(Photo caption: Hip-hop artist Devon Glover a.k.a “The Sonnet Man” is the latest guest on The State of Shakespeare, the monthly interview podcast series hosted by Jim Elliott and Gerritt VanderMeer.)
When Hip-hop artist Devon Glover was recently asked to teach Shakespeare’s Othello to a group of students in New York City, he immediately recalled his first introduction to Shakespeare. “To be honest, the only class I ever failed was English honors. We were just handed a copy of King Lear and me and my fellow students just ignored it,” he says with a laugh. “So I didn’t want to approach it the same way it was approached to me.”
That was the inspiration behind The Sonnet Man, a series of Shakespeare and Hip-hop-themed teaching workshops that Mr. Glover began performing in Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn. By mixing contemporary music and Shakespeare’s text, Devon Glover has discovered a new way to make Shakespeare accessible to young students.
When he appears as a teaching artist in schools, the element of surprise is crucial for generating interest. He’ll begin by asking students to read the text, and even when he’s met initially with predictable disinterest, once they hear his words set to music, their excitement becomes palpable. “They feel it.”
Glover finds that students respond to musical underscoring when encountering verse structure and vocabulary that may be unfamiliar. “It’s like a hip-hop Cliff’s Notes. It’s the perfect Mnemonic device,” he says.
Making the connection between Shakespeare’s sonnets and contemporary rhythms occurred naturally to him. A math education major, Glover was drawn to the complex interplay of numerical patterns in the meter and verse structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
His Sonnet 29 alternates Shakespeare’s lines with Glover’s own verses. To the listener, it is not immediately obvious which lyrics are Glover’s and which are Shakespeare’s. The words of both poets, working more than 400 years apart, seamlessly blend, meld, and reinforce the other. The result is a testament not only to the timeless vitality of Shakespeare’s work, but also to the power and versitility of contemporary Hip hop as a spoken-word art form.
The mystery surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets has prompted speculation about a “dark lover” who may have been the subject of many of the poems. Whomever Sonnet 29 may have originally been intended for, Glover finds the enduring message to be personal and uplifting. His own journey as an artist has been marked by struggle and self-doubt and it is the recurring themes of salvation and redemption that resonate most strongly with him. “My friends and my supporters who have reached out a hand… It was fate that this all happened when I was down on my luck and I was looking for a teaching job and trying to finish my degree. I connect the sonnet to those times and the people who gave me support and hope.”
More information about Devon Glover and his music is available at sonnetman.com. For teachers and educators who would like to find out more about bringing the Sonnet Man to your school or organization, visit academicentertainment.com.
The State of Shakespeare is an interview series hosted by Jim Elliott and Gerritt VanderMeer. To listen and find out more about the artists and texts, visit www.stateofshakespeare.com. The monthly podcast is also available for streaming (free) on iTunes.