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Berlioz in the Hood

A venerable British music academy auditions its first rapper

Author Alice Philipson Illustration Luci Gutiérrez


LONDON – It’s audition day at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the vaunted, 135-year-old conservatory in central London. The school’s adjudicators are accustomed to hearing from classical music prodigies—people like the young woman anxiously polishing her violin in the hallway—so when a scruffy, stubble-chinned guy ambles into the room without an instrument, three sets of eyebrows head skyward.

Jack Derbyshire, a 25-year-old Londoner who performs under the stage name Jakaboski, has come here with the aim of becoming the first rapper to enroll at the academy. He knows it’s a long shot. Most applicants are instrumentalists—harpists, cellists, oboists—who’ve had years of formal training. “My instrumental abilities,” Derbyshire says, “stretch to the triangle and some out-of-time clapping.”

Understandably, the Guildhall panelists want to know what Derbyshire does do. “I rap,” he says, adding, “Hyperbolic humans! Candlelit speed dates! Swapping counterfeit keepsakes! What is this?” The judges’ expressions suggest that they may be asking themselves the same question.

Later, as he hurries out through a paneled foyer that’s inscribed with the names of the great and the good, Derbyshire spots the young violinist, who is coaxing her instrument back into its case. He later finds out she did not pass the auditio

Derbyshire, for his part, is in, a significant development at an institution known for stocking the world’s concert halls, not its hip-hop clubs. When asked how he thinks his new classmates might respond, Derbyshire laughs. “When I rap, it’s like walking into a room and telling everyone to shut up and listen,” he says. “I think if I was another student, I’d be tired of this guy talking all the time.”

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