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Rapper Akala talks decolonisation at Sussex

Photo: Akala with the organisers of the event.

Award-winning Hip-hop artist Akala delivered ‘a talk on Hip-hop and Shakespeare’ on Wednesday 13th, as part of Sussex’s Decolonising Week.

To a sold-out lecture theatre, Akala opened his talk with an extract from his poem ‘The Killing Fields’ about knowledge, language and how we see history. 

In 2009 Akala founded the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company, in an attempt to reclaim Shakespeare for the modern world. The music theatre production company aims to explore the parallels between the works of Shakespeare and modern hip hop, and between classical and modern day poetry which he demonstrated in his talk. The audience’s knowledge were put to the test with  a ‘Hip-hop or Shakespeare quotes’ quiz, exemplifying the similarities in language and structure of both works. 

Akala spoke on who has ‘custody’ over the English language and on Shakespeare’s place in a post-colonial narrative, where Shakespeare’s plays are to an extent seen as property of British elites, and on how the plays can be ‘reclaimed’. Linked to this idea of reclaiming Shakespeare from the ‘elite’ is also, according to Akala, the importance of reclaiming history, especially black history, and telling counter narratives, such as the impact of Shakespeare outside the Western World.

Throughout his talk, Akala cited numerous historical examples of revolutionary struggles that are not taught in the classroom, such as the Jamaican and Haitian revolts, the English Levellers, and the Chinese movement for voting rights in America. These examples were used to show how the history we are taught influences our world perspective, and our view of ourselves.

On this Akala said: “If you never know or are never taught your own cultural history, you are put at a disadvantage against those who do, as you are not able to correctly position yourself in history, often leading to misrepresentation of your heritage”.

Akala used the example of African history, stating that it is only taught in terms of slavery and no context is given of its civilisation before the slave trade. 

Akala believes that reclaiming the counter-narrative of history, and ‘decolonising’ the perspective from which we are taught, can go a long way to combatting the existing prejudices in society, primarily racial prejudices. 

The society “I too, am Sussex” hosted the event. Society founder Neelam Rai said “This event, as part of Sussex Decolonising Education Week is the start of a new conversation to show that there are alternative knowledges out there.”

“Someone in the audience asked how are they supposed to know about the other narratives besides the ones that we are taught, and this event is the start of that. We need to start questioning the knowledge we are given and make sure that those that question this  knowledge are not silenced.”

Sussex Decolonising Education Week is a series of events to learn about the meaning of Decolonization as it applies to the world today, and to discover how students can make changes at the University and in their personal outlook, in order to decolonize their minds.

 Post-Graduate Education Officer, Rose Taylor praised the work of Undergraduate Education Officer-elect Savannah Sevenzo and others in putting on such an informative week of events, and expressed her hope for Sussex to be at the forefront of the decolonising education movement. 

Annie Pickering

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