So I’m drifting round my first year 10 lesson of the Autumn term and I hear one of my students rapping away to himself. My ears tune in and I realise it’s the hook from ‘Shutdown’ by UK Grime MC, Skepta. One of my students, a young Bengali boy, is quietly rapping away to himself while underlining the date and title.
Jokingly, I tell him that he’s going to need to put more bass in his voice if he’s going to pull that off. His response? Widened eyes and dropped jaw.
Him: “Sir, you KNOW that song?”
Me: “Why wouldn’t I know that song?”
Him: “Sir, it’s SKEPTA.”
Me: “I know!”
For some reason, this student (and the other kids on his table) found it utterly unbelievable that I would even be aware of, let alone appreciate the music, life and times of Skepta. They were bemused and incredulous all at once and to be honest, I don’t think they really believed me anyway.
Skepta is a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. I am a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. We share a number of similarities, up to and including the complexion of our skin. He looks like this:
and I look like this:
I have tracked his career from the earliest days of Lord of the Mics. I have bought his music and scrutinised his lyrics. I have discussed the socio-cultural resonances of his work with academics. I have shouted his lyrics in my car whilst driving through the streets of East London. And yet a scrawny teenager of Bengali heritage feels more entitled to claiming kin than I do.
Three theories immediately spring to mind as to what’s going on.
Theory A: Youth
Skepta represents aspects of youth culture that a 14-year old (irrespective of cultural background) feels close to – closer than he thinks I could or should be. As a boring grown adult, it seems unlikely that I would fully appreciate the youthful exuberance of Skepta’s music and general energy. (Especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)
Theory B: The streets
Linked to the above. Skepta is a representative of the streets, in his slang, his dress, his references. The average teenager would feel more aligned to this than he may expect of his 33-year old chino-wearing English teacher. (Again, especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)
Theory C: General appropriateness
Linked to both A and B. Skepta’s music does not court the attention of adults, and it would be incongruous to hear an adult professional chanting Grimy road anthems while at work. It’s far more appropriate for a teenager who frequents youtube and is drawn to the allure of illicit music to be be rapping at school, rather than his teacher. (Who dresses a bit like Carlton Banks.)
Carlton aside, somewhere in the middle of these theories dance the deciding factors of context and identity. In previous posts I have explored the intersection between persona and identity, suggesting that teachers find themselves snared between crafted and appointed personalities, sometimes at conflict.
Skepta-gate, as it shall be referred to from this point on, throws this conflict sharply into light. Why should my teacherness be an obstruction to my other identities? Why can’t my students reconcile my role as a teacher with the possibility that I may be other things? That I may be from the same social universe as their idols? What is it about the establishment that brings the gears of identity grinding to collapse? And who exactly are my students seeing when they see me? Someone like them with a shared appreciation of marginalised cultures, or someone who is so ingrained in the systems of education that he couldn’t possibly understand where they are coming from?
I find this worrying. One of the underpinning philosophies of Hiphoped as a critical pedagogy is that it seeks to offer a space of reconciliation for various identities. In the past, we’ve talked of the languages of Road – Home – School as being disparate, forcing students to code-switch and slalom. When I think about it, a similar pressure is exerted upon teachers, especially teachers who fall out of mainstream norms. Not to overstate the case, but isn’t it weird that a young, black, urban teacher is seen, by students, as alien from black, urban youth culture?
A cynical but valid argument is that capital E Education is a straitjacket on identity. The idiosyncratic peaks of an individual who becomes a teacher are bulldozed flat by the profession itself. Alarmingly, my students might look at me and see not a person with the potential for personality like any other, but a simple manifestation of an established system.
The upshot of this is that teachers may find themselves struggling to forge meaningful relationships with their students if the teacher persona is indeed as restrictive as I’m suggesting. And any efforts to reach out and bridge this gap are fighting against a tide of socially and culturally ingrained ideals. When I think about it, this is perhaps a central tension that runs through Hiphoped, or any pedagogy that seeks to meet the kids where they are. Kids aren’t of the establishment, teachers are. End of. It’s no wonder that my anti-establishment claims (ie: liking Grime music) would be met with instant incredulity.
Interestingly, Skepta himself explores the tensions between identity and establishment in the song ‘Castles’ from his 2014 album ‘Blacklisted’. The song (analysed and discussed here by Hiphop Educator/ Academic Darren Chetty and UK rapper Ty – well worth a listen) outlines a young black male’s movement through a system of distrust. He reflects on failing at school (being labelled a ‘sideman’ by teachers), being distrusted by shop security guards, potentially ending up a ‘statistic’ to his racial profile, empathising with the London rioters of 2011, gun crime in urban environments, and the futility of casual drug use (smoking a ‘stupid zoot’). In this, the disconnect between society at large and societal expectations of the young black male prevent Skepta from relaxing into his successes. Yes, he is invited ‘to talk to the kids at assembly’, but his success as a musician is shackled by ongoing social stereotyping.
Ironically, I find myself in the inverse position, whereby the students I teach might distrust my authenticity because of my professional persona (linked to stereotypes of what a teacher is), while the system I teach in fully welcomes my teacherness. As long as I look, act and sound like what a teacher is supposed to look, act and sound like, I can’t possibly be as ‘real’ as is expected of a young black male. In the eyes of my year 10s, a teacher can’t be as real as Skepta, hence the incongruity of my knowing about Skepta in the first place.
Ultimately, this leaves an anvil-like question mark dangling precariously over the flimsy box construction that is identity. Should I shrug and accept my fate as a teacher destined to culturally be at arm’s length from my students? Or do I fight to make my authenticity/ realness/ social identity/ delete as appropriate known? No easy answers, but, as ever, something to think about.
Note: A potential problem in all this is the extent to which ‘realness’ is equated with negative social traits, but that’s for another blog post. Much to think about.