And then, ‘Killamanshank’: Stumbling my way towards curriculum diversity

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:

“Killamanshank, Killamanshank”

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:

HHEd Manifesto

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.

Unseen Flirtations

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.

Beyond Rags and Riches: The Reductive Power of Known Narratives

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.

kreptkonan1

 

 

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.

41fvutzv48l-_sx334_bo1204203200_

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.

9780141186887

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.

-Unseen Flirtations

‘Up in the Air’ (2009) – A poetic film review

A poetic review/ critique of the film ‘Up In The Air’ (2009), starring George Clooney.

Alone.

With your sharkslick moves; dripping hubris as you cruise
With digital ease through analogue seas
Of people, places and unrecognised faces,
An indefinite trip outside of all time, high-flying
Straight by people with lives weighted down and laden
With people, places and recognised faces they’ve acquired.

Detached.
Pack light: Move swift. Use-less
Energy on useless roots and routes that shoot and shout
Down through the fuselage of your ethos.
Crowds gather where clouds don’t matter and where clouds don’t matter the crowds have scattered –
Jettisoned ballast until your chosen solitude is so close
That you are immune
To your own calloused touch.

Moon bound.
Flying round.
Two hundred thousand miles in the air, getting nowhere
Nearer than closer to somewhere.
Targets thin like skin. Thin air,
Greying hair yet still; you don’t care
Because you care about not there, or there, but the ellipsis in between
Where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Never home, never slowing, sharkslick fin slicing
Through seas of barely recogniseable faces.

Inching.
Ten million miles closer to that home of your imagination
That dream made real by corporate corroboration,
A scene that means as much to you as two recent teens saying I do,
One small step closer to the landing site called home.
Ten million miles flown,
Each first class seat a throne,
The Emperor’s New Throne in fact,
Weighing just as much as your emptying soul.

Travelling.
With no destination. Outward bound, outward facing,
What exactly is gestating in that sharkskin case
Of you-shaped templates and hollow replacements (of holiday luggage)
Permanently escaping the one place you came from
That is so far away that you finally cannot place it.

But yes, you feel it, for beneath the calloused skin and
(Now slightly dipping) fin and silent, chrome wing
Is him: that collection of people, places and changing, aging faces
That initially flew you in.

-Unseen

Hiphop Education in the UK: Making the case for Grime

JME setting fire to the mic with a uni degree in the ‘Man Don’t Care’ video

Earlier this year, I took my year 8 tutor group through a Hiphop Ed curriculum, through which we explored the history of Hiphop, cultural resonances worldwide, and various related  socio-economic issues including class, Feminism, gender norms, and Capitalism. The project began with a DJ workshop and culminated in a series of essays, each on a question chosen by individual students. During this time we analysed rap lyrics, watched documentary footage, had debates on key issues and even carried out primary research at a local shopping centre. They then had to take their essays and flip them into five-minute ‘Ignite’ speeches, which were delivered in a whole school event.

Before this process began I knew my students had an interest in Hiphop. Even the most casual chats about music confirmed what we already know: that Hiphop culture (and its various offshoots) is now the dominant youth culture. This, of course, is by no means a simple cause for celebration. The hyper-capitalist direction mainstream Hiphop has moved in has almost divorced it from social responsibility, as my class discussed after reading Questlove’s excellent essay series: ‘How Hiphop Failed Black America’. And it is no accident that five of my 13 students chose to focus their essays upon issues surrounding gender and the subjugation of women in modern society. They were ready to interrogate rather than celebrate.

Which I found interesting. After the initial novelty of playing with records had waned, it became apparent that for these kids (aged 12/ 13) very much saw the Hiphop I presented to them as something historic. Their expertise and relatedness to the culture as they understand it is tied, inextricably, to the context through which they discovered it. Sounds obvious, but it raises a (much debated) point about not just Hiphop in education but cultural studies overall: to what extent should a student’s experience of a culture steer their exploration of that culture’s ‘official’ history? I felt as though I was giving my class an opportunity to deepen their understanding of a culture that pervades their exploratory adolescent years, but, to be honest, I’m not sure how much they cared.

Skip forward a few months to the end of term, and the obligatory classroom party, complete with Doritos, Haribo, party games and youtube playlists. After minor protestations I quickly capitulated and let the kids take the helm. And weren’t the results interesting.

First of all, as expected, the playlist was entirely black music, with no exception, again confirming what we already know: that black culture (and its various offshoots) is the dominant youth culture. Slightly more interesting was the provenance of music being chosen. It was about 90% (give or take) British. And almost entirely current. And of this selection, exclusively Grime.

I find this telling. My class (predominantly Muslim, about 60% UK-born, speaking a total of 11 different languages, spanning Eastern Europe, Asia, West and North Africa) are in firm agreement that the hottest music out is Grime music. With unfettered access to the latest hits via youtube, these nascent adolescents seem to be pinning their flags to artists who speak in the language of their streets.

I recently read this excellent and inspiring piece on ‘Why I love Grime’ by @okwonga which reminded me what excites me so much about Grime. Its energy, wit, underlying social protest and unashamed Britishness make it a compelling incarnation of UK youth culture. Not to mention the fact that Grime has evolved from a very British heritage (Ragga, Dancehall, Jungle, Garage), harking back to the Windrush diaspora and proliferation of Black Britain via the West African migration of the 1970s. So when I find myself shouting the lyrics to ‘Man Don’t Care’ by JME alongside three or four over-excited 12 year-olds, maybe I’m actually celebrating – black UK music and black UK culture.

I teach in London, so it’s not surprising that my students revere Grime, which is a cultural London success story. Their eyes light up with Grime. They love references to a world they can see on the way home from school, spoken in the same language they learn in the playgrounds of their schools. The glitz of American Hiphop seems to be too glitzy, too glamorous, too foreign, too mainstream. Your Kanyes and Jay Zs are of an older generation, music for their parents maybe. And even your Drakes and Big Seans (who the kids love) seem to be a few years stale. While the neo-conscious movement led by your Kendrick Lamars and J Coles just doesn’t seem to register at all. The average UK teenage music fan is looking for something closer to home, and what’s closer to home than Grime?

Skepta summarises the wider relevance of Grime neatly in the following line from ‘Castles’:

My teacher told me I’m a side man, I told her to remember me Now they wanna email me, asking if I can talk to the kids in assembly

Grime was never supposed to make it into the mainstream; it’s the sound of disaffected youth shouting discontent in shows of lyricism that mean nothing to anyone other than themselves. And yet the culture has born a generation of icons who are part of the establishment, whether the establishment accepts it or not.

On this note, the image that introduces this essay is particularly revealing. JME takes the university degree he has and sets it alight in a blazing rejection of societal expectations and mainstream definitions of success. He then proceeds to use this to set fire to the microphone that he has chosen to define him, before rapping a few bars into the flames. It’s a powerful conflation of ideals that ultimately empowers him. He can do what he wants, how he wants, with or without the acceptance of mainstream society. Grime, in its idiosyncratic tunnel vision and ADHD energy levels, is much the same; a symbol of empowered disaffection.

So perhaps when we discuss Hiphop Education in the UK we really need to discuss Grime as the embodiment of Hiphop’s basic tenets in this country. Perhaps Grime is the UK’s incarnation of Hiphop, as socially and politically important as any other musical movement. And perhaps we (by which I mean educators) should therefore give it the respect it’s already earned from today’s youth. Something to think about.

-UF

Is Rachel Jewish? How Jewish is Ross? And does it matter?

Hello again.

Rachel

So my recent post on Otherness in ‘Friends’ seems to have generated a deal of debate in the Twittersphere (and in my living room) regarding the exact ethnicity of key ‘Friends’ friends. In a nutshell, my theory hinges on the fact that Rachel (as the jewel being chased by everyone’s favourite neurotic, Ross) is a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). This is the reason that Ross’ various other romantic exploits are necessarily different or ‘other’, ie: Black, gay, Asian, British…

One avenue I failed to explore in my last post pertains to Ross Geller’s apparent Jewishness. Ross is Jewish to an almost archetypal degree. His Woody Allen neurosis, anxiety, officious nature, princely status in the family and, of course, comical eNUNciation paint him as a (quite crude) Jewish (stereo)type. (Apologies for all the brackets).

Ross

This is nothing so mindblowing in itself, but placed in relevance to the white mainstreamness of Rachel, the debate spiders outwards in interesting directions. For Rachel to be a WASP confirms the awkward wish fulfillment status of Ross’ infatuation with her. He is defined, in part, by her social superiority, and only reaches adulthood (and therefore attractiveness to Rachel) when he finally gets over her and starts dating Julie.

But what if Rachel is in fact Jewish?? (audience gasps)

There are quite literally pages of Google search returns devoted to the is Rachel Jewish debate. Minutes of research on my part led me to the near-half-conclusion that Rachel is indeed Jewish. Maybe.

Click here for details

and a former ‘Friends’ writer could only go as far as saying that he ‘thinks’ she is.

But why is this relevant? Simply put, Rachel being Jewish puts a whole different spin on Ross’ journey. It turns him from a hapless Jewish underdog in search of the validation of white America into a hapless Jewish underdog in search of a Jewish princess to call his own, validating the norms of his non-WASPish heritage.

In all of this, the most interesting thing is the anxiety that some ‘Friends’ devotees display when race theory is introduced to the latte-sipping universe of Ross, Rachel et al. It is becoming apparent that modern attitudes to ‘Friends’, which can be taken as a defining text of mid-late nineties mainstream America, often transcend nostalgia into something approaching fervour. To suggest that race politics (inadvertently or otherwise) were at play in ‘Friends’ is almost to attack the ideals underpinning the show, and this, more than anything, rattles cages. ‘Friends’, through no fault of its own, presents itself as kind of aracial, apolitical, impossible to offend. But it can

Anyway, more musings as they hit me.

Best,

-Jeffrey

‘Otherness’ in Friends, or Why Ross’ Girlfriends Had To Be Ethnic, Different or Weird

Hello. Happy 2015.

Ross

So, it’s the dying embers of the Christmas holidays and I’m sat with my wife, watching a string of ‘Friends’ episodes (recently purchased box-set, second-hand). We’re currently in the midst of season 2, and Ross has just kissed Rachel. Naturally, we chose this moment to turn the commentary on and, of course, the writers are discussing the difficulties in setting up the Ross/ Rachel relationship that underpins the entire series, at an emotional level.

Now, over the past 72 hours or so, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle craft at work in ‘Friends’. And I’ve also been scrutinising the series from a 21st century perspective, thinking carefully about the social isms at play in late 90s white mainstream America. In ‘The One With the List’, one episode after Ross and Rachel kiss for the first time, Julie, Ross’ non-Rachel girlfriend, has been unceremoniously dumped. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t really matter.

Julie and Ross

This got me thinking. Why doesn’t Julie matter? Should she matter? Why would her part be difficult to write? And most importantly, why isn’t she white? Then a lightbulb flashed above my head and I explained to my wife, what I’m about to explain to you. (Cue thunder)

Julie is ‘Asian’ (as the Americans put it) and this is a fact that goes unannounced by the ‘Friends’ friends. The relevance of this is simple: Julie had to be different. She had to be ‘other’. Think about it: if Julie was as white and mainstream as Rachel, she couldn’t survive as a character, conceptually. She would be too normal to be anything other than a viable competitor for Ross’ affections, which would, therefore, make her a figure of pure hatred for loyal viewers. This unfiltered hatred for the hypothetical white non-Rachel would sour the viewer’s experience of the show to such a warped extent, that it would be unwatchable.

See, on one level, ‘Friends’ exploits modern liberal ideals in order to allow emotionally devastating interactions to take place, affecting its core characters. Julie, is just about different enough to not really matter as a character, but we are fond of her because liberal sensibilities demand that of us. I have no idea if this is a deliberate move on the part of the writers, but I can see the logic in casting someone racially different in a role that could garner spite if she was ‘equal’ to Rachel.

Charlie and Ross

The same thing can be said of Charlie, the Afro-American paleontologist who eventually becomes Ross’ love interest in season whatever. She is absolutely normal and attuned to the social rules of the ‘Friends’ friends, but, crucially, she is not-white. So, again, the viewer’s liberal sensibilities act as a buffer to any accidental hatred that might tea stain the purity of the ‘Friends’ experience.

Carol

Going back a season to the very beginning of the series, let’s examine Ross’ first love interest – Carol. She really should be a figure of pure disdain. Her decision to abandon marriage with Ross kick-starts the whole will-they-won’t-they saga with Rachel, but, of course, she is ‘different’ too, inasfar as being gay is being different. The ‘otherness’ of her character, forces us to soften our feelings towards her. In fact, the writers inadvertently invite us to self-congratulate ourselves on how accepting we are, because we, (like Rachel) welcome Carol into the fold in her role of Ben’s mom.

Emily and Ross

There’s more. Season something or other sees the introduction of Emily, a love interest that pushes Ross so far away from Rachel that he (very nearly) gets married – potentially levelling the will-they-won’t-they seesaw for good. Now, Emily is indeed white and she is also straight, but she just happens to be… non-American. Accidental? Perhaps, but her otherness is in keeping with the theory I’m outlining in this essay. Emily, to avoid being a figure of derision, cannot be from the same socio-cultural universe as Rachel.

Interestingly, Ross’ various girlfriends also do a lot to endear him to us. His insistence on pairing up with all creeds, colours and sexualities of woman paint him as not so much forward-thinking as socially naive. Much is made of his inexperience with women (Carol was the only woman he had slept with before Julie). It is almost as though he doesn’t realise that he should be with the Rachels of this world. He almost demotes himself away from Alpha male status through his choice of weird women; gay, Asian, British, Black…

Anyway, happy 2015. More on the socio-political undertones of ‘Friends’ as I crawl through the boxset.

-Jeffrey

Teaching: How to Remix Wilfred Owen and Dizzee Rascal #hiphoped

So I recently embarked upon a unit of work with my year 8s on the general theme of London, exploring a range of texts and authors throughout history, connected to this great city in which I live.

The unit came immediately after a scheme of work on World War 1 ‘conflict poetry, during which, among other things, we explored some pretty compelling links between Wilfred Owen and Eminem.

As a bridge into the London unit (from the Conflict unit), one of the things we did in class was explore the concept of being at conflict with London. Naturally, based in East London, I thought it would be a good idea to start with one of London’s most successful exports, Dylan Mills – aka Dizzee Rascal

 

We started by listening to the first track off  ‘Boy in da Corner’, entitled ‘Sittin Here’, in which Dizzee reflects on life growing up in a hostile city. It was great fun to let the kids take over on vocabulary-busting duties. They ALL knew all the slang terms, even those that I thought might be slightly outdated in 2014 (11 years after Dizzee released the album). Goes to show, offer ownership to students and they’ll meet it on their own terms.

Anyway, let me get to the interesting bit.

After analysing Dizzee’s lyrics and debating the extent to which he was at conflict with London, I offered up a selection of creative and analytical tasks, ranging from self-generated essays to creative writing challenges based on Dizzee’s lyrics.

pic of tasks

(Note: offering choice is an invitation to engagement. Give the kids one thing to do, and there’s a 50/50 chance they’ll back out of it. Give a selection of tasks and they might actually opt in out of choice. Wise words.)

(Note: worth also mentioning that each task came with individual prompt sheets for the students to work through at their own pace, in a Project-Based style. More on this in future posts… )

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One of the tasks was to write a remix of ‘Sittin Here’ from the perspective of Wilfred Owen, riffing on themes we explored in the Conflict unit. Now, this may seem like a tenuous link, but check this out.

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Impressed? No? Let me explain. Above are two recently unearthed examples of #hiphoped in action, hence this blog post. You can’t read it, but these two students took all the learning from the Wilfred Owen poems we studied and synthesised them into original reworkings of Dizzee’s lyrics.

I find this electrifying.

I have written in the past on the potency of sample culture, but it never ceases to amaze me just how powerful hiphop pedagogy can be, in practical application. Unprompted, these students poured their appreciation of Owen’s poetry, their understanding of modern, urban London and their appreciation of hiphop lyricism into a creative exercise rooted in academic rigour.

Below are transcripts of the remixed texts. Look out for cleverly interwoven WW1 references. And click the ‘Sittin Here’ instrumental to sing along, if you’d like.

Student A
I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much, I just shoot
And my feet don’t move left or right, they’re just boots
I think too deep and I think too long
Plus I think I’m getting weak, cos my guns are too strong.
I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much, I just gaze.
I’m looking into space while my country plays
I gaze quite a lot, in fact I gaze always
And if I fight then I just fight away my days
 
Cos it’s the same old story: countries, enemies, guns and people dying
And it’s the same old story: large tanks, large battles and generals lying
Yeah  it’s the same old story: trenches invaded and then our trenches get raided 
Cos it was only yesterday we were playing football on the streets
It was only yesterday none of us could ever come to harm
It was only yesterday life was a touch more sweet
Now I’m fighting here thinking when will my time come?
 
I’m just fighting here in this hopeless war…
Yeah I’m just fighting here in this hopeless war…

 

Student B
I’m just sitting here, I’m not saying much I just think
I don’t know anyone, my thoughts just sink
I’m sitting here, this journey is too long
I look around this train, while I’m writing this song
And I’m just sitting here, I’m not saying much I just gaze
I look around the train, everyone has a different face
Faces from black to white, but I’m excited to go to this mysterious place
This train is going in a maze, as the train’s about to stop I start tying my lace
(But I should’ve known, this is war, not fun)
 
Because it’s the same old story: Guns, trenches, tanks and fences
And it’s the same old story: Horses, armour and literally a disaster
And it’s the same old story: Blood, death and funerals
Yeah it’s the same old story: this war shows your fate, why don’t you say that to my best friend’s face.
 
I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much, I just watch
Watch, as people get shot by gunshots
I watch all around, I watch every detail
I watch so hard that my eyes are watering.
I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much, I just cry
And the only reason I’m here is cuz of that stupid Old Lie
This week I have a break, today I live, today they die

 

Side note: I also created a class page of ‘Sittin Here’ on my Rap Genius profile, which one student took great pains annotating, as her preferred task.

That’s it for now. Exploration in hiphoped continue apace. Soon, I’ll be tidying these resources up and making them available for teachers.

Best,

-Unseen Flirtations
TES Teaching Resources
 

Related: Remixing Education

Related: Top 10 Things Formal Education Can Learn From Hiphop

Related: Hiphoped Seminar 5: 10 Big Questions…

 

Poetry: Light Bulb

Slightly sinister for a Saturday morning, but hey, at least it’s out of my system. Therapy!

-U.F.

 

 

Light Bulb

I’ve got to change this light bulb.
It’s dim and it swings
And all it’s illuminating,
Are broken, nasty things.

Yellowing experiments
With useless, lifeless limbs.
I need to change this light bulb
Before it changes him.

 

 

Teaching: WW1 conflict poetry and Teacher-Student well-being (via HiphopEd)

Hello.

So I’ve been studying conflict poetry with my year 8s this half term. Because they’re doing a project on WW1 across Humanities and Art, I decided to let the unit sprawl into WW1 poetry.

All fairly standard fare to begin with – until, of course, I found myself listening to Eminem on youtube while planning a lesson on Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

Who would’ve known that you can read Dulce, perfectly in rhythm, alongside the instrumental for ‘Like Toy Soldiers’? Because you can.  A few powerpoint slides later, that was the basis of the next lesson.

willem

It was cool to have this as an entry into the poem, getting the kids to just make it flow before wrestling with language, form and meaning. And, of course, starting with rhythm led to some compelling early conclusions as to the form, language and meaning of the poem, which, in turn, gave the kids a sharp sense of ownership.

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(Note: Video footage exists of me having a go at rapping Dulce with my class, but you’ll have to imagine it ‘cos I’m not posting that up here. Yet.)

A few lessons pass and we get into the swing of things with Owen, a timed essay comes and goes and we wind down in preparation for the next unit on London.

Bearing in mind that the theme of our poetry study was conflict, it made sense to start with that angle, hence the essential question for our opening lesson:

Are you at conflict with LONDON?

I teach in East London, so it was an easy flip to introduce Dizzee ‘E3’ Rascal into the mix. I played the instrumental to the opening track off ‘Boy In Da Corner’ (‘Sittin Here’) and distributed lyric sheets to the kids. Task 1: how many problems/ conflicts can you spot?

The results were scintillating. Even as a card-carrying convert to hiphop pedagogy, I was taken aback by the engagement and relevance this had to these year 8 Londoners. The conversation started with some notes, and ballooned into a full and rich debate as to the subjects and subtexts being explored by Dizzee.

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As a footnote to this little anecdote, it’s worth noting that I’d recently had a pretty major blow-out with one kid in my class, which we hadn’t quite patched up yet. It had reached a bad place, sort of, whereby I wasn’t really engaging with him beyond a strictly functional basis. This, in effect, meant him coming into my classroom in a huff, refusing to do much by way of thinking, and essentially seeking to show me how disinterested he was in the whole deal.

Likewise, I had a pretty crap strategy up my sleeve of sending him outside to do some drudgery exercise book work, if he refused to engage. Messy stuff, this teaching business.

Anyway, within seconds of his hearing Dizzee and being presented with the song-sheet, he was in. And by the end of the session, he and I were sharing ideas, nodding and listening and doing all those things that the TDA would have you believe happens daily in healthy classrooms. Here’s a blast of his notes:

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Unprompted.

Moral of the story?Every now and again, the classroom can be a context that reconciles those three otherwise disparate identities of the Road, Home and School. Hiphoped, can implicitly pull these strands together, and it can be fun to explicitly use hiphop as a hook for doing so.

So, next steps. Obvious: I’ll get the class to synthesise all of these ideas before we move on to the London unit, by writing…

  • a comparative essay between Wilfred Owen and Dizzee Rascal
  • a remix of ‘Sittin Here’ from the perspective of a WW1 conscript
  • a sonnet dealing with the issues raised by Dizzee Rascal’s first album
  • something else (the kids can decide)

 

It’ll be fun.

Until next time,

-Unseen Flirtations (aka ‘Sir’)

12 Years a Slave: A review in texts

I recently saw the award-nominated, award-winning, Steve McQueen directed tale of hope in the face of hopeless adversity: 12 Years a Slave.

Below is a transcript of text messages sent between myself and a friend of mine, spanning his viewing of the film and mine. I thought it kind of made for an interesting ‘review’.

Warning: Contains spoilers (sort of)

Warning: Approach with a sense of irony.

-Unseen Flirtations

* * *

I seen 12 Years a Slave this arvo. Have you seen?

Nope…

 

Dang. I’ve got a very clever observation that you would find amusing because you’re au fait with film crit. It’s a spoiler though. See it so I can make my smartarse joke.

Ok! I’ll see it this weekend I think. Hang on to the gag!

 

Prepare to be extraordinarily underwhelmed. At my joke, that is. The film might even be worth watching beyond its role as wit-fodder…

Finally saw 12 years. What was your joke?? Ps: Monday evening? I can come round yours or we can meet somewhere…

 

Yeah, sure thing. Come on over. I’ll be home from 5pm, I start work early these days. Ok, 12 years ‘joke’: Brad Pitt is the magical negro!

He is! Probably executive produced it that way, what with his UN family and all…

 

What did you make of 12 Years overall?

VERY melodramatic. But completely unwavering in its telling of the story. Great cast, maybe bar Pitt 🙂  Def more Hollywood than Hunger.

 

I couldn’t get past the Hollywood sheen. Hans Zimmer’s score was almost identical to his Inception one. It bugged me throughout the film. The stream of big names were distracting: Benedict Cumberbatch, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Giammati, Brad Pittt -they didn’t have enough screen time to establish meaningful characters so didn’t get past cameo status, which is a big problem when you’re trying to immerse an audience into the brutality of historically accurate slavery.

True. It wasn’t until Fassbender kicked in that I settled into the narrative. Some heavy handed big studio decisions at play fir sure. Thank god Northup wasn’t played by Will Smith or Tom Hanks or something!

On reflection, I appreciated the lesser known actors, maybe for the reasons you outlined…

Yeah, Fassbender’s whipping girl was great. So great that I was half expecting her to turn around and freak out at the lights and cameras. I should really learn her name. And how to pronounce and spell Cheeter Igerfor’s. I also want to read the script. At least seven scenes must read like: EXT. PLANTATION -DAY, We linger on SOLOMON NORTHUP’S eyes. <end scene>.

Chee woe tell, Ij ee four, right? Can I blog this conversation? I’ll keep you anonymous…

 

You can’t use ‘ij’ in a phonetic breakdown! Are you going to blog this bit? Hello Internet! Remember to use the comments to remind OP what he is 😉 Two more things. One, I forgot Michael K Williams off the good actor cameo list, and I’ve probably forgot others too. And two, despite its flaws TYAS does give valuable insight into what the daily life of USA slave life might have been like. And it’s not a stretch to say it provides some context for understanding current US race relations. There, a bit of balance, because all things considered it’s not a bad film at all.

What a considered write up. OP??

 

Original Poster

Ah, of course. Right then, I’m gonna blog this. Any last requests?

* * *

 

And…. that was the whole conversation.