Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Devon Glover

Artist Profile by Vivian Lei


Devon Glover is a hip-hop artist, educator, and Shakespearean performer from Brooklyn, New York. His project of The Sonnet Man, which was conceived by Broadway playwright Arje Shaw, delivers Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquies through hip-hop music to audiences across the world. He also blends hip-hop into his pedagogy to inspire his students and teach them more about Shakespeare’s works and legacy. In the past, his works and projects have been featured on media outlets such as NBC, MSNBC, and BBC. He has also been invited to various Shakespeare festivals as a special guest, including Oregon, Stratford, Ontario, and Stratford-upon-Avon. His music video “To Be Or Not To Be,” which adapts Shakespeare’s famous Hamlet soliloquy into hip-hop music, was an official selection of the Shakespeare Film Festival in Stratford, England.

Contact Information:


Phone: (347) 331-3813

For Devon Glover’s personal website, click here.

Full Interview Transcript


Lei: Good afternoon. This is Vivian Lei, and I’m a third-year student at the University of Chicago, majoring in English Language and Literature. This interview is brought to you through professor Ndiaye’s class black Shakespeare. Today we have with us Devon Glover, a renowned hip-hop artist, poet, educator, and Shakespeare performer from Brooklyn, New York. He has been performing Shakespearean sonnets and soliloquies under the stage name, The Sonnet Man, at various schools, theaters and festivals. Devon has also been featured on NBC, MSNBC, BBC, and other media outlets. We’re thrilled to have you today with us, Devon. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself? 


Glover: Thank you for having me. My background, first and foremost, is in education, and as for my passion for writing poetry and hip-hop, I like to teach through music and I write for a company called Flocabulary that teaches many subjects through hip-pop. Through my work from, you know, using music and using hip hop, I connected with a manager who had this project of The Sonnet Man of translating Shakespeare’s sonnets to music. First, it was for entertainment value, but based on the visions that both he and I had, it evolved into—we’d like to call it edu-tainment because we like to keep [both] the educated [and] the entertainment factor. Since Shakespeare’s educated in schools 400 years after his passing: in an educator way, this was just the way of keeping his name relevant, keeping education more innovative, and just another way of presenting Shakespeare.


Lei: Okay, great. That’s fantastic. So when was the first sonnet or soliloquy you tried to adapt into hip- hop through your project of The Sonnet Man? Could you please tell us a little bit more about the creative process behind it? 


Glover: Alright. Well, the first project I ever did, based on Shakespeare… Because again, it was like a butterfly effect. I was working [and] writing for Flocabulary. A high school from Brooklyn, New York asked me to help out [with] their class. She was teaching Shakespeare at the time, I did not know, but when she reached out to me, and I agreed to help out, she presented the place: she said she was working on Othello. So that was the first time, and the reason why I used hip-hop was I was just trying to find a way of connecting to the students. When I began reading Shakespeare’s words out loud, I noticed there was a meter to it and noticed there was a pattern to it. We wanted to first just gain interest, so we just performed it. Because Shakespeare is meant to be seen and to be heard, [we] performed it with the rhythm and the word play in rhyme. They kept their ears, their interests, and them seeing [how] it [was] acted with us presenting inflection and emotion within [and] behind the words maybe gave them a better sense of the work.

So that was the first time I ever worked on Shakespeare. And then from that work, I got connected with my manager who had this idea of The Sonnet Man. He wanted to put Shakespeare’s work to music—Shakespeare’s sonnets to music—and he tried many different genres. And the beauty about Shakespeare’s sonnets [is] the format that he writes. They’re all like nice compact verses about love, different forms of love with the wonderful rhyme scheme[s], literary devices, and it can be used in different music genres. And he, Arje Shaw, wanted [and] tried to present in many different genres, from spoken word, to R&B, to jazz, and he gave me a try from just hearing from a mutual friend. When he asked me to rhyme Shakespeare as a writer, as an MC, I said, yeah, I definitely can rhyme this. This is amazing, but can I write my own version because I don’t want to just be rhyming somebody else’s words. And that’s how it became, you know, The Sonnet Man.

So the process for Shakespeare: first off, we use the sonnets [since] they work well in the educational aspect because there are only 14 lines [and] they’re compact. And if you can, reading a sonnet would give you more confidence than reading a book, or reading a play. [The] first Shakespeare play I ever received was King Lear. The first time [saw] Shakespeare was King Lear, and that was the beginning of how I’ve ever seen Shakespeare. From high school to my adult years, Shakespeare was always complicated for me. That’s because that’s the way it was presented: I was just given this play and told to read, rather than examples and putting it on our feet and seeing it on a stage. 

So, with this [project], I wanted the students to hear the inflection, to hear how I connected with it. And [going back to] the process again, since they’re sonnets and they’re compact, I like to do [them] line for line. The whole idea of modernization is trying to connect to the audience and my own foot. To this day, when I began, I would like [to] write to the point as if I was to recite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets to one of my friends or my family. And they say, what did you say? What does that mean? So now I have to break down this sonnet, and then if I’m breaking down the sonnet, I want to break it down in a musical way and a hip-hop way. That all goes in with the translation. With music, whether I’m creating a lesson plan or making a song for theater, making a song for a radio, my whole idea is to make the listeners bob their heads and want to repeat the song. So the entertainment aspect is always going to be there. I take pride in making sure that [aspect] is [also] modernized. [From] an educational standpoint, I don’t want to say [they’re] simplified, but more understandable since as much as wonderful Shakespeare’s words sound, [in] our language, we don’t speak like how he speaks. 

Now, our language has evolved over 400 years. It’s like bridging the gap basically from the late 1500s to 2020, from Stratford-upon-Avon, where he wrote it for his audience, where he created his slang and created his words, as recent as to Brooklyn, New York, where I can add my idioms and my terms that would make his sonnets more understandable to my audience. Again, with the sonnets, they’re line for line. I try to pay attention to the massive perspective, because with a lot of Shakespeare’s sonnets, he likes to use metaphors and similes to enhance the theme. I would try to present that in my sonnet, but, I would [also] try to try to show what Shakespeare was doing, whatever literary device he was showing. 14 lines is similar [to hip-hop]. You know what they say in hip-hop, a regular verse is 16 bars: a verse isclose to 16 lines. So it’s good to do line for line, but sometimes I may add or subtract some lines based on the sonnet. But again, it’s a field. 

I’ll also do workshops and I try to encourage my students that are writers that whenever they’re doing adaptations to create their own [work], this is your voice. So [for] each sonnet, I have sonnets where the reader may be insulted, like Shakespeare might be insulted, or Shakespeare might be down and out. But I might [also] make it comical, or there’s some wonderful metaphor. There is a sonnet where he’s talking about somebody’s looks, and that’s some sort of a romantic being for me. Or, you know, he has a lot of life sonnets [too]. As much as I do translations with them, I have a lot of translations with them, but when it comes to recording them, it’s a lot based on feel. I try to connect them all to what’s going on in my daily upbringing. 

With lines, it’s just making sure that the words are understandable. There are some words that Shakespeare may use that were relevant only in his time, so I’ll make sure I’ll have a definition in there, or make sure that that word is broken down. So there’ll be a parallel between different centuries. There’s a lot that comes with it, but I do like three or four rough writing drafts based on it, and I would give it to a teacher, a Shakespearian, and somebody that’s not experienced in Shakespeare just to get their thoughts on it. See if they understand, see if they understand the parallels, see now that they’ve heard the second verse, if they get a better understanding of Shakespeare. I got to test it out before I publish it and bring it to students. As much as it’s my own, a lot of the songs that I write could be used [for] learning as useful lessons. I [also] want to make sure that the research is there, so it takes a lot. 


Lei: Thank you so much. I think this is really helpfully. It definitely allows me to learn more about the creative process behind your sonnet creations. You’ve mentioned that you’re an educator who tries to help kids learn more about Shakespeare through rap and hip-hop music. So how did your students react to the hip-hop Shakespeare? Did they like it? Did they prefer it to the more traditional Shakespearean plays or Shakespearean sonnets?


Glover: As someone in the educational field, I feel sort of like a superhero when I come into a class, because I usually get brought into a class. When a teacher finds out about me, and I get contacted, the teacher contacted me [would be] saying, “I gotta find a way to get these students interested in this, or I gotta make it more understandable.” So I get to come in there for about an hour, or maybe a week the longest, and still [be] a jolt of energy to the students. So, you know, if a teacher is musical and rhythmic, and can see the connection between Shakespeare’s words and lyrics and transcribe it to a lesson plan, that makes it understandable. I think my love for hip hop, the fact that if I can read anything, whether it’s in prose or verse, I can start singing it or rapping it to make it more entertaining. 

When I come in, I already have a sonnet and pieces of Shakespeare I worked with that could [be] put to music, [so] teachers that don’t necessarily rap or write can connect. So I sort of feel, as soon as I am brought in, I try to give them [students] a surprise factor. When I first did Othello, the teacher brought me in [to] the students who never met me, [and] before I could even talk, they didn’t even care. That was [just] a guest in a classroom. When I told them, “alright, open your books, turn to page one,” and then when I started reciting it with the rhythm, you could see their heads looking up like, oh, okay, this is cool. 

So I sorted [out] a similar thing. I like to start slow, and then once I give them an introduction or a demonstration, like if we talk about Sonnet 100, we start breaking it down. I gave you a generic process of how I break down sonnets. If I break down the sonnet line for line, and I’m like, all right, here’s my breakdown, my song example of Sonnet 100, then I perform it. They become more interested. And as young students, if they’re writers and enthusiasts, they’ll either think they can do a better job than Shakespeare, a better job than myself, which is what I like, or they would like to collaborate with fellow students to break down Shakespeare’s work and write their own adaptation. So the music gets them interested, keeps their attention locked in on what I’m doing, and opens them up to just let them know that they can [also] do this. Just write like Shakespeare, or write like myself, or write their own adaptation. And I hope that answers your question.


Lei: Oh yes, definitely. [For] myself, I’m personally a student in English Language and Literature, so Shakespeare is kind of a figure that we have to learn at school, but I’ve never thought about learning Shakespeare through hip-hop or music. When I first encountered your [work] on the internet, I was like, “well, I think his project is pretty cool. I wish we could have something like that at school.” So thank you, that is really helpful. 


Glover: I appreciate it.


Lei: Alright, so next question. When we talk about performing Shakespeare on stage, we usually think of performing, for example, a Shakespearean play or playing the specific character from this play. As you’ve mentioned, you’ve taught kids about Othello, and also you have your own Hamlet adaptation. So I’m wondering… when I was watching your videos, and when I first encountered you on the internet, I saw you’re usually performing by yourself on stage. I think what’s most interesting is you’re directly channeling the role of Shakespeare as the Bard, and as the modern hip-hop artists. Could you tell us a bit more about your decision to perform the role of the bard? How does performing Shakespeare through music and hip hop [feel] different from performing him through the roles of Othello or Hamlet in a theater production?


Glover: Doing it like The Sonnet Man, so let’s just say, I don’t want to have like 8 monitors, if I’m doing it, [it’s] like my solo performance as The Sonnet Man. So every piece that I do, like my version of Hamlet, my version of Sonnet 130, my version of [Sonnet] 29, it’s all coming from my eyes, my vision. Whoever the audience isfor me, when I write [to] my audienceswhoever wants to hear my story because I connect my story to Shakespeare’s pieces. So there’s no limitations to what I can say. I’m not gonna say anything that’s going to be like… as an artist, I don’t want to push anybody away with my lyrics. So I’m not vulgar, and I don’t have any hatred in my bones, but I’m not going to swallow my tongue about my Blackness, or how I feel connected to any of the sonnets, as I’m a one-man show.

When I’m doing a play for Shakespeare, like for production, like a theater, I always cooperate… first after listening to the director, the monitor or the director, and then I have to compromise. If the director’s vision is not with my vision, I have to find a middle ground. And there’s always some pluses and minuses with it. So I’ve had some… there’s been times where I’ve had roles, where, how can I say this? I’ve had roles where I’ve been the only person of color, the only Black male, and I want to represent that privately. There’s been times where I’ve been given directions that I haven’t been a fan of, whether directions to show stereotypes of African-Americans or directions where it’s like, I wouldn’t do that, this doesn’t connect to my country. 

For instance, whenever I get a role, I channel actors that I can relate to. I know, I don’t want to say I’m pigeonholed as a Black man to get a role, but I do sometimes get pigeonholed as an artist, [or] I get pigeonholed as a rapper. Luckily, there is good and bad to it because Shakespeare used a lot of literary devices and rhymes, I have… there’s a lot of roles’, [of] any race, verses that I can get attached to. But with the hip-hop role, I look at my music and acting as two different arts. They will finalize in different arts. So if you have a theme, and you put me in a role in this play, I’m not going to act, I’m not going to have my hip hop culture if it doesn’t blend in with the Elizabethan culture that you have on [your mind]. So you can’t tell me to act this way, and I stand out, and you try to do the stereotypes of what you think hip-hop or Blackness is.

I’ve had some discrepancies with some directors with that. But that’s part of the reason why I stayed in the theater field, because there’s not many POCs, people of color, in director’s roles, or I’ve been in a play where I’ve seen actor[s] limit themselves, or feel conflicted because they followed a direction of the director that they feel is, I don’t want to say racist, but it makes them feel bad because this is not the way they want to go, the way they want to portray themselves. So I wanted to, I stayed in this thing to be the rebel, you know, since acting is not my forte, music is my forte. Be a rebel, say, no, I’m not going to do that. You brought me in this role play, you brought me to this role because of my music and my talent, but I’m not going to do this, all these colloquial lessons that you’ve learned about the coaching, and try to add it into you to make me look like a spot in this theatre field. 

I just gave you the cons of working in theater [for] the roles, but I do like the collaborative effort because with a situation like that, that’s only happened a couple of times. Because there’s usually negotiation when you speak with companies, when they have a role for you, it’s because they usually have that same vision. So I choose wisely with the companies that have been on the stage, and [I’ve] collaborated with when somebody has given me a role. Whenever somebody chooses me to be in an acting role, or something where they incorporate the stage, I immediately tell them, or immediately ask them, like, you know, there’s going to be rap to be incorporated.

My specialty is mostly music and not theater, not acting. It’s fun for me, the collaboration, [but] if I had to choose I’d much rather do [it] through my music and one-man show, because again, I could share my story. Anyway, I don’t think anybody would do Hamlet, have the directions for Hamlet, the way I’ve done Hamlet, or [the way did] my second direction, [when] I’ve based a couple of sonnets, or a couple of scenes from Shakespeare, on social justice. Meanwhile, somebody else will base the scene on just doing the story and not trying to adapt. I’m adapting and trying to bring a message that may make it uncomfortable for the listener, but it’s the open-up talk. When you have your own platform, you always hope for that. But I say at the same [time], I would never shy [away] from collaboration, because that’s the only way we get new stories, that’s the only way we can evolve as artists in the fine arts, as in the theater world too.


Lei: Thank you for sharing. Throughout our class, we’ve also talked to other Black actors and actresses about their experiences. Also, we actually had the great opportunity to talk to this Black Shakespearean actor, Keith Hamilton Cobb. Have you heard of him?


Glover: Yes. Yes. 


Lei: So in his play, he basically talks about his experience working as a Black Shakespearean actor in the theater world. I think I really learned a lot from him and also from you. So thanks for so much for being so generous and being willing to share this information with the public. As you’ve mentioned you’ve had some collaborations with other companies or theater productions. In recent years, there have been more attempts at incorporating hip-hop music into more traditional theaters, or some of the theaters are actually based on hip-hop, to some extent. If you were the director or if you were, for example, the person in charge of adapting a Shakespeare play into a modern hip-hop version, what play would you choose to adapt, and what would be some of your arrangements or artistic ideas [as the director]? Do you have any ideas? 


Glover: So if I had a play to choose, this has to be Shakespearean, I mean, that’s what I focus on. If it wasn’t Shakespearean, it would be an original play. It’d be an original play about Brooklyn, just the evolution of Brooklyn throughout my life. I would say that for me, it would be the evolution of Brooklyn, but if I was directing, it would be depending on what neighborhood, or if I had a group of… If I was working with students from a certain region, I would get them to write their own piece. Now I wouldn’t necessarily say hip-hop would be involved. Well, obviously poetry, hip-hop in the writing, would be involved. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be music, but the right in the culture and the freedom of hip hop, I would use that in a direction.

For Shakespeare, it’s funny you mentioned Cobb. I feel like stories like Hamlet, any story that can connect to, anything that can connect to a social issue, whether it’s race or marriage, or has a story breakdown, a breakdown story of something that happened in the history in the late 1500s to 1600s, I think should and would be incorporated in hip-hop. Actors like Hamilton Cobb, and there’s another [actress] who has this one-man show for Ohtello, Debra Ann Byrd. She is not in music, but she has [it in her play] (note: music is an element in her adaptation of Othello). She connected her story to Othello. Othello’s story reminds me of my time working in theater, my time working in college. Watching his show, I connected to his story. For Debra Amber, she has a one-woman show about Othello, and then she has an all-woman show that she directed, where she’s a fellow. Those actually inspired me. 

I’ve been commissioned to write a woman’s piece of Othello, about Othello in my own words. Even though I’m influenced by fellow POC actors, writers, and directors, my story of Othello would be totally different from [their] stories of Othello. [Speaking of] characterizations… I would say it’s based on the writing and the artists. So if there is a 60-year-old prince, or a 60-year-old somebody that’s about to become king, [who] can relate to [the story of] King John, I would tell them to write that story [of] King John. If you can connect to Richard IIIyou’d be a treacherous person if you can connect to that characterbut if you can connect to that main character, why not write it in the story of that person as a writer.

So if I was to do one of those plays, it would be that in adaptation. I can’t really think of any play right now that’s not Shakespearean that I would put in adaptation other than… I’m a big fan of August Wilson, who was a poet as well as a playwright. I would love to see a musical version of Fences, or a spoken word version of Fences, or UniSon, or A Bridge Over Troubled Water. I think I’ve said about the role-play [aspect of theatre]. But I would love to see one of his pieces in a musical form, or one of my favorite poets, like a compilation of Maya Angelou’s poems be put into adaptation with her words beingyou know, I’m just freestyling nowtaught to somebody like Amanda Gorman. I would love to see a parallel… A play with Amanda Gorman’s poems being in parallel to Maya Angelou or something like that. With music behind it, I’d call it poetry [and] hip-hop as well. 


Lei: Yes, I would love to see a play like that. That sounds wonderful. You shared with me your music video “To Be Or Not To Be,” and personally, I noticed a lot of really subtle political messages in that video and wrote a short analysis paper of it. As you’ve mentioned, and also during our class [discussions], we’ve analyzed how sometimes Shakespeare’s portrayals of Black and minority characters often border on racist stereotypes. In the theater industry, you also have directors who are casting Black actors or actresses, [but] their casting decisions reinforce all the harmful stereotypes. I think, in contrast, the Black community, especially you as a spoken-word artist and a hip-hop artist, has often used these artistic genres as a way to fight back against injustices and institutions of white supremacy. So how do you think the re-appropriation of Shakespeare through hip-hop, through spoken word, or through your own words, [can help] advance Black Power and racial equality?


Glover: I think [they’re] connected because, from my knowledge, hip-hop evolved from… Hip-hop was made to export messages, expressions, social [and] different issues. And it goes back to slave days with [the] workers’ grills, and [them] creating chants for freedom and the undeserved work that they were putting in. So I think hip-hop, as it’s supposed to present a message, it’s [also] meant for entertainment. There’ll be many actors [on this project], if they see this, they can feel free to shut me down and tell me I’m wrong. But when I see theater, no matter how playful or how musical it is, there’s always a message behind a play, it’s like there’s always a message behind the writer. And that’s what hip hop is for. That’s what hip hop was invented for, to convey a message.

So I believe [hip-hop and theatre] go hand in hand. they are [both] fine arts. And I think [hip-hop] should be used more in theatre. I think it has been used more. Part of the reason why I connect Shakespeare with hip-hop is that the two genres, if I can call Shakespeare a genre, when they first started, were there for the message. Shakespeare always had hidden messages in his plays, messages in his sonnets, and they weren’t accepted at first. So hip hop wasn’t accepted [at first too]. You know, if I had to keep going, they tried to ban hip-hop, and Shakespeare had to create his own lane [too]. He had to move to London’s Stratford to create his own message. 

I think with theatre, hip-hop can be the safe way to make things uncomfortable because I think it is a good way to open up talk. Relating hip-hop with Black and hip-hop with our [experience], this is a way for us to express ourselves. If you want to incorporate a lot of actors, a lot of writers whose background is in hip-hop, that’s the same thing as creating a [musical]. You’ll [find] growing musicians who made the musical for Cats, or made the musical for Coconuts, or one of those wonderful plays, [with their] background [in] Liberace or Beethoven. They had their own vision. You find that now you are a fan of these writers, these directors, these actors who grew up in the world of hip-hop, who’ve basically owned the musical genre for the past 25 years. If you go on for the young artists, POCs or non-POCs, there’s usually an element of hip-hop in them. It’s just a matter of acceptance, just like [teaching] Shakespeare. I’m glad that you’re bringing up this wonderful Black Shakespearean project. Shakespeare [has passed] for 400 years, but he still hasn’t gone anywhere, and he still gets complaints from teachers and from people. We’re still moving along with his legacy, same thing with hip hop. I say, I think they go hand in hand. I hope that answers… I’m sorry, I don’t want to rant. Did that [answer your question]? 


Lei: No, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much. I think these are all the questions for our interviews today!

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