Hip Hop Shakespeare “Racist and Evil”?


Bloody Knife MacbethYouth mentor and writer Lindsay Johns, a guest speaker at the Conservative Conference (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24351371), criticised teachers for making everything ‘hip-hop’.  But more than that, with one of the worst accusations anyone can throw in the 21st Century, he accused them of being racist:

“It’s not only incredibly patronising, but also viciously racist to think that black and brown kids in the inner cities will only ‘get Shakespeare’ if it’s set to a hip-hop beat and presented in three-minute, MTV-Base-style chunks.”

‘Racist’ and ‘evil’ are not words which I would ever use of any well-meaning teacher who is trying to engage a classroom full of reluctant students from a variety of backgrounds. It is a tough job, as I know from experience, and with a culturally diverse and extremely critical ‘audience’ (set of pupils) it is no easy task. So, a large part of me applauds any teacher who spends time and effort in an attempt to find a new way to introduce an increasingly unpopular area of the curriculum. I know that even a mention of Shakespeare’s name can put many pupils off because of the connotations of elitism and challenge. As a Key Stage Three English tutor for Oxford Home Schooling, I hear the phrase ‘a different language’ on a regular basis to justify a student’s nervousness at reading ‘The Tempest’ or ‘Twelfth Night’. Although later, to their surprise and my delight we agree that it was, like riding a bike, far more satisfying once the stabilisers were off.

But to employ the currant parlance, Shakespeare dances to his own beat and needs no backing track. And here I find myself in agreement with Mr Johns.  We should be able to appreciate any work of great literature in its original form. English literature it seems is subject, as no other art form, to critical reappraisal. Would we paint over parts of ‘The Nightwatch’ by Rembrandt because the subjects all have white faces? Or, equally, would we ever consider reading ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe over a background of music by Elgar to make it more accessible to white middle-class English readers? No, we would not. We leave them as they are because they represent a time and a place.  And more importantly, a time and a place which, even taking into account any perceived flaws, is subject to artistic respect. Because we respect, and should continue to do so, the authorial voice.

I concede that our fascination with the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s plays is also responsible for its vulnerability to a hostile audience because we continually attempt to force connections. We turn Richard III into Stalin and Julius Caesar into Thatcher. If we say that Shakespeare is for all time, why do we insist on adjusting and adapting it in order to make it seem true? We dress Coriolanus in the costume of Mussolini and make Ariel a 21st Century Zeitgeist. But, perhaps, we feel forced to justify it over and over again because we place it in direct competition with a play featuring a puppet horse.

By all means enjoy a hip hop beat.  My CD collection includes The Beastie Boys, Dr Dre, NWA, Eminem and Public Enemy. My bookshelves hold works by Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain and Enid Blyton.

And there also is Shakespeare, standing proud. Just as it is.

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I have been working for Oxford Open Learning since 2010 and love helping my students with their English and History courses. As a teacher and personal tutor, I have taught pupils from all around the world, aged from three to adult. I am often to be found with my head in a book and sometimes I have four or five on the go at the same time. I love learning about History and Art and am passionate about literature.

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