This Poem Will Make You Think Twice About Rhyming
Eleven Syllables That Will Force You To Count
You Won’t Believe What Will Come After This Line
Nine More Words That Will Force You To Count!
This Poem Will Make You Think Twice About Rhyming
Eleven Syllables That Will Force You To Count
You Won’t Believe What Will Come After This Line
Nine More Words That Will Force You To Count!
Don’t fall asleep at the-
You just did. We’ll meet at the pub.
It’s gonna be big.
Nowadays they’ve got CBTV.
Alright. Just listen to me.
In with a drill. The wires’ll trip.
Your hip up to this?
Watch your lip.
No masks. No guns.
We’re taking the safe.
(I’ll scarf up, in case)
They won’t see your face.
It’ll be just like-
What did you say? Who’s that? A guard?
Let’s give him away.
Lovely. He’s gone.
Now get through the hole.
(Chuckle) Remember when-
Not now. Go.
Dunnit. Well played.
Now keep off the box.
Um. Channel 1. Have a look.
No questions. Don’t ask.
“Three men, with a combined age of-”
Guilty, as charged.
Make no mistake
You’ll settle down on Facebook –
And real-time live.
Remember that guy
You tried to make eyes?
He went and got married
To a total surprise.
I always deal in absolutes.
I never do.
The attribute I tend towards is lassitude:
Tired of my vagaries in attitude,
From plateau up to latitude,
Flipping like a mattress
And it’s cloudy at this altitude –
Hence the hazy attitude –
Call it crazy lazy shady vague or acrobatic,
Who’s immune to polar absolutes?
Pole to pole and back a few
I always deal in absolutes.
Waiting for notifications,
Like watching yourself ageing,
Is making a slow cage out of your own anticipation,
Hovering above while seasons change like radio stations.
Meanwhile, notifications from the world arrive in wailing klaxon sirens blinding lights revolving round like signs for fire,
Panic-soaked aural reminders of the burning skies behind you while your cage,
Immune to blazes,
Keeps you shielded from the flames
The famine and the tragedy,
The murder and the maiming and the fate of babies,
Children born a little way away in wars that tore through all the static but you haven’t heard the station cos you’re waiting
Waiting, watching, scaling ladders of anticipation,
Every incremental drip has washed away the seas of pain we should be drowning in.
You’re frowning aren’t you?
Well it’s far too late for that; your followers are crowning you as more important than the facts of death, we’re all infected by the virus to be viral:
Hope to screen and screen to hope to screen we’re in a spiral while the world we’re in continues to spin and tornado by you but –
– You are the eye and the eye is so rarely idle…
As it Watches for a notification –
In the time I wrote this you’ve been steadily aging.
If I ever tweet this I’ll be patiently waiting,
For that little bell to have its dot on the pavement.
I’m igNoring all the notifications –
In the time I wrote this I just hope they could save them.
One day I just hope that I’ll look up in amazement,
If I ever stop to solve this hopeless equation.
Frownable comparisons to people not like me,
Free market hyperbole – honest unlikely,
Quotation summaries, centred and shifted,
Roll-call celebrities, B to D listed.
Adjective careless and adversely sparing,
Sales boost concerning acquaintances caring,
Name recognition brand person at skimming,
Inverted commas ellipses phrase bridging.
Two-worder final endorsement star counted,
Minus the words constellation starts shouting,
Pile upon praise upon climb upon mounting,
Part with your glittering coins at the fountain.
Wishing well expectemptations get tested,
Testing the money spectators pre-bested,
Recommendation on poster back paging,
Poetry anti potential start raging.
Written in April 2013 and delayed until, well, now.
Scrabbling in the Sky
It went – it came.
I scrabbled in the sky:
And raised, the game.
I’ll cut straight to the big reveal: every relationship, of any description, at any time, is based on a contract. The contract can be explicit or implied, spoken or unspoken, verbal or not, but by any definition, it exists. It has to.
The contract is vitally important. It represents an agreement between two parties that forms the foundation of the relationship. Take this very blog post as a particularly immediate example. I have no idea who you are (unless, of course I know you, in which case, hi), but there is still a very clear set of unspoken contractual obligations at play. I have agreed to write something engaging and at least, relevant, that will not deviate from the agreed format of an internet blog post slash essay. I won’t lapse into Gregorian chanting or start typing in 1101110000011010011 binary code for example. And if you don’t like what you’re reading, you are well within your unspoken contractual rights to scroll to the end, close the tab, or get back to googling whatever it was you were googling before you got here.
Every relationship is built around some set of agreed rules in this way. Professionally, this can be seen in sharp relief with GCSE classes; those groups you’ve taught since year 9 and take all the way through to results day. At some point in year 10 an equilibrium is reached. The kids kind of get you and you equally get them. You know how far to push, the accepted limit of banter, the prerequisite effort levels, etc etc. And likewise, the kids know when to talk, when to listen, your various and far ranging moods and when to tune in to your increasingly frequent end-of-movie courtroom speeches. A contract has been established. 01010100001
Now, things tend to get interesting when a contract is breached. When the rules, spoken or otherwise, are broken, there will always be some level of response, or, worse, reaction.Take the GCSE class who gets the anxious new teacher in year 10. He or she might do the unthinkable and, say, get upset when the class doesn’t turn in a decent piece of homework for seven weeks. Said teacher might then lose the plot for a few minutes and tell the class a few home truths along the lines of, say, you’re going to fail your exams and fail in life because you have no work ethic and you treat these lessons like a joke. From teacher A, such aggressive verbal assertions might have been permissible under the rules of the unspoken contract established since Key Stage 3. But from teacher B, with no established contract, it becomes an act of pure aggression. The unspoken rules of the unestablished contract have been broken.
This is where contracts can be dangerous, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the fact that they can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. The real danger stems from the fact that contracts are defined by expectation.
When a contract is being established, both parties come to the table with a huge menu of expectations and wants. When I sit down to eat at a restaurant, I’m expecting the food I pay for to live up to certain expectations. The money I pay thus acts as a holder of these expectations. In a less literal example, when I enter into an unspoken social contract with a would-be friend, there are clear expectations as to what we might say to each other, how we might behave in various situations, how far we can take our banter, and so on. This has to be the reason that legal contracts are so detailed; they have to spell out every nuance of every clause to ensure that expectations are explicit. The implied becomes explicit and therefore the risk of conflict is minimised. There’s no room for disappointment, because the obligations and expectations are clear.
When we teach your kids, us teachers are continually surfing contractual waves. When I recently told a kid that in all honesty, the class functions better without him, I was pushing the boundaries of the unspoken contract that I would not and should not attack his social wellbeing. Not my proudest moment, but I was angry and in a reactive state. So when he reacted and stormed off, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself; I had breached an important contract. Similarly, when a student who had repeatedly failed to put any effort into his work frustrated me to the point of bemoaning “idiot kids”, his reaction (“you can’t talk to me like that sir”) might not have been accurate, but it was justifiable.
For teachers, establishing classroom contracts in detail is not as important as being aware of the expectations we bring to the table. Not knowing what your expectations are leaves you dangerously naive and vulnerable to your own reactions (which tend to be impulse-based and unreasonable). Far better is to evaluate (and continually reevaluate) your ideals and put effort into developing meaningful relationships. Because ultimately, these relationships are at stake when agreements, explicit or otherwise, are breached. Something to think about.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t shied away from my interest in Hiphop, maybe it’s because I’m black, maybe it’s because he’s found my youtube channel, but there’s this kid in my GCSE class who keeps challenging me to a rap battle.
It’s sweet really; he finds me in corridors, smiling inanely (him, not me) and starts calling me out with half formed lyrics, almost entirely borrowed from youtube views. I keep telling him it won’t happen. Mainly because he can’t rap, and my Simon Cowell-esque teacher persona refuses to take him seriously.
Until recently, when he came in, eyes gleaming, repeating the phrase:
complete with gun fingers. And then I called him on it. I asked him what he was saying, if he knew what he was saying and if he knew why he was saying it. What was it about shanking someone that he felt was exciting enough to bring to a cheeky rap-against-your-teacher scenario? Which led to a whole-class discussion about whether or not Grime reflects reality or reinforces stereotypes.
And then we watched the lyric video to ‘Castles’, discussing tensions between society’s view of the young black male and the actual societal pressures faced by young black males. Which, as it turned out, was a conversation of especial relevance to non-black members of the class, inasfar as they were forced to challenge their own perceptions of blackness.
And then we got to the line:
Tell Boris he’s lucky that I made it rapping or I would’ve been looting too
I asked them who ‘Boris’ is. They correctly identified the reference to London Mayor, Boris Johnson. I asked them who ‘Boris’ represents. They said they weren’t sure (my fault for asking a closed question).
So I drew their attention to a few scribbled notes from the previous lesson, during which we had discussed the concept of marginalisation.
Look carefully at top right. That’s a list we came up with of all the things that the most privileged members of UK society are, the criteria that places them at the centre of mainstream society. We went through each point in turn and asked if they apply to Boris Johnson. Then we did the same with reference to David Cameron. Then we discussed what it means for someone to not satisfy any of that criteria.
And I showed them this picture:
which none of them had seen. They immediately clocked Boris Johnson and David Cameron and started questioning how it could be that such a small circle of friends could end up in such positions of social privilege and political influence.
And then I showed them this picture:
and asked them what the difference is between a group of MCs who are heavily influencing the mindset of an urban generation and a group of public-school educated Oxbridge alumni who are heavily influencing the country. Which led us back onto the topic of marginalisation and social disenfranchisement, namely questions of how the socially disenfranchised respond to social inequalities, as highlighted by the Bullingdon photo.
Which in turn prompted me to turn our attentions towards the video to ‘ill Manors’ by Plan B.
It turned out that this is a very inclusive slice of anti-establishment class-based protest music, in that it features a full complement of marginalised peoples from a social spectrum; people of colour, people living in conditions of deprivation, criminals and would-be criminals, girls, boys, women, men, even an elderly woman in a wheelchair.
My students, at this point were gripped in debate. Some of the girls were firing home truths to some of the boys about their fascination with only the worst aspects of black culture. And some of them were realising, seemingly for the first time, that music videos are hyper-stylised representations, as opposed to accurate depictions of real-life.
Which prompted me to click the video to Professor Green’s ‘Jungle’ (featuring Maverick Sabre),
a song about the exciting and dangerous urban ‘jungle’ that is East London. With the new perspective offered by our conversation, the class were sharply critical of the representation of young, black men as Morlock-esque urban miscreants, full of nocturnal malevolence. We started to ask difficult questions of Professor Green and challenge our own preconceptions of ‘black boys’ as well as the wider presentation of black youth in pop culture.
In retrospect, this entire lesson (which was a complete derail from what I had planned) was a focussed exploration of three very important concepts: Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement. All three of these concepts are of crucial importance to the experiences of young people, but they don’t readily find a place in mainstream curriculum. Since exploring Hiphoped in practice in my own pedagogy, I have found that most kids are itching to discuss the various intersections between popular culture (that they feel ownership of) and dominant social paradigms (that they are subject to).
All of this demands an interrogation of the modern curriculum. Shortly after this experience, I found myself steering a year 9 unit of work on ‘Survival’ into a study of modern London and the tensions of multiculturalism, during which we examined and compared texts (literature, songs, music videos, poems) by Zadie Smith, Dizzee Rascal, Doc Brown, Sway, Plan B, William Blake and Charles Dickens.
Along the way, we also studied a selection of newspaper articles and opinion pieces from the Telegraph and the Guardian, branching off into issues if Higher Education and the realities of studying in London. I’m wondering now why I didn’t explicitly introduce the concepts of Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement to this class and think that next year, it might be a good idea to build the Bullingdon Club/ Boy Better Know Debate into their year 10 curriculum.
No complex conclusions on this one, just a reminder underliner of the importance of opening up the curriculum. When I allowed myself to enter a responsive state, I found myself asking questions alongside my students whilst also asking questions of them. By focussing on issues of marginalisation and representation, I could effectively offer them a place at the table without pandering to stereotypical notions of modern youth, at once accepting them as individuals whilst interrogating their social views and preconceptions. For me, this interweaving of social critique and textual study embodies HiphopEd:
By removing (or widening?) the parameters of the curriculum, my classes are able to have far more vital conversations than I could have planned for. Two things worth noting here:
1) Many of the essays produced by my students found new intersections between texts, starting conversations rather than confirming established conclusions.
2) This was the first time that my students had seriously discussed writers and artists of colour regarding issues that affect people of colour. In light of a decidedly white curriculum, this is not only significant, but an alarming reminder of the lack of diversity in the usual curriculum.
As ever, something to think about.
Note: If you’re interested in further details of the units of work mentioned here, drop me a line in the comments. Always happy to talk.
There’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking.
The mainstream, in its control of discourse, seems to function through aggression. It takes, dominates, appropriates, dictates and ultimately decides what Is and what Isn’t, what should and shouldn’t be. In this, non-dominant voices find themselves at the mercy of lines that have been pre-defined by society’s rulers (pun intended). And like all rulers, mainstream discourses tend to be rigid, brittle, inflexible and terrified of being bent out of shape.
Before I take the metaphor too far and lose you completely, I should explain the reasoning behind this essay’s opening statement.
A short while ago, I was busy recycling when I stumbled across a copy of ES magazine. A cursory flick-through revealed a feature spread on UK Grime artists Krept and Konan. If you don’t know, Krept and Konan are, to quote ES magazine, ‘Lords of Hiphop’. If you know a bit more, you’ll be aware that they are a duo of South London-based Grime MCs who came up through a largely underground following and are now making chart hits straddling both sides of the Atlantic.
ES magazine is a free publication distributed to commuters across London. There’s nothing niche about it. For this particular publication to be featuring Krept and Konan was an exciting prospect for me. I’m no connoisseur, but I follow Grime and am fascinated by its relationship with the mainstream. Grime is, among many things, the soundtrack of vibrant disaffection; kind of violent, energetic, playful and agitated all at once. Arguably, it’s an urban-born protest genre, reaching into a long heritage of Black British music. (Read this for more thoughts on the genre.) To feature in a magazine designed to distract Jo and Joanna Average on their way home from the office was, for me, intriguing.
Flick to the article in question (you can read it here) and it was clear that Krept and Konan had ‘arrived’. The article was a huge showcase of their new-found success, as marked by the glossy pictures of them in designer clothes, standing next to Rolls Royces, posing with Rolexes and lounging in private jets. Beside a subheading that ran:
Growing up surrounded by gang crime, rappers Krept and Konan found escape in South London’s urban music scene. Now everyone from Kanye to Ed Sheeran is a fan and they’re poised to break America. They tell Richard Godwin about doing time, being chauffeured by Drake and why they just want to make their mums proud
And… I didn’t like it. Because… I expected it. Let me explain.
Rags to Riches
The article is essentially a Rags to Riches story. More specifically, the exact same Rags to Riches story we have been presented with time and time again in the world of Hiphop. Socially deprived, economically impoverished criminal element picks up mic and makes millions through rap. The end.
Superficially, this, like all Rags to Riches, is a tale to be celebrated. But we have to consider the context. The Hiphop Rags to Riches is a mainstream endorsement couched in the politics of disempowerment. Hiphop is beleaguered by the Rags to Riches narrative. Think about it. A successful Hiphop artist is almost expected to come from some kind of social deprivation, as though their salvation (and acceptance by the mainstream) is tied to their ability to overcome socio-economic poverty. This is seriously reductive.
If the mainstream only accepts the success of the ‘other’ when that success is linked to a Rags to Riches narrative, then the Rags become overly important, and the Riches become overly valued. It is no accident that the ES article purports to understand Krept and Konan, but the reality is far more complex. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even a Hiphop act, but the article headline calls them ‘Lords of Hiphop’. The mainstream brain has kicked into gear to understand, package and pigeon-hole them as an understandable ‘other’.
On Thursday 10th December 2015 I had the privilege to hear Breakin’ Convention leader Jonzi (@jonzid) speak about his life in Hiphop at a HiphopEd seminar. He wove a rich, varied tapestry of art and culture, high and low, that went so much further than the Rags to Riches narrative. Jonzi stated very clearly that the commercialisation of Hiphop is not at the core of a culture that essentially requires no money to explore. So money cannot logically be an end goal. But, of course, Rags to Riches insists that a successful Hiphop artist is one that can stand next to a Rolls Royce in a gold watch.
Narratives are nothing new. And nothing new is known through them. In his exhaustive and excellent study of narratives ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Christopher Booker explores the notion that there are a finite number of narratives that we (as a species) continue to find and recreate to make sense of our selves and our stories. This is not offensive in itself, but paired with social inequalities and power paradigms? Something very dangerous can occur.
Things Fall Apart
Shortly after I presented some of these ideas at HiphopEd, Darren Chetty (HiphopEd and academic @rapclassroom) leaned in to offer that these politics of narrative are exactly the focus of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. If you haven’t read it, the novel details the life and times of a tragic protagonist, Okonkwo of the Nigerian Igbo tribe. And after chapter upon chapter exploring the intersection of generations and cultural skirmishes alongside the moral fluctuations of a seriously enigmatic tragic hero, it ends with a musing from the British Commissioner:
One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
As I say, there’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking. The Commissioner, in his representation of a colonial mindset, only understands what the thinks he knows of the Igbo. And of course he completely underestimates the richness and humanity of their entire culture. His casual reduction of an entire culture and one man’s (unknown) story to something worthy of ‘a paragraph’ is at once depressing and terrifying.
Beyond Rags and Riches
The presentation of Krept and Konan as a simple example of Rags to Riches is similarly problematic. It ignores so much that it doesn’t know, and worse still, fails to ask the kind of questions that might offer a new perspective to the mainstream brain. For example, one of the defining characteristics of Krept and Konan as artists is a propensity for punning and wordplay, almost of the Christmas cracker variety. Their lyrics are riddled with puns and double entendres, some quite clever, some worthy only of a groan. It was this that singled them out in the Grime scene in the first place.
I find this to be a defining feature of not only their work, but many Grime artists in general, something decidedly British that has roots in variety theatre and Stand-up as much as in MC heritage. But the mainstream lens isn’t wide enough for this conversation. Anything beyond the established narrative is a distraction and therefore irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that Krept and Konan might share some kind of postmodern lineage with punchline peddlars of old, because they are, quote ‘rappers [who] found escape in South London’s urban music scene.’ End of.
Things Falling Apart in Education?
Admittedly, there must be a responsibility for those ‘in the know’ to offer these new perspectives. But the marginalised voice is rarely given an opportunity to be heard, listened to and acknowledged. This conflict comes into sharp relief with regard to formal education.
During my presentation, I played an impromptu game of ‘Cohort Bingo’ with the audience. Call out as many cohorts as you can, as discussed by educators in educational institutions. They came thick and fast. EAL. Black Boys. G&T. Looked After. SEN. Radicalised. At Risk. NEET. White Working Class. Etc. Schools, by identifying these cohorts, are at risk of doing to children (and by extension whole sections of society) what the Commissioner does to Okwonko in the final paragraph of ‘Things Fall Apart’. As soon as we decide what a someone’s narrative is, we deny them the right to shape their own story. And worse still, we ignore their story as it might have existed so far. I’m finding that Education is treated as one big Rags to Riches arc, with students too often treated as broken Cinderellas in need of the Prince Charming of assessment to get them to the university ball. As a result, we focus too intently on the Rags element. Can they read? Are they poor? Are they naughty? Are they clever? Do people like them get the Riches we want them to get? All of this stops us from asking more profound questions about their journey.
This cohort-heavy approach to education comes from a fascination with the other, and fascination and fear are close bed-fellows. The Commissioner’s motivation is to pacify ‘primitive tribes’ largely because colonists are always afraid of the unknown. The dark threat needs to be tamed, right? And the first step towards that taming is understanding. But this, I feel, is the most dangerous step, when ‘understanding’ is a construct built upon ideological foundations.
For these reasons, educationalists have a serious responsibility to challenge mainstream discourses in exactly the same way that Chinua Achebe challenged race/colonial discourses in his novel (and how I should probably challenge ES magazine by writing an essay on the British wit of Grime). Until then, we will be at the mercy of accepted narratives that shackle far more than they liberate. Definitely something to think about.