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.