Recording artist and educator Devon Glover travels the globe rapping Shakespeare’s sonnets–all to bring the word of the Bard to the masses. While in high school Glover was hardly a fan. In fact, he avoided the Bard ever since his senior English teacher sent him home alone to read King Lear. The text was so foreign and intimidating, he refused to even open the book.
His next brush with Shakespeare happened in 2010, while working as a teaching assistant at New Utrecht High School in his hometown of Brooklyn. Glover was completing his BA degree in mathematics when Wendy Haim-Violette, an English teacher, asked if he could help teach Othello. She knew Glover used rap to teach everything from math to grammar and had been working with Flocabulary, a company that creates educational hip-hop songs for grades K-12. This time his only option was to open the book. As he re-read and re-read Othello out loud, he discovered that the rhythm of iambic pentameter translated perfectly to the rap beat. “Shakespeare was the first hip hop artist,” he says.
For Haim-Violette’s classes, Glover rapped the Bard’s dialogue and then rapped his translation, which always had rhymes. Her 12th-grade students took his performances as a rap challenge. “I can rhyme better than you!” Suddenly, students were voluntarily taking their books home to read and create their own interpretive rap for class.
“Some students came in with really good raps, and others not so good, but the point was they were reading” and learning.
This opportunity changed Glover’s life. A couple months later, he meet Broadway and music producer Arje Shaw (best known for his 2001 Broadway production of The Gathering, which he also wrote, starring Hal Linden). Shaw was looking for a hip-hop artist to rap the sonnets in schools. Glover says that they met by chance, when a friend of his told Shaw about Glover.
In their first meeting, Shaw “he told me that there were easier ways to present Shakespeare to students.” And that is with the sonnets “one page at a time.”
Now Glover is working as The Sonnet Man full time, performing around the U.S., Canada, England, and he has even gone to Jamaica a couple times. He has been a guest on several news programs including the Today Show. After a successful trip to the Bard’s hometown in Stratford, he has been asked to return to England, where he will perform at Shakespeare’s former grammar school as well as for the Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival.
Glover’s motivation to teach and expand the minds of students stems from his years growing up in Brooklyn with few opportunities. While he was a good student, he now realizes that he and his fellow students had a narrow understanding of life’s possibilities. Extracurricular activities and after-school programs were limited, and his school didn’t teach any trades such as mechanics and welding. “We grew up rapping and having hoop dreams. There’s so much more in the world,” and Glover wanted to be a part of providing new options.
“I had teachers who helped me, and I wanted to do that for my little brother and for other students.” Now, Glover sees a lot of disappointment. “Students feel they don’t have a future.” They need problem solving skills and a way to articulate and express themselves through language. “It’s easy to give up. I almost did. Now, I use my life as an example to help others…I was a hyper student, but I was able to present myself to adults so the teachers knew I was not just all energy.”
Often Glover sees kids race into class “cursing and screaming,” and generally being rowdy, but those same kids listen and pay attention when he raps and even thank him for teaching them. “Shakespeare needs to be heard,” says Glover. Rapping the Bard gives the students a way to hear him that is familiar to them.
Glover’s next project is called “154 for 451.” The goal is to analyze, translate, and score all 154 sonnets for concerts around the globe in celebration of Shakespeare’s 451 birthday next April.
“I may not have all of them memorized,” says Glover, “but hopefully most of them will be.”
Glover is working on rapping more than just Shakespeare’s sonnets. He is also recording a series of songs to help student’s learn the Bard’s plays. For Richard III, he has written several pieces including “War of the Roses”, an introduction to the play; “All Hail King Richard”, about Richard III’s assent to the crown; and “Death to Richard” about Richard’s nightmare when the spirits he has murdered haunt him. Currently, Glover is also in the early stages of analyzing Macbeth. His copy is covered with bookmarks and memos. To help keep his translations accurate, he works with Shakespeareans, teachers, and translation books.
The Sonnet Man’s most recent performance at the 2014 Stratford Festival in Canada is on YouTube.
Hamlet in Bollywood:
Vishal Bhardwaj’s anxiously awaited $6.1 million film Haider won’t be out until this October, but fans can get a glimpse of the film’s newly released trailer. This film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet isn’t Bhardwaj first foray with the Bard. His Omkara was adapted from Othello and Maqbool from Macbeth.
This weekly column publishes each Monday and covers books, films, recordings, web content, videos, video games, radio, television, and all emerging mediums. Send all press releases and comments to the Associate Editor for Multimedia, Deborah Voorhees at firstname.lastname@example.org.