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Othello:
The Remix

March 12

August 4, 2013

Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare

a hip-hop adaptation of
William Shakespeare’s Othello
written, directed and music by GQ and JQ
developed with Rick Boynton

Shakespeare and Hip Hop

For far too many of us the worlds of Shakespeare and Hip-Hop Culture are two ships passing in the night, never to see each other or make contact in any way. Even though these “ships” share the same waters and float among similar waves of oceanic currents, any connection between them is confounded by academic tendencies toward historical compartmentalization or social affinities for rigid distinctions between high and low culture. Thus, few Shakespearian scholars know that Tupac read and embraced Shakespeare or that hip-hop dance guru Renee Harris was so inspired by Romeo and Juliet that he ultimately choreographed and produced Rome and Jules, one of the most intense re-presentations of a Shakespearian narrative in modern times. Films like O, starring Mekhi Phifer and re-visiting Shakespeare’s classic reflections on race, manipulation and miscegenation in Othello, or Neal Gaiman’s graphic novel Sandman that carefully engages A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also serve to deconstruct any rigid canonization of Shakespeare.

The point here is that the Hip-Hop Generation (coined by Bikari Kitwana and referring generally to those born between 1965 and 1984) encounters the work of Shakespeare through the lenses of hip-hop culture—lenses that include the digital information age, postmodernity, and globalization. This generation stands in full appreciation of Shakespeare’s artistry but in a context deriving from an inexhaustible reservoir of poetic folk culture in the artistic forms of hip-hop culture, including rap music, graf or visual art, dance and/or kinesthetic movement, fashion/styles of dress and DJ-ing or the art of turntablism. Taken together these hip-hop folk arts bear striking resemblance to the dramatic world realized through the plays of William Shakespeare. The drama of life, the flash and fanfare of the upper class, irony, misdirection, masking and, most importantly, language itself form the cultural currents commonly navigated by Shakespeare and so many of his rapping counterparts in the 20th and 21st centuries. Language, particularly the verbal arts as demonstrated through “graf” writing and rapping itself, has become the central component of hip-hop culture. Through rap music, wordplay, innuendo, prosody and narrative have all become ubiquitous elements of popular culture.

 

James Braxton Peterson is Assistant Professor of English at Bucknell University. He previously taught African American Studies at Princeton University and was the founding Media Coordinator for the Harvard University Hip Hop Archive. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, LLC, an association of hip-hop generational scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban, and youth cultures.

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