Bob Dylan sent Patti Smith to accept the Nobel Prize of literature on his behalf, finally acknowledging that he had been awarded the prize. Some believe his silence on the subject is due to his shyness but others have condemned the action as down to sheer rudeness and arrogance. 

But the more pressing issue which has sparked anger among his critics is why give a literature prize to a musician in the first place? Among the naysayers are Will Self who suggested that Dylan should reject the prize, as Jean-Paul Sartre had done, and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh who labelled it as an “ill conceived nostalgia award.”

With an American being appointed the winner of the Man Booker Prize for the first time, this year seems to be focused on expanding the outreach of the top literary prizes. Salman Rushdie sees this evolution as a positive reflection of a shift in what literature means: “the frontiers of literature keep widening and it’s exciting that the nobel prize recognises that.”

But as the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy points out the overlap between music and literature is nothing new, in fact she claims that Dylan harks back to the beginnings of literature, comparing his work to Homer and Sappho, whose poetry would often have been performed with instruments.

The Author Joyce Carol Oates similarly implies that the quality of literariness is not confined to the read page: “His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, literary.” If we look at the OED definition, the flexibility and looseness of the term is immediately apparent: “Of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature.”

As the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy points out, Dylan’s originality comes from his ability to span all remits of literature, to stretch the very meaning of the word: “Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one. Not just high literature but also low literature.” This is the aim of another brilliant wordsmith: the rapper Akala. Raffaella Barker met Akala at the Cheltenham Booker Prize, where he was the passionate advocator for Animal Farm - the book which was awarded the prize. 

With a huge knowledge and appreciation of English Literature, Akala not only aims to span all types of literature with his music but even invites us to question our segmentation of the categories high literature and low literature, the written word and the oral one. He drives rap out of its stereotype as a lesser, anti-intellectual form of communication, by pointing out the inextricable connection between the genre, and some of the greatest literature in history. 

“Take these two lines”, exclaims Akala “where are they from? ‘Sleep is the cousin of death’ and ‘Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it is food of the spirit.’” Admittedly my instinctive reaction was that they must be Shakespearean and I was taken aback when he named the former Nas, and the latter Eminem. Akala’s affinity with Shakespeare is clearly apparent in his own work; in his song “Shakespeare” he is proud to talk of his aspirations to imitate the writer “my shit I tell em like this/Its like Shakespeare with a nigga twist.”

But another line in the song reveals that Akala is by no means an egotist, he in fact has a larger and highly honourable social mission, to educate and empower the illiterate: “I’m similar to william, but a little different/ I do it for kids that’s illiterate, not Elizabeth”. He wants to change perceptions of the black community, combatting the notion that blacks are uneducated “I hate to say it, but this country is not comfortable with the idea of young, intelligent black people -especially men.” In 2009 he founded the hip-hop Shakespeare company, a group of players who perform theatrical company aimed at exploring the cross-overs between the works of Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop art. 

Unlike Dylan’s rallying call to follow him on an often obscure and undelineated political mission for peace, Akala’s path is clear and practical and its inspiring effect on young black intellectuals, as well as the ignorant white community, has already been astounding. For Akala, spreading the work of Shakespeare is a route to peace. Shakespeare’s is a “lyricism that transcends all the revenge-tragedy Tarantino violence.” Maybe Akala should be the next Nobel Prize winner?

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