ON A SNOWY Monday in January 2008, I was contracted by New Utrecht High School English teacher Ms. Wendy Halm-Violette to help her class with a book they were reading. I was on hiatus from college, working as a K-12 tutor and independent artist under the rap name T-Dome, trying to raise money to take the final class I needed for my degree. I jumped at the chance for work.

Ms. Halm-Violette explained that, although this reading assignment was essential to her students’ final grade and required for graduation, the students felt no connection to the story. Their lack of interest was evident; students refused to even bring their books to study. I accepted the challenge of finding a way to spark their interest. Then I found out the “book” the students were supposed to read was Othello by William Shakespeare.

The truth is — like many of you — I could relate to their disinterest. In high school, education had come easy to me. However, Shakespeare and I did not get along. At all. Not that I wasn’t a reader. I’d always been a fan of novels by Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison and the poetry of Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, and Langston Hughes. The substance of their work reflected the burdens of living in a low-income neighborhood, similar to the tales I retained from rap artists such as Common and Public Enemy. My fascination with black history and literature kept my head in the books, and that feeling of connection to the authors’ stories and messages was the primary reason I regularly made the honor roll. Before long, my goal was to become a writer-poet.

That drive, along with my unblemished English grades, came to a screeching halt my senior year, when I was enrolled in the AP English class that introduced me to Mr. William Shakespeare. We were expected to read King Lear, a text filled with unrecognizable, obsolete words like thineavaunt, and ’nuncle — all crammed into a story that seemed to have no bearing on my life. What had Shakespeare known about anything I’d experienced? What was he even talking about, and why should I care enough to decipher his language? Shakespeare’s work seemed distant, irrelevant, incomprehensible. I barely cracked the book.

AP English was the only class I failed in high school, and that experience led to what I fully intended to be a lifelong goal of avoiding Shakespeare. During college, after receiving an English literature syllabus requiring me to purchase two Shakespeare plays, I dropped not only the course but also the plan to focus my studies on literature. (I majored in mathematics instead.)

Needless to say, I was unsure about the task I’d just taken on with Ms. Halm-Violette. I didn’t want to give up on these students, but before I could make Shakespeare interesting to them, I had to make Shakespeare interesting to me.

As The Sonnet Man, Devon Glover performs at a school assembly in conjunction with the 2019 Shakespeare in Yosemite/University of California, Merced production of As You Like It.
As The Sonnet Man, Devon Glover performs at a school assembly in conjunction with the 2019 Shakespeare in Yosemite/University of California, Merced production of As You Like It. Photo by Veronica Adrover.

USING MY VOICE

Even as an adult, trying to break down the language of Othello was troubling. I was stuck with a promise I wasn’t sure I could fulfill. Luckily, while trying to read (and reread) this antiquated composition, the movie O came on television.

O is a 2001 adaptation of Othello, set in an American high school and featuring modern dialogue and contemporary music, including hip-hop. I’d seen and liked O, so I rewatched it and immediately began connecting the familiar plot and dialogue from the movie to the scenes and language of Shakespeare’s version, printed in 1622. Having found this connection, I began reading Othello aloud.

Lo! Another connection: Shakespeare’s writing method has rhythm! Maybe I’d heard of iambic pentameter (the Bard’s habit of stressing ev’RY othER sylLAble FOR five REPS), but I’d never really heard it.

When remedies are past, the griefs are ended
By seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended.

The Duke is rhyming!

So, let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile, 
We lose it not, so long as we can smile.

So is Brabantio!

With these revelations, I discovered a way to connect to Shakespeare that I suspected might interest Ms. Halm-Violette’s students in Brooklyn, too. At the time, I sometimes wrote songs and performed for Flocabulary, a Brooklyn-based company that creates educational hip-hop songs and materials — and I realized I could use similar methods for this gig. Along with rapper Justin Lugiano (who rapped under the moniker Just-One), I visited Ms. Halm-Violette’s class with a few abridged versions of Othello, prepared to present Shakespeare’s arcane words in a new light.

As you might imagine, the students were not enthusiastic to begin.

“Alright students,” I said. “Let’s try to give this ‘book’ another try.” Cue the chorus of students sighing and kissing their teeth. “Open up to Act 1, Scene 1.”

“Why do we have to read this, man?” asked one student. Another hollered: “This stuff is boring, Ms. V.”

My associate and I opened our plays and proceeded to embody Shakespeare’s characters and speak their lines verbatim — in a cross between staged reading and rap battle — as the students read along. Soon they began exchanging looks, swaying back and forth to the beat, and moving their heads as they read, as if testing out new headphones. The lines had such rhythm that even the uninterested student in the back-right corner of the room started banging his fist to the cadence of our words.

After we performed various scenes, the class was intrigued. Beyond that, they also better understood the storyline hidden within the strange language. Just by hearing the words said in a familiar accent and watching the interactions between Justin and me, students began connecting the scene to situations they knew.

“Have you heard ‘Undying Love’ by Nas?” I asked the students. “‘Undying Love’ is a first-person rap story about a man who returns home from vacation and catches his wife cheating.”

“Did he handle it like Othello?” asked one student.

“How would you handle it?” I asked. The connection opened dialogue about Shakespeare’s tale unlike anything Ms. Halm-Violette had seen in her class before.

In a bizarre transformation, a couple of students stood up after the presentation and proclaimed that not only did they understand what was going on in the story, but they, too, could provide adaptive rap summaries of Othello’s first act. This became homework for the next few days. Each student exited the workshop with a thesaurus in one hand and Shakespeare’s Othello in the other. Together, we found a new delight in Shakespeare’s works, through the connection of poetry and hip-hop.

While thinking about why this worked so well, one thing stood out: Aside from his sonnets, Shakespeare wrote plays, not books. Plays are meant to be performed and are always better understood and appreciated when seen and heard than when read. Not to mention the fact that Shakespeare’s figurative language, rhythm, rhymes, and even plotlines and themes — love, misunderstanding, jealousy, justice, etc. — contain similarities to the work of many of my favorite hip-hop artists.

THE SONNET MAN

Growing up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, I found hip-hop culture to have a significant influence on my way of living. Artists including Jay-Z, Wu Tang, and the Roots provided as much education and preparation for my future as did the information I encountered through textbooks and lessons from teachers and professors.

After I began applying hip-hop elements to Shakespeare, through separate connections as a musician and performer, I was introduced to the late Broadway playwright and producer Arje Shaw, who became my manager. Arje had a passion project of putting Shakespeare’s poetry, in the form of 154 sonnets, to music. Arje tried many types of music, from jazz to soul/R&B to country, but the results didn’t meet his artistic standards. So, he put the project on the shelf until he discovered an interest in spoken word and hip-hop and began looking for an artist who could rap Shakespeare’s words. Through a mutual friend, he found a young guy from Brooklyn who had tried to avoid the Bard ever since he failed his final high school English class, only to find himself doing Shakespeare/hip-hop workshops several years later.

When Shaw directed me to Shakespeare’s sonnets, I stumbled onto a lyrical goldmine. I immediately noticed that the number of lines in a sonnet (14) is close to the number of bars in verses of classic rap songs (16), and the rhythm of Shakespeare’s words could be applied to a contemporary hip-hop beat. For research, I was gifted several books analyzing the style and meaning behind the Bard’s sonnets.

I noticed many more parallels between Shakespeare’s techniques and those of my favorite rappers. His use of iambic pentameter reminded me of cadences used by the likes of Ludacris and Eminem. The fact that all 154 sonnets are love poems called to mind similar odes from Drake and LL Cool J.

What’s more, Shakespeare emphasized the lasting influence of his “eternal lines,” endorsing his own skills and parodying verses of rival poets in a way that embodies the competitive spirit of the modern emcee. Shakespeare also connected to his audience by creating his own slang, which survived centuries and contains thousands of words and phrases we still use every day — including one of the most-used words in rap since the Golden Age of hip-hop music: “swagger.” Finally, like most hip-hop artists, William Shakespeare even has a moniker his fans refer to him by: The Bard.

Through my research, I unexpectedly fell in love with the Bard’s writings the same way I fell in love with hip-hop. I began translating and setting music to Shakespeare’s sonnets to share and perform the richness and relevance of Shakespeare’s language under my own moniker: The Sonnet Man.

The Sonnet Man experiment began as a short-term project. However, responses from students, critics, and audiences kept momentum strong. A 2014 appearance I made on MSNBC’s The Today Show generated an unexpected wave of emails from interested viewers and even more opportunities to perform, give classes, and adapt Shakespeare scenes and soliloquies for schools, theatres, and events across the U.S. and around the world — including workshops at the International Thespian Festival.

From flash mob Shakespeare adaptations in Santa Monica, California, to collaborations with a dance theatre company in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Sonnet Man experiment has endured and evolved. The author I shunned as a teenager opened doors to a life I never imagined — showing students like my former high-school self that, in true hip-hop style, the Bard used rhymes, rhythm, and his own slang to talk about things we still deal with every day: love, ambition, betrayal, retribution, and more.

For me, connecting Shakespeare’s sonnets and rap has bridged the gap between England’s Elizabethan era and hip-hop’s Golden Age: 14 lines and 16 bars, acting and rapping, two writers 4,000 miles and five centuries apart. If a former Shakespeare-averse musician from Brooklyn can develop a career through the fusion of hip-hop and 16th century literature, trust me: You can crack the “book.” Five hundred years later, the Bard can still teach us all a thing or two about swagger.

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