Blake Remixed

Leeds-based rapper Testament has translated the poems of William Blake into hip-hop and turned them into a piece of theatre. Kevin Bourke reports

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“It seems pretty obvious to me that if William Blake was alive today he’d be a UK hip-hop artist,” says Leeds-based beatboxer and rapper Testament. “Blake was an inner-city poet, fusing forms, challenging the status quo, putting out his own material and getting little recognition for it.”

For the past four years, Testament – aka Andy Brooks – has been working on a project called Blake Remixed, fusing together the work of the visionary 18th-century poet, painter and printmaker with stories from his own life. With accompanying music from the likes of British jazz alto saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch, live DJing from Burnley-born DJ Woody and interactive video, the show was developed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse before premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe, and now it’s heading out on tour.

Brooks was inspired to create the show following a commission from a dance company to remix some Shakespearian sonnets into rap. “I really enjoyed that work but Shakespeare’s not for me, really,” he says. “It’s William Blake, what he represents and his voice, that has really inspired me and really connects with the values and messages that I’m passionate about in UK hip-hop – which is quite different from its US roots.

“In my own music, I wrestle with themes of social justice and spirituality, race, God, seeing things though urban eyes and what it is to be an artist – all classic Blakean territory. I thought, how come nobody has thought of this before?”

Brooks got in touch with various beat makers and MCs with the intention of making an album featuring hip-hop interpretations of Blake poems and possibly taking some of the resulting work on tour. But when he presented some of the work to Baba Israel, then artistic director of Manchester’s Contact Theatre, Israel identified a narrative that could work for the stage.

“For instance, Blake wrote The Echoing Green about childhood, and that made me immediately relate to a moment in my childhood,” Brooks says. “And Infant Joy made me think of the birth of my daughter. So that’s where the journey started, and it was all quite personal. Everything in the show is based on stuff that has really happened to me. It takes all the forms I’ve worked with for the last ten years as an artist – rap, MCing, beatboxing and poetry – and makes a new piece of theatre out of it.”

Brooks is by no means the first contemporary artist to have embraced Blake’s spiritual yet socially aware oeuvre – Patti Smith, for one, was heavily influenced by him (her song My Blakean Year pays homage to him), and Allen Ginsberg often spoke of his “Blakean epiphany”.

“People talk about the link between the punk movement and Blake,” adds Brooks. He believes Blake deserves to be reinterpreted and reinvented for every generation in the same way as Shakespeare. “I’m really keen for the younger generation in hip-hop to see how relevant Blake’s work is to them. We’ve got so much to learn from him.”

Blake Remixed is on 6-7 Nov, Royal Exchange, Manchester and 17 Nov, Unity Theatre, Liverpool

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Blake Remixed

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