“I’m Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days”: When rappers cite Shakespeare

SEBASTIAN: Well, I am standing water.
ANTONIO: I’ll teach you how to flow.
SEBASTIAN: Do so. (The Tempest, 2.1.248-250)

Theater-makers including Akala, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Q Brothers, and the Sonnet Man have blended Shakespeare and hip-hop in their creative and educational work. Shakespeare’s plots and characters have been harnessed by rappers such as Nas, Saul Williams, Stormzy, and Tupac to produce new interpretations of his work, draw parallels between past and present conflicts, and create a cultural shorthand which succinctly communicates the meaning of their work to listeners.

The conversation around Shakespeare and hip-hop to date has tended to focus on either their linguistic malleability or the racial politics which surround the enmeshment of an originally African-American cultural movement with the work of a white playwright who, in the eyes of many, symbolizes English power and cultural authority. However, when artists reference Shakespeare’s name itself, to what uses do they put the playwright’s reputation and how do those purposes differ when his name is cited by artists of different ethnicities and genders?

On the 2019 single “Offence”, British rapper Little Simz illustrates her prodigious lyrical ability to the listener by comparing herself not only to Shakespeare but also to one of the most successful rappers of all time: “I’m Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days” (Simz 1:02). Although the association of these two artists in a single line could be read as a throwaway act of braggadocio during a song in which Simz also compares herself to Pablo Picasso and references Lewis Carroll, her identity as a young, Black-British woman working in a genre traditionally dominated by the male voice suggests deeper significance.

“Offence” is the lead single and opening track on Simz’s third studio album Grey Area (2019) and thus serves as a statement of intent to her audience. The song’s first line alludes to Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” (2003), which can itself be connected to lyrical introductions on Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” (1990) and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968). Simz is therefore part of a musical lineage and as a female artist suggests to an audience of peers that her abilities match both Jay-Z and Shakespeare – two famous male artists – even when she struggles for inspiration. The hierarchy is also significant: by placing Jay-Z and Shakespeare in descending order, Simz inverts the cultural hierarchy of hip-hop and Shakespeare. Jay-Z and Shakespeare are thus represented as equal points of inspiration for Simz, rather than opposing forces or contrasting cultural reference points.

hip-hop artist Little Simz references Shakespeare
A still from the music video for “Offence” (2019) by Little Simz (center).

The chorus of “Offence”, which is sung by Simz accompanied by a group of young women of color, confirms the song’s message of female empowerment: “You’re not listening, you’re not listening / I said it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend” (1:17). The purpose of her Shakespearean citation is therefore not simply an acknowledgement of the playwright’s inspiration but an act of pushback against the playwright’s white, male status. Names are of great importance in hip-hop, with artists such as Eminem and Nicki Minaj adopting multiple monikers to reflect different and sometimes fractured aspects of the personalities they display in their music. Shakespeare’s name carries with it a particular cultural significance and, by comparing herself to the playwright in this moment – even as she uses him to reaffirm her own identity and message – Simz is rooted in a tradition of rappers namechecking Shakespeare to bridge highbrow/lowbrow cultural divisions and emphasize their own intellect and poeticism.

Another hip-hop album opener which serves as a statement of artistic intent and references Shakespeare’s name is “Excursions”, from A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal 1991 album The Low End Theory. Q-Tip’s final verse concludes with the rhyming couplet “What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere / The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare” (3:15). In doing so, he emphasizes the group’s wide appeal across “the sphere”, their roots in alternative hip-hop, and a desire to see his lyrics recognized as poetry equal to Shakespeare’s. The impulse from Simz and Tip to direct listeners to a Shakespearean association with their work – just as rapper and educator Akala does on his 2007 single “Comedy Tragedy History”, when he frames himself as “That boy Akala, the black Shakespeare” (2:49) – is coded in the politics of race.

What happens when white artists cite the playwright’s name? Adam Hansen, the author of Shakespeare and Popular Music, remarks that Eminem’s self-aware observation of his Shakespearean reputation on Jay-Z’s 2009 song “Renegade”, performing as a featured white artist on an African-American artist’s track, “indicates a white rapper’s need or ability to call on a figure of cultural authority like Shakespeare, without African-Americans’ history of justified cultural anxiety” (70). The difference is perhaps that while Simz and Tip invite their listeners to consider how hip-hop connects to Shakespeare through their music, Eminem maintains the position of distance afforded by his white privilege, comfortable in the knowledge that he’s “a poet to some, a regular modern day Shakespeare” (3:22) and acknowledges the connection made by commentators rather than forging it himself.

This article is part of a collaborative wider research project which will be published in Shakespeare and Hip-Hop: Adaptation, Citation, Education (Cambridge University Press, 2022), a Cambridge Element being written with the actor, educator, and rapper Devon Glover, who is known professionally as the Sonnet Man.

You can read more about Devon’s work on his website: http://sonnetman.com/. Ronan has previously written about Devon’s work: https://medium.com/action-is-eloquence-re-thinking-shakespeare/ill-teach-you-how-to-flow-the-hip-hop-shakespeare-pedagogy-of-devon-glover-aka-the-sonnet-man-9721e743b2ed.

Ronan will be speaking about Shakespeare and hip-hop at the European Shakespeare Research Association and British Graduate Shakespeare Conferences this summer. You can read more about his research and teaching on his departmental page: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/scapvc/theatre/staff/ronanhatfull/

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