“Rap over Shakespeare”: Cambridge Union Society Debate Remarks

Cambridge Union Society, 1 May 2014

Debate Proposition: “This House Would Teach Rap over Shakespeare”

J. Griffith Rollefson, Lecturer University of Cambridge Faculty of Music

[NB: In the spring of 2014 I was invited to take part in an absurd debate titled: “This House Would Teach Rap over Shakespeare” at the Cambridge Union Society.  Here’s my opening salvo.]

I’d like to thank you all for having me here today to offer my two cents on the debate: “This house would teach Hasselhoff over Shakespeare”*—er, “…hip hop over Shakespeare.”  Sorry, I had to go there…  [* NB: David Hasselhoff had recently made a visit to the Cambridge Union Society.]

All joking aside, it may be that the idea of popular culture, writ large, is a good place to start with this debate.  It seems that on a broader level this debate is about the place of popular culture in higher education—a social institution historically dedicated to the great books and the great men who wrote them.  Of course, I do mean great men, and remedying this structural asymmetry represents one pillar of my argument today.  Indeed, this house is built on the shoulders of great men—that is the great, white, landed men of the Western Canon.  But notably, it was also built on the backs of non-white men, women, and children from Chesterton to the far reaches of empire.  In other words, directly or indirectly, this house was built through the toil and sweat—the labor—of the populace, and it seems time, on this May Day 2014, that we paid attention to and took seriously the music that most people make and listen to—that is, popular music.

Historically—and I do mean for the past 800 years—that music hasn’t been taught or studied here, and over the course of those 800 years this house—this Ivory Tower—has been intellectually deprived.  All value judgments aside, I would argue that, both ethically and intellectually, it behooves us to do so now.  Indeed, it seems utterly sensible to teach about popular culture in general and about black music in particular—a music with a wider and more global audience than any other music in history.  I support this proposition, not just to remedy an imbalance, but to provide the university with a key ingredient—an ingredient that has led to a sort of intellectual malnourishment over the centuries.  Importantly, it seems to me that the hero worship of the great men, great books model of education was key in distracting our attention from seeking a more informed view of our world—a gambit, designed through constructions of high and low culture and more modern racialized colorings thereof, to divert attention from all the richness, value, and interplay of world culture.  Lest we forget, the logic of universalism that underpins the great books tradition is the same logic that encoded America’s “All Men Are Created Equal” as a cover up of the bald-faced structural inequality of chattel slavery.

It is for this reason that is quite a shame to see Shakespeare used as a security blanket by ethno-nationalists bemoaning a perceived loss of English culture and history.  In fact, the reverse is actually true of course: The nation is regaining its history.   Through continued immigration, the UK’s colonial history is gaining a material presence, its history is coming home to the center of the empire.   [As Stuart Hall noted about the quintessential English cup of tea, shorn of its South Asian tea leaves and Caribbean sugar, the national drink is just hot water, maybe a splash of milk.  This is just one instance of how the colonial is centered in the national.  One instance of how despite its active marginalization, the colonial is not marginal, but integral to the nation.]

On another level, I feel that our topic for debate tonight presents a bit of an apples to oranges comparison.  In the construction “this house would teach rap over Shakespeare” we are presented with a choice between a complete genre, tradition, and culture of musical performance and cultural critique on one hand, and a man on the other.  I assume that we’re interested in the work of Shakespeare for the present, but I think the point is illustrative of the problems with the great man model of university education.  Namely, we tend to study the man and his work at the expense of the performance, staging, and reception thereof.  The value of the study accrues to the abstract level of the art rather than to the creative communities that enable and give meaning to artistic creation.  The great man and great works model also tends to focus our study on the written sources at the expense of Shakespeare the dramatist.

This gets us to my third related point: that through the juxtaposition of rap and Shakespeare the proposition implies that both forms are literary only, pointing to the dearth of studies of embodied performance and its contexts.  In other words, if we have to choose between music and drama, I’d rather abstain.  I’d rather study them equally and in relation to one another.  Of course, hip hop has a great tradition of literary word play, ingenious pun, double, and triple entendre, signifyin(g), and flippin’ tha script.  But it is also a music, a culture, and a way of knowing and being in the world.  So, tonight I hope we can imagine valuing hip hop on its own terms rather than on the assumption of Elizabethan drama’s inherent value.  Indeed, I’m not going to address “inherent value” tonight—I’d be happy to make the case, but that would take much more detail and time than I have at present—and as I suspected, my friends here* can make a better case than me! [* NB: London MC, Franklyn Addo, was my co-conspirator for the “yea” side of the debate.]  And just to underscore a previous point, it seems manifestly obvious that the idea of Elizabethan drama’s “inherent value” comes from Shakespeare’s symbolic resonance in British history at the dawn of British Empire and a past “golden age” (for only a few, I might add).  That is, this kind of national hero worship, seems to me kind of sad.  Is Shakespeare not Shakespeare, The Bard, “Big Willy Shakes” [Big Up Justin Schell!], because of his Elizabethan context? And is it not that context that is pined for—a generalized feeling of loss and a particular bemoaning of the loss of empire?

Ultimately, though, the UK has not lost its empire.  It lives on in countless ways—culturally, linguistically, economically, and so on.  I contend that through examining hip hop—at once the most localized and the most globalized of all musics—the nation can better understand its own history (not “other” histories, mind you, its own histories).  That through the study of hip hop, this particular house and this particular nation can understand this music created by Afro-Caribbean, Latino, and black American youth in the context of the South Bronx.  That is, this music created by postcolonial subjects reimagining their futures by refiguring old records, and performing poetry and dance on the street corners and in the parks of the defunded post-industrial inner city.  That this music has been taken up in every corner of the globe should not surprise us.  It resonates there for the same reasons it resonates here.  As a remix artform it is an open source that has its proud and defiant origins, but is about much more than where it came from.  As Rakim put it: “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”  In short, the study of hip hop can tell us about forgotten, marginalized, and systematically erased histories, but what’s more, it can also help us make sense of our present and reimagine our global and ever more interconnected future.

Okay, so there’s my argument for the proposition “This house would teach rap over Shakespeare.” In short, that’s what this house was trained to do and that’s what I’m doing. But in concluding, it think it’s important to revisit the “why not both?” question that I began with. Indeed, this academic year I have taught both. I’m supervising a third-year dissertation on the classical composer, Thomas Ades’s operatic setting of The Tempest—titled “O Brave New Caliban” which examines the way the contemporary Scottish composer reimagines Caliban as the protagonist of the Shakespeare classic. It’s a postcolonial reading of the tried and true classic that has yielded amazing outcomes… What’s more in my lecture course titled “Planet Rap: Global Hip Hop and Postcolonial Perspectives” we examine the precursors to hip hop such as the oral epics known collectively as African griot traditions, but in doing so we also focus on the fact that Homer—that great (whitened if not “white”) man of the Western cannon—was almost certainly ossifying orally transmitted epic tales that were in circulation well before his “authorship.”

Indeed, to return to another point made at the outset of this discussion, as recent research suggests, Shakespeare, might not be a man after all, but a community—a workshop of dramatists. That possibility in itself should help us find common cause in bringing to life older art forms while contextualizing hip hop in all its global forms and historic legacies.

Thank you.


[That’s me in the tie.]

*Thankfully, I think “abstain” won the night, btw.

Flip the Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality — Main Page