into fights but it was after school”

Akala ended up doing well at school and his GCSE results were some of the best in his year group. But that didn’t mean he was always a good boy.

“Some of my uncles were gangsters. But they didn’t see being smart as separate from being a tough guy. They saw it as strong not weak. So I’d get into fights but it was after school and away from the school because I knew if I failed school my gangster uncles would beat me up.”

“It’s not seen as cool to be clever”

Akala is currently researching the reasons why the educational attainment of fourth-generation British Caribbeans is low. One reason sometimes put forward is that there is something in Caribbean culture that devalues education. But the evidence from his recent trip to Jamaica contradicts this.

“I went to a school in one of the roughest parts of Trenchtown – basically a war zone – and the kids had higher aspirations than the average state school kid in England. When I asked them what they wanted to be when they were older, they said ‘marine biologist’, ‘judge’, ‘lawyer’, ‘soldier’ not ‘I want to be famous’ which is the most common aspiration in this country.

“The value of education in Jamaican culture has given these kids the sense that these jobs are realistic options, even though they live in one of the poorest places in the world.”

Akala ascribes the low educational achievement and aspirations of poorer children – not just black children – in England to two things: a divisive education system and an anti-intellectual culture.

“People don’t spend £30,000 sending their kid to Eton to get the same quality of education kids at state schools get, do they? But also it’s not seen as cool to be clever – it is in Jamaica, it’s not here. I’ve known so many working-class kids who pretend to be less smart than they are.”

“America has… more paths out of the ’hood than we do”

He is glad that British universities have increased the diversity of their students in recent years but still feels we have some way to go to match American universities.

“Even though America has massive problems we don’t have, they still have more paths out of the ’hood than we do. A lot of black kids go to university on sports scholarships and they have to get the grades otherwise they don’t get to play. So even if they don’t make it as a basketball player or footballer or whatever, they come out of it with a degree.”

“Everyone is born with a love of learning”

Akala is upset by how the British education system lets down young people from particular backgrounds. And through Hip-hop Shakespeare’s creative workshops and interactive lectures he is directly helping some of them – giving them confidence in their own ability.

“Everyone is born with a love of learning. The question is, why are some people then turned off it and others not? Understanding Shakespeare has a tremendous impact on young people because he is seen as so difficult. He is like the quantum physics of literature. If you can get him then anything is possible.

“School was fraught with contradictions and challenges for me despite my academic abilities. That is one of the things that has made me so passionate about education and made me want to dedicate part of my adult life to working with young people, in the way that people gave their time to work with me.”

Akala’s dedication is enabling young people to retain their love of learning and benefit from education’s life-enhancing effects – and making it “cool to be clever”.

Words by Sirius Gibson
Photography by Paul Tait

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