Akala performs live on stage at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on April 27, 2018 in London, England. Photo by Ollie Millington/Redferns

Auckland teens on racism, misogyny, body image, art, class… and Shakespeare

Sam Brooks has a transcendent experience at the part of the Auckland Writers Festival grown-ups never hear about: the school sessions.

A few years ago I could’ve been mistaken for a teenager, especially given that I dress like a toddler recently given autonomy over their fashion. As I walked around the Aotea Centre, a space I’ve been in literally hundreds of times but still can’t navigate, a volunteer helpfully asked me what school I was with. I said, “I’m not with a school, but thank you!” She looked confused and wandered off. I was satisfied: I could still pass for a high school student despite being a solid 12 years out of any such institution. My Lush routine was working.

And so I sunk into yesterday’s school sessions, sure that I was fitting in with the high school audience like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed (as though knowing, and then deploying, that information didn’t immediately disqualify me from fitting in). It wasn’t until I sat down that I realised I had been mistaken for a teacher. I had crossed a line. I had become Methuselah, the crypt-keeper, a person who magnifies the text on my phone and leaves keyboard sounds securely on.

Nevertheless, when the lights dimmed, I quickly became a student again.

Michelle Pfeiffer smiling at Rahman Ibraheem, the student standing in a scene from the film ‘Dangerous Minds’, 1995. Photo by Hollywood Pictures/Getty Images

As any desperate teacher who has a single term to introduce a class of 35 to a new art form and language will tell you, Shakespeare is not that different from hip-hop.

It’s such a running joke that it’s become a cliche: The (usually white, usually bespectacled, sometimes Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds) English teacher who turns his chair around and says, “Hello youths! You like rap, don’t you? Well let me tell you about the first rapper. You may know him as William Shakespeare…”

It’s a lesson that UK rapper and author (“polymath”, says the AWF programme) Akala gives in his lecture Hip-Hop Shakespeare, named after the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company he founded in 2009.

He starts with a simple exercise: show people a bunch of quotes, and get them to determine which is Shakespeare and which is from hip-hop. Nas, Hamlet, RZA, Othello, Eminem, Much Ado. The rest of Akala’s lecture follows naturally from there, explaining how Shakespeare’s plays were originally attended by the poor and illiterate. Similarly, although hip-hop has been co-opted by the pop machine, one of the five pillars of hip-hop is, indeed, knowledge. He notes, during the Q&A, that “hip-hop is not alone in selling emptiness”.

Akala’s session isn’t simply about drawing a link between hip-hop and Shakespeare – it’s about breaking down stereotypes in art in general. Shakespeare isn’t just for posh people, hip-hop isn’t just for people of colour. By drawing a link between the two – and their shared use of rhythm, poetry, and twisting the two to deliver difficult themes in accessible ways – he simply shows us, or shows a few thousand high schoolers, that when art doesn’t feel like it’s for someone else, it feels accessible. When art isn’t foreign, it becomes normal.

But it’s Akala’s way of delivering information that stuck with me. And not in the gross, racially-coded way when people say, “Oh, he’s so articulate! He speaks so clearly!”, which basically means, “He can speak white!”

No. It struck me how he did not put the weight of his experience, or his knowledge, onto his audience. He only shared the light of that knowledge.

It also struck me when I read his incredible book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, which breaks down centuries of colonisation, classism, racism and almost every aspect of British society in a disarmingly accessible way. His language is clear and concise, and like the best writers, he challenges assumptions while building comprehension.

Take this passage, from an essay published in the Guardian that also appears in Natives:

“The mental and emotional benefits of whiteness are why my grandad – working class, a soldier who had been tortured in battle, an uneducated alcoholic with few serious accomplishments – could still say, “Well, at least I am not a nigger” as often as he did. What did my grandfather understand about whiteness that so many pretend they cannot?

And it’s also why, though my mum was far from rich and had a great many sufferings of her own, she still shared a degree of racial discomfort when faced with the questioning eyes of her five-year-old son. But she sought and led him to answers, and did her best to rise to the challenge.”

As someone raised on the other side of the world, I could not be more contextually and culturally different from Akala. But as a person of colour who was raised by a white mother, who barely knew his brown father, it resonated. It didn’t excoriate her, or uplift me, but it gave me a window and a frame through which to understand my own experience. That’s the kind of ease I’m talking about – the ease that opens your understanding rather than dumps knowledge on you.

I find there’s a tension in that ease, though. Where does the burden of difficult information, difficult education, rest? Should it rest on the listener? Certain revelations can also be blinding, and cause people to recoil from actually learning a lesson.

Or should it rest on the educator, who already feels the weight of that education, from a life hard lived, and then also has to bear the weight of someone potentially not learning from it?

When you’re in a group of friends stumbling into difficult conversations, the burden is generally shared, whether that’s fair or not. As an adult, you acknowledge the burden of telling someone why it’s not okay to say f*****t, to use a personal example, because you’d rather feel the weight of dragging a conversation down rather than hear that word thrown around casually.

But when you’re talking to high schoolers – sponges for information whether they like it or not – the burden rests on the educator. The burden of our generation shouldn’t be offloaded to the next, and if there’s a way we can pass on the lessons learned through damage and pain, without passing on that burden, shouldn’t we?

Heavier than Hip-Hop Shakespeare, admittedly.

Which brings me to American author Renée Watson’s session later in the afternoon. Watson’s YA novels, Piecing Me Together and Watch Us Rise (co-written with Ellen Hagan), are lighter fare than Natives, but still tackle difficult issues. Piecing Me Together, set in Portland, Oregon, tells the story of a girl in her final years of high school. She’s from a poor background, but has clear artistic and scholarly talent, so the school assigns her a mentor, also a black woman. It’s a thoughtful insight into the ways in which class, gender, and race intersect with education – and battle against it too.

Her session turns from a more general talk, linked with poems from both books, into one of the most gorgeous Q&A sessions I’ve ever witnessed. It becomes clear that the thousands of high schoolers assembled, or at least the earnest ones asking questions, want to sit at Watson’s feet and hear whatever wisdom she has to impart.

The questions feel urgent. A girl asks what boys are meant to do when they are questioning their own body image. Another proudly says that she wants to change the world, another asks how to deal with body-shaming amongst her peer group.

About halfway through the Q&A I stop transcribing what’s going on and start transcribing Watson’s advice. Not necessarily for the benefit of this piece, but for my own benefit as a human being. At one stage, she says that we should feel free to walk away from someone exhausting. I write that down and underline it, several times.

There is a true grace to Watson’s Q&A session. She provides knowledge as a light, not as a weight. When a boy asks what he can do when he feels like the discussion excludes him, and what about his rights as a man, I instinctively tense up. If this question had been raised at a bar, or a party, I would probably walk away from that person, because they should know better. If I’d had a few, I might tell them to go away (in harsher terms). I would apply weight, not light.

Instead Watson says this, which I transcribed in full because it displays, for me, all the grace that should be applied when we’re talking to the next generation.

“Take in the experiences being told, because that in itself is an act of resistance. Our culture does not require that of you, right? We allow men to think and to be heard and to be leaders and to be dominant. So to sit in a position of listening is a way to be involved. I think that sometimes we don’t appreciate silence. We think if I’m involved in a movement I have to be saying something or doing something, but listening is an action word! So you are doing something, you are taking in the stories of women and what they’re saying.

“And then, I would say educate yourself. Don’t wait for someone to teach you about men who are also feminists, and men who have done this work. Find out for yourself. We all own our own learning, and think we could be further along, but we are waiting for people to show us the way. You have the power to think for yourself by asking questions of older men in your life, by doing your research, by listening to the women in your life and asking, ‘What is it like to be a girl? What am I not getting? How can I help?’

“That’s my advice for all the men who want to get involved. Join us, yes. But come with a listening heart.”

I look around the room after that. Age aside, it’s probably the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen in the Aotea Centre. It’s also probably the most enthusiastic, give or take a video game music concert I went to a few years ago. And it’s definitely the most open to new stories, new experiences and new knowledge.

When knowledge becomes a burden, it becomes inaccessible. When knowledge becomes foreign, when knowledge starts to feel like damage and darkness, that’s when it becomes a weight.

If the next generation is receiving this kind of learning, with this kind of grace and lightness, without also receiving our damage and our demons, then the world is in safe hands. This is a group of kids who applauded when someone shared their story of being an immigrant, that showed solidarity and love and support. It’s also a group of kids who, in an earlier session, shifted and tittered when a question turned into a comment, thank god.

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As I walked out of the Aotea Centre yesterday, I shifted back from sartorially-emboldened teenager to eccentrically-dressed adult. Shifting from student to teacher. Our generation have to be teachers. We can pass on our knowledge, our wisdom and our experience without passing on our damage. We can be lights – as Akala and Watson are.

And, while we’re being teachers, we can still be students.

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala (Two Roads, $28) is available at Unity Books; as is Watch Us Rise, by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan (Bloomsbury, $18)

Akala’s AWF session with Selina Tusitala Marsh has sold out. There are still seats for Watson’s Saturday afternoon session, talking feminism and race with Lizzie Marvelly and Carole Beu. 


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