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Rapper helps students to learn Shakespeare

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Opening hidden talents: Devon Glover, a teacher and musician, performs Shakespeare’s Sonnets as originally written, then breaks them down in spoken word to a rich musical background. He was brought to the Island to speak to high school students taking part in the Bermuda Shakespeare Schools Festival (Photo by Akil Simmons)

It’s no easy feat to turn Shakespeare’s works into rap.

Devon Glover is known as the Sonnet Man. The Brooklyn, New York, native has made a name for himself taking The Bard’s sonnets and breaking them down into spoken word and rap.

He has been able to inspire thousands of students through his workshops in the United States, Canada and the UK.

The 33-year-old was recently on the Island, sharing his skill with students as part of the Bermuda Shakespeare Schools Festival.

“It’s still surreal to me,” said Mr Glover of his success. “Right before I got my big break I was in a rut because I didn’t have the money to finish my degree and in New York you can’t get any kind of job without that. I was doing little jobs here and there, like working part time as an assistant teacher, which pays you [practically] nothing.

“I was also travelling all over to do shows for as little as $30 to $500, just to get a little cash in my pocket.

“Then one day I wrote a song while I was sitting in my cubicle for a job. That day I gave in my two-week notice and was ready to pick up and move to Florida, but I got a call from Broadway producer Arje Shaw. He had this idea to put Shakespeare’s sonnets to music and the only genre he hadn’t tried yet was hip hop, so that’s where I came in.”

Mr Glover immediately found he could relate to the sonnets and noticed some similarities between them and regular hip hop verses.

“They had metre, rhythm, pattern and a lot of emotion and those are the things that connected me to it,” he said.

“Fourteen lines were also a good way of introducing students to Shakespeare, instead of a book like Romeo and Juliet or Othello.”

Since then, Mr Glover has been on The Today Show, Melissa Perry-Harris Show and at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.

He was recently named the winner of the LA Times’ Festival of Books Inspirational Poetry Award, and has been hailed for inspiring a new generation to enjoy the works of Shakespeare.

But it’s a far cry from where he started out.

“I wouldn’t call my neighbourhood in Brooklyn a ghetto or a hood, but it wasn’t the richest part,” he said.

“Everyone’s ambition was to be a rapper or a basketball star and although I had fun rapping I knew I had younger brothers and was trying to be a role model to them.

“I also had a grandmother and grandfather who wanted to keep me in school. They helped out my mother who was a single mom and moved around a little bit.”

Mr Glover had ambitions of becoming a maths teacher but he ran out of money when he was one class short of finishing college.

“I found work so I could save money to go back to school, but then my younger brother started school and the money I was saving I put towards his tuition instead,” he explained.

“While I was pursuing my teaching degree I bumped into a group called Flocabulary, which creates educational hip hop songs to engage and inspire students. I was able to use my writing and teaching skills there for the first time.”

Mr Glover said he got in touch with the Bermuda Shakespeare Schools Festival after hearing about the programme on the internet.

He thought it would be a great way for him to share his passion with young people here.

“I didn’t see them offering any other creative writing workshops so I thought this would be a lovely way to collaborate” he said. “I reached out to them sometime last fall.

“It was exciting when they got back in touch because I was hoping they’d invite me down.”

Mr Glover starts the seminars by introducing them to how he became Sonnet Man — why he’s there and what he does.

Then he gives them examples of a sonnet and teaches them to write and perform their own.

He said the biggest challenge was often cramming a few lessons into one, but it pays off when the young people present their sonnets with a light in their eyes.

“I didn’t know what I was going to get out of them by coming here because some of the children were very quiet,” he said.

“At one of the sessions I had students who were like ‘I’m stuck and don’t know what to do’. I put them in this box by explaining the perimeters of a sonnet and they thought they couldn’t do it.

“So to see them come up and have the most creative things to say is amazing. You have opened up a hidden talent.”

• Visit www.thesonnetmannyc.com

Devon Glover, a teacher and musician, performs Shakespeare's Sonnets as originally written, then breaks them down in spoken word to a rich musical background of R&B, blues and jazz (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Devon Glover with students from Warwick Academy (Photo by Akil Simmons)