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

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Poetry: ‘Be Not Afraid’

Be Not Afraid

“My mind moves like a tron bike, uh, pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist…”
– Kanye West, ‘I’m in it’

Be not afraid of zeitgeist.
Some disbelieve it,
Some won’t achieve it.
And some pop a wheelie on it.

Be not afraid of wheelies.
Some try them freely,
Some do them, nearly,
And some use them as metaphors, literally.

Be not afraid of metaphors.
Et cetera.

 

Rock Genius: David Byrne – ‘Miss America’

Hello,

It’s taken me a while to realise that David Byrne is one of my all time favourite lyricists. Case in point? ‘Miss America’ from his 1997 album ‘Feelings’.

Click here (or the picture above) for my breakdown of his lyrics on Rap Genius/ Rock Genius. A better discourse on the complexities of modern America you will not find.

Best,

-Un:seen

‘Miss America’ by David Byrne
I love America, her secret’s safe with me
And I know her wicked ways
The parts you never see

Oh super-girl, you’ll be my super-model
Although you have a reputation
Can I afford to move above my station
I’m not the only heart you’ve conquered

And I love America, but boy can she be cruel
And I know how tall she is
Without her platform shoes

Oh super-girl, you’ll be my super-model
Although at times it might seem awkward
Don’t run away, oh don’t you recognize me
I’m not the only heart you’ve conquered
And I kissed America, when she was fleecing me
She knows I understand that she needs to be free
And I miss America and sometimes she does too
And sometimes I think of her
When she is fucking you

I love America
Yo siempre he confiado en ti
I love America
Por que me tratas asi?

Oh super-girl, you’ll be my super-model
Although your pants are round your ankles
And when you’re down, I’ll be your dirty harry
It will be just like in the movies

Oh super-girl, you’ll be my super-model
Although at times it might seem awkward
Don’t look away, I’ll be your teenage fanclub
I’m not the only heart you’ve conquered

Teaching: Remixing Education

On Saturday 5th October 2013, I formed part of a collective of educators leading a workshop on Hiphop in Education, at this year’s NUT London Conference. Fun times. As part of the workshop, I presented on a hugely important element of hiphop culture that, I believe, has much to offer to educational practice and pedagogic theory: (drumroll please…)

sampling!

There, I said it. Below is a rundown of the presentation, broken down, slide by slide, including examples of actual practice in the classroom. My classroom, to be exact. Enjoy!

-Unseen Flirtations

hh1

My first question. Which I presented alongside an original 12″ vinyl pressing of the 1989 classic De La Soul debut, ‘Three Feet High and Rising’.

hh2

The answer, is not, as you may expect, 3, but, in fact 67. Why? because that is the total number of samples used in the production of the album.

hh3

Let’s focus on the hit single, ‘The Magic Number’, for a second. This one song contains six distinct samples, ranging a selection of records, of various genres, spanning four decades. Now, when you listen to the song, you might not fully and explicitly appreciate each distinct sample, but the song has an undeniable richness that comes from its fusion of borrowed sounds. This, in essence, is what hiphop is: the refurbishment of the old into something new; alluding to various, existing cultural heritages whilst simultaneously creating a fresh new culture.

hh4

Now, one of the central samples in ‘The Magic Number’ is a 1967 funk record entitled ‘Different Strokes’ by Syl Johnson. A drum break from the song makes up one of the main loops in the De La Soul record. Not so interesting in itself, but what is worth noting is that the same record is sampled in a string of other hiphop songs spanning the mid-80s all the way to 2012, including Eric B and Rakim, EPMD, Wu-Tang, Kanye West, and, golden child of the moment himself, Mr Kendrick Lamar.

The significance of this is huge. ‘The Magic number’ is clearly part of a musical heritage that pre-dates and succeeds itself, giving the culture a timelessness and depth. All music (all culture in fact) finds itself as part of a heritage, but hiphop, rather than ignoring or denying this, embraces it actively. Arguably, it celebrates the fact by continuing to refer to its roots, with respect.


hh6

Going forward, ‘The Magic Number’ has in turn been sampled by various other artists, taking the old (made out of the even older) and turning it into the new. Whilst other artists were taking De La Soul’s original source material and continuing to make fresh new newness out of it. Before your head implodes, my question at this point is: How would you describe this relationship?

Rich? Symbiotic? Electrifying? Osmosis? Organic? All of the above? And furthermore, what has this got to do with education?

Well, simply put, the relationship between students and education should, I think, be akin to the relationship between hiphop songs and the samples they consist of. To be an educator is to invite students into a scholastic or cultural heritage. In my case, I invite students into a literary discourse. I want my students to feel part of a history of language and literature and feel empowered enough to take what has come and shape it into something new. Something relevant to their own lives and resonant with their own experiences.

So, with all that eulogising in mind, you may want to know how I have attempted to implement sample culture into my teaching practice. Introducing, exhibit A:

Jacqueline Wilson. Last year, I taught a year 7 ‘nurture’ group, who included a broad range of special educational needs. After much trial and error with developing their various literacies and confidences, I decided to give them the opening chapter of ‘Sleepovers’, an ‘easy-read’ by J Wilson. The task was simple: to copy and re-write the opening chapter, making any change you want to any sentence. So, after some instruction as to the kind of changes you could make to a sentence (add adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, etc), I let them loose on the original.

One kid, a boy with great handwriting but a wildly uncontrolled writing style, took to the challenge readily. have a look below:

sleepover remix

‘Roderick’? ‘Chated’ (sic)? Bed-wetting warnings? OK then! See, the thing here is that having the support of a predefined structure and pre-set content gave this kid the freedom to play. He wrote fluidly and enthusiastically and thus became empowered in his craft. A blank page does not necessarily engender creativity – something which hiphop recognises in its very nature.

Anyway, skip forward a few weeks. We had moved on to poetry analysis and were looking at ‘Brendon Gallacher’, a poem by Scottish poet Jackie Kay that English teachers will recognise from the key stage 4 curriculum. All about an imaginary friend who (spolier alert) dies. See below:

hh7

Now, after some analysis on the poem, I gave the class an opportunity to further explore the poem, independently. And guess what happened? Guess what that kid (above) did…?

img012

Blam. He remixed it! I was shocked. With no prompting, my student had taken a poem about an imaginary friend in Scotland and flipped it into a tale of migrant West Africans and Caribbeans, drug dealing, low-level crime, bus drivers, urban ills and extended families… all sorts of elements that his actual universe may consist of. Here’s the rest of it, in case you’re interested:

img013

The importance of this cannot be overstated. First, he had done this of his own volition. The act of sampling and remixing had clearly opened a door of literary play to him, giving him license to write and enter a poetic heritage, on his own terms. Second, he brought to the poem his own experiences and understanding, creating, like all good hiphop, something fresh out of something established. Evolve or be extinct.

hh8

This final slide alludes to a fundamental tenet of hiphop education as a theory: that there is a discourse between the identities of the School, the Home and the Road (street) that is often ignored or overlooked. You can add to this the language of the Self, ie: the truest identity of a person; the voice they speak to themselves.

What struck me about the remixed ‘Brendon Gallacher’ is that it clearly demonstrates a conflation of these identities. The student in question had taken the poem and used it as a canvas to say something about his life and world view. And the fact that it sampled Jackie Kay’s original gave it a stability and depth. It also led to some very interesting conversations regarding his creative choices.

Now, in all of this I’m not simply saying that educators should encourage creative theft, or that sampling is a panacea for disengagement in education. What I am saying is that the spirit of critique, homage and innovation that typifies hiphop is the exact same drive that will lead to creative, living educational relationships.

And that’s where the presentation ended. Any teachers (still) reading, I would invite you to open these ideas up to colleagues and experiment with sample culture in your practice. Feel free to reply to this post and keep tabs on the #hiphoped hashtag on Twitter for educational debate in this vein, soon.

Best,

-Unseen

Related post: Top 10 Things Formal Education Can Learn From Hiphop

Rap Genius: Is ‘Blurred Lines’ the most frighteningly sexist song of 2013?

In four words and a comma: ‘Yes, I think so.’

WARNING: Due to the nature of the song being discussed, this post contains sexually explicit language and imagery.

In the interest of saving society from itself, I’ve been annotating this summer hit on Rap Genius. The debate is well-documented online, but, there has not yet been a detailed critical breakdown of the lyrics that have caused so much controversy. Thus, my notes have evolved into a mini-essay of sorts, which you can read below.

If you want to respond, I suggest setting up a Rap Genius account and adding to the notes on the website.

Everybody get up

“Everybody get up,” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

A party atmosphere is established immediately with this instruction to get dancing. This is ostensibly a ‘fun’ song, but, as we shall see, contains moral ambiguities concerning gender roles and power balances.

For now though, let’s dance!

WOO!

“WOO!” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

Yep. There is also a sense of release here, perhaps alluding (unconsciously?) to a lack of control.

This will be important in the wider, sexist resonances of this song, explored later. Read on…

Hey hey hey!

“Hey, hey, hey / Hey, hey, hey / Hey, hey, hey” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

Robin Thicke has gone on record saying that this song came out of an idea of old men ‘hollering’ at young girls. The delivery of these ‘heys’ is comical and in character, giving the song a playful tone. This innocence will soon be complicated by the misogynistic lyrics to come.

If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say
If you can’t read from the same page
Maybe I’m going deaf,
Maybe I’m going blind
Maybe I’m out of my mind

“If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say / If you can’t r…” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) |pending

Arguably, there is a moral ‘blindness’ at play here.

In the context of a party, gender inequalities don’t really hold much of a bearing, but this can be dangerous insofar as it blinkers men to the dangers of their own lusts. This song, and its controversial original video, highlights this danger. Men, having a great time, are casually subjugating women, oblivious to their wants, feels or needs.

I am reading between the (blurred) lines here, but it is interesting that, at least on a subconscious level, Thicke is aware of the dulling of his social sensibilities.

Too deep?

Tried to domesticate you

“Tried to domesticate you” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

From a feminist viewpoint, this is a very problematic line.

To ‘domesticate’ suggests three things.

a) that the girl (in this case a referent for all girls) are inherently wild and in need of taming. This in turn suggests that ‘girls’ lack a certain control and cannot be trusted with their own natures. They are closer to animals than people. Dangerous ideas…

b) that it is the job of a man to control women and make them fit for the house. Literally, Thicke is likening the girl to a pet. In doing so, he contributes to a centuries old tradition of female subservience to a dominant male, evidenced in literature throughout history.

c) that men are naturally superior to women, in that they are in a position to control and tame (‘domesticate’) them.

These are not positive assertions. The lines (in this case, gender lines) are indeed being blurred.

But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature

“But you’re an animal / Baby, it’s in your nature” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

Again, the sentiment here is dangerous.

Thicke reaches a very hasty conclusion that the ‘girl’ cannot be tamed, because she is in fact wild. Here truest ‘nature’ is wild and unfit for civilisation (domesticity). See my previous note for the dangers of this.

Coupled with the sexually charged imagery and male superiority of the video, this creates a huge power imbalance between men and women. Men, in control, in clothes, having fun, are allowed to, if not supposed to, tame uncontrollable women. Very blurred lines indeed…

Just let me liberate you
You don’t need no papers
That man is not your maker

“Just let me liberate you / You don’t need no papers / Tha…” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) |pending

It just gets worse…

‘Liberate’ should suggest a positive release from social shackles right? Wrong. In this context, Thicke is stating that he wants to free her from social expectations of civilised behaviour

ie: he wants her to be true to her ‘nature’…

ie: he wants her to be wild…

ie: he wants her to be sexual. For him.

Men have been doing this shit for centuries — commodifying female sexuality and taking ownership of women for their own gratification.

Think I’m going too far? Well, the line ‘that man is not your maker’ in itself alludes to an idea that women are seemingly ‘owned’ by men. Explicitly, Thicke is saying that she should be free of such ownership, but implicitly, he is stating that HE in fact owns her. This is proven by his saying that he’s going to ‘take’ her. You can’t take what doesn’t belong to someone.

Again, very, very blurred lines. This is a song about the male gaze and the inherent social imbalances of patriarchal society, made all the worse by its ‘let’s have a party!’ veneer.

And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it

“Good girl / I know you want it / I know you want it / I k…” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) |pending

See, even the comment above suggests that it’s all fun and games, when in actuality, we are in VERY murky waters.

‘Good girl’ here seems to refer to obedience. A ‘good’ girl is one who has listened to Thicke’s theorem on domesticity and true nature and accepted that she is indeed, an animal. The bass-voiced, unnaturally low refrain ‘I know you want it’ becomes an enforced instruction for sexual gratification. Thicke is telling the ‘good girl’ what she wants, what she needs, and lo and behold, what she wants is ‘it’.

‘It’ = Robin Thicke’s dick.

(You do realise this is very close to being a rape anthem, right?)

But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

“But you’re a good girl / The way you grab me / Must wanna…” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

Now, I’m not denying that women are sexual beings with sexual needs — we all are. But at this point in the song, the balance has shifted too far for this to be an innocent celebration of fun times.

There is literally NO female voice to counter the aggressively male demands and assertions offered by Thicke.

The video visually reinforces this by depicting doll-like, anonymous, naked girls, who are entirely subservient to the whims of dancing, clothed, affluent men.

The actions of the girl are interpreted by the male. How the hell does he know that she wants to get nasty? He’s simply projecting his wants upon her behaviour. And she isn’t exactly in a position to argue. Besides, a ‘good’ girl wouldn’t argue anyway, right?

You’re far from plastic
Talk about getting blasted

“You’re far from plastic / Talk about getting blasted” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

The irony is that Thicke, willingly or not, makes some serious claims to being able to control this ‘good girl’. No matter what is being said, the rules are being outlined by men.

I hate these blurred lines

“I hate these blurred lines / I know you want it / I know …” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) |pending

The deeper blurred lines are those of patriarchal society’s view of women. To even call them ‘girls’ is problematic, as it denotes them as innocent and incapable of adult decision, despite being sexual objects.

It may be 2013, but women are largely still seen as inferior to men, which is how a song of such casual misogyny as this can be released with no real problem. At the same time, modern women are (arguably) fairly empowered and in control of their sexuality. This song ignores that by focusing purely on the male perspective, however.

What do they make dreams for
When you got them jeans on

“What do they make dreams for / When you got them jeans on” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

This is where it gets interesting.

These lines highlight the weakness to sexuality suffered by the stereotypical man. The physical shape of a woman leaves him in a state of rapture, wondering if dreams could ever match up to what he is seeing.

In one sense, this is very capital R Romantic. In another, it highlights the potentially dangerous potency of the male gaze. Sexual urges are so powerful that they overcome the senses, leaving men ‘deaf and blind’ (see the first verse).

What do we need steam for
You the hottest bitch in this place

“What do we need steam for / You the hottest bitch in this…” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) |pending

‘Hottest bitch’ — a tricky juxtaposition if ever I did see one.

On the one hand, this is a clear compliment. In recent years ‘Bitch’ has been dulled in meaning to refer to a fiesty, independent woman, with many popular female rappers having sought to appropriate the term in a move to self-empowerment.

But.

The word bitch is still derogatory and it still degrades women to a status beneath men. It is inherently negative and, I think, is only used by female rappers in a kind of linguistic dirty protest, much as the word ‘nigga’ evolved out of the subjugating ‘nigger’ that actively oppressed black Americans.

The confusion of shouting ‘you’re the hottest bitch in this place’ is deep. Thicke is letting go of social decorum and praising the ‘good girl’, but he is simultaneously confirming her degraded status.

The racial context can’t be ignored either. This is a very ‘black’ dialect at play here. For Thicke, a white, married man, to use the term ‘bitch’ in the context of a sexualised, desirable woman suggests that wild, promiscuous, untameable behaviour is in fact ‘black’ (or at least non-white) behaviour. Which is okay, because this is a black song, featuring black vocals, a hiphop verse and a soul sample.

But it’s not ok. At all. It’s almost as if the misogyny, sexism and blurred moral lines are acceptable because the song is rooted in non-white concepts. When pop music has evolved to this level of carelessness, you know something has gone wrong.

I feel so lucky
You wanna hug me

“I feel so lucky, you wanna hug me” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

Male insecurity? For all the bravado and superiority, the man feels lucky to be receiving (sexual?) attention from the woman. See, we’re all boys at heart, playing the role of ‘master’ with women who control us through our own desires.

Very Freudian.

What rhymes with hug me?

“What rhymes with hug me” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

The ‘blurriness’ of the whole situation is summarised in this line. Thicke isn’t event thinking straight (as he alluded to in the first verse — ‘blind’, ‘deaf’).

For me, there is a suggestion of inebriation here too, which is also playful. Poets have a sense of control that means they can always find a rhyme, but here, control has been lost.

Arguably, this is a song about a lack of male control on every level. See my other notes for details.

Had a bitch, but she ain’t as bad as you

“Had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

Again, the commodification and objectification of women rears its very ugly head…

TI implies ownership of women in stating that he ‘had’ a ‘bitch’ (pet?), but one that wasn’t as ‘bad’ as this ‘good girl’. The woman is denigrated to the state of being an item that can be catalogued and itemised.

Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you
He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that

“Nothin’ like your last guy, he too square for you / He do…” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) |pending

At best, irresponsible, at worst, actively misogynistic, this line alludes to energetic sex and virility. Of course, sexual beings of both genders will want sexual prowess in a partner, but in the context of this imbalanced song, these lines refer to a darker, male desire for dominance and control.

Again, not far away from rape imagery.

I’m a nice guy, but don’t get it if you get with me

“I’m a nice guy, but don’t get confused, you gettin it” (Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines) | pending

The modern male dilemma: Patriarchal history says that women are supposed to be treated as lesser than men, while modern liberal sensibilities tell us that we should be empathetic.

This line, for me, is evidence that the gender balance is still, well, unbalanced. TI, wracked with insecurity, claims to be a nice guy despite commodifying women, calling them ‘bitches’, hunting them out for sexual exploitation. The whole song echoes this confusion.

And now, as an antidote to all that latent misogyny, here are two excellent video parodies of the original.

Enjoy,

-Flirtations, U

The Royal Baby: His Royal Highness George Alexander Louis, Prince of Cambridge

Congratulations! A woman of child-bearing age has not only given birth to a baby, but has actually helped give it a name! (maybe) Congratulations!

Here’s my two-pence worth on the significance of ‘George’ as a 21st century name for the latest incumbent king (via News Genius)

Interesting that Will and Kate, the most modern of monarchs, feel compelled to reach back into the back back of their patriarchal history to cement royal ideology, in a name that pays serious homage to the institution as a whole. In many ways, this ‘choice’ of name can be read as a political affirmation of the royal family. It roots the incumbent king (and his heir) in a firm context and kind of divorces them all from the modern world.

The extreme LACK of imagination and controversy surrounding the name George speaks volumes as to the current position of the monarchy and its (instinctive?) attempts to preserve itself. One wonders what the news would currently look like if Kate and Wills had insisted on calling their boy Malik. Or Kendrick. Or Jon-Jon. Or Charles. Hm.

And finally, as a special gift to the baby boy, who, like all infant humans, has not a single clue about the identity straitjacket being foisted upon him, I present a poem: ‘Unwanted Gifts’. Written a while ago, but fitting, I think for baby George.

-Unseen

 

Unwanted Gifts

do not Think for just a second that you are above tradition:
you are Doing what was done before you came into existence.
you are Treading through the halls and all your pauses or decisions
are a Momentary flaw along a line of much precision.

all your Transitory tangents are a blip along the surface
that is Hardened, hewed and smoothed by accident (perhaps on purpose)
and your Plans have all been mapped and all your maps have all been charted
and your Charts have all been planted long before you even started.

do not Think that you are drifting; there are undertows and currents,
dormant Forces hard at work insisting that you do not plummet
Into personal abyss. Your solipsism is abhorrent
In the face of what was lived, your solipsism cannot flourish.

if you Have a moral code, it was imposed by those before you
(meaning Those who came before or those you know who do not know you)
and the Clothes in which you clothe your nakedness have all been chosen
so the Choices you enjoy will not promote you or console you.

you are Running on the trammels – pushed or pulled by pumping pistons
and the Freedom you imagine hardly grants an intermission.
you can Ask for something different, you can park your inhibitions,
but you Start with no permissions and you harbour inhibitions.

what your Father’s mother’s father started lasts: it can’t diminish
and his Laughter lasts regardless of the parts you seek to finish.
you can Leave and you can change and you can chop and you can squeeze
but same Will still remain the same because you are what you believe.

So.

beLieving in yourself is dangerous, you will agree.
the preserVation of the leaf is confirmation of the tree.
so we should Burn these feeble branches; they have grown, so let them be
and yes, we May have started planted but who says we can’t be free?

every Root is just a route to something definite before us
and the Only way the past can prosper is if it implores us:
pleads and Begs for our compliance. Reaching, seeking to define us,
peeking From its crumbling coffin, coughing, weak with creaking violence.

who’s to Say that our connection to the past is hard and fast?
don’t Believe in the reflection when you feel the shards of glass.
be an Echo. Be a shadow’s echo dancing in the dark.
be the Echo letting go, like petals falling from the plant.

be the Piece of furniture created craftily from wood.
be the Monument to art replacing nature where she stood.
be the Dreamer – don’t believe you need to be a person first.
be the Person that you were before your parents saw your birth.

do not Think for just a second that you’re subject to tradition:
every Moment of your life is moulded by your indecision.
you did Not exist before you ever fell into existence
and the Chains you wore are broken
weakened By the words I’ve spoken
just a Note, a fading token
of a gift that has been given.

Top 20: Things Rappers Brag About (part 1)

Introduction: Why Do Rappers Even Brag In The First Place?

Quick history lesson. A major aspect of hiphop, as a culture, is self-expression, be it through dance (Breakdancing), visual art (Graffiti), creation of music (DJing) or the spoken word (Rapping). And you can throw fashion in there too. Now, if you don’t know, rap as a distinct artform can be traced back to party-rocking MCs who would ‘toast’ over music to keep the party moving. One of the first acknowledged people to do this was Jamaican-born American DJ Kool Herc, back in the early 1970s. Of course, MCs had been doing this kind of thing in the West Indies long before the culture flourished in New York, and the concept of rhythmic spoken word poetry reaches back deep into the travelling griots of West Africa and beyond.

Now, the precise purpose of rap is an interesting debate. Part storytelling, part party rocking, part teaching, and part self-aggrandising, it’s a pretty complex mesh of purposes. What we can say for certain is that rappers, for better or for worse, have evolved into a breed of artists who are almost pathologically concerned with bigging themselves up. Inherent in the DNA of rap is a confidence that gives way to arrogance, a culture of self-promotion that should probably be repulsive, but is actually incredibly seductive. Not only do we tolerate these people who can’t stop talking about how amazing they are, but we actually encourage them to do so by buying, listening and sharing their records.

Now, permit me to state the obvious:

Rappers talk about themselves. A lot.

In the grand scheme of things, there are a great deal of topics to discuss in this world, and naturally, rappers do so. But they usually use themselves as the predominant lens through which to discuss the world at large, meaning that the focus is never that far away from themselves at all. This much is pretty simple, but where it gets interesting is in considering why rappers can’t seem to get over themselves, and indeed, why they feel the need to validate their existences so aggressively, through bragging. What are the psychological roots of all this boasting? Well, there are a few obvious (ish) reasons:

Competition: Hiphop is a culture rooted in healthy competition. It’s a celebration of expression, yes, but also a test of skill, with individuals or groups pitted against eachother to win plaudits and the respect of peers. Every time you stand up to spit a verse, you are entering an arena of lyrical battle. So you’d better be good.

Grandstanding: What better way to prove your superiority than displaying all the evidence of your successes? I’m better than you! How do I know? Well I’ve got a bigger car and more jewellery, obviously.

Insecurity: We all know that the most outwardly confident people are most likely harbouring deep-seated internal conflicts and self-deficiencies, hence the front they put up. They aren’t convincing us with all that big-talk, they’re convincing themselves! Ostentation is a mark of insecurity.

Pride: One of the Deadly Sins, yes, but a fair enough reason to shout about your achievements. Who else is going to do it? And coupled with the insecurity mentioned above you can see why someone might be likely to shout about their achievements. Like a toddler looking for parental approval.

Anyway, cod psychology aside, I now present the Top 20 Things That Rappers Brag About (In No Particular Order).

Enjoy.

Top 20: Things That Rappers Brag About (In No Particular Order)

1: The Gold Chain

If rapping was a job, a gold chain would be the uniform. From the earliest days of hiphop, rappers have adorned themselves in gold chains of various shapes and sizes up to and including thick gold ropes. The gold chain is the quintessential hiphop status symbol. It connotes wealth in an obvious, direct and indisputable manner; a physical display of wealth. Jewellery serves no purpose other than to signify wealth and look pretty, and to flaunt it is to flaunt one’s financial power.

Beyond this, there is something undeniably regal about gold. Rappers assert their authority and status not simply through wealth, but through specific trappings of wealth that might better befit a monarch.

Kanye shoutout: Mr West takes this to extremes both physically and conceptually in the line ‘Bought the chain that always give me back pain‘ (Monster), suggesting serious weight that is too heavy to handle. Here, it’s worth noting links to Ancient Egyptian culture (as you can see in the photo below). Arguably, gold symbolises an Afro-centric wealth that circumvents Western notions of wealth and kingship. Rappers, being born of migrant peoples, may well find allure in these ancient codes of prosperity.

Slick Rick, one of the most notorious wearers of gold in the game, calls himself ‘The Ruler’ and goes as far as donning a crown to complement the chains. He literally decks himself out in the garb of a king. Is this purely pantomime, or psychological self-aggrandisement?

One final WARNING from Lupe Fiasco though: ‘the crown don’t make you king…‘ Wise words Mr Fiasco, wise words…

2: The Watch

Similar to above, the watch (particularly the gold watch) is a staple hiphop status symbol. The difference between a fancy watch and a gold chain, however, is that a watch connotes a certain level of ‘class’, in a very Western perspective. The watch is a symbol of male sophistication and socio-cultural awareness. It’s the accessory of corporate success. Businessmen don’t bowl around in gold chains, but they damn sure have their Rolex sitting at the end of a well-tailored cuff.

Unsurprisingly, the Rolex (a long-accepted standard of timepiece excellence) has been the rapper’s watch of choice. In the 90s, Biggie asked us to ‘wave our Rollies in the sky‘ as a decadent variation of “wave your hands in the air”, and the Game recently announced the launch of a record label called ‘Rolex Records’.

Jay-Z, arguably one of the most successful (in financial terms and in regards to mainstream acceptance) rappers of our age, has taken his watch game to crazy heights. ‘Otis’ saw him announce new additions to the watch roster, including the brands Hublot and Audemar Piquet. Why? Because he wants to prove his ever growing sophistication, as symbolised by refined, obscure and expensive timepieces. Ironically, the excessive nature of these boasts could be said to detract from the sophistication being sought, especially in lines that compare a rapper to an Octopus (‘So many watches I need eight arms…‘). Not very classy, but you can see why a rapper might say such a thing in the first place.

3. Fashion

It’s no accident that rappers brag about what they wear, the reason being that what you wear says a lot about who you are (and what you want to be). Brand worship is one of the most obvious watermarks of rap in particular (not hiphop in general) and it’s not simply because the ability to purchase lots of clothes suggests a healthy bank account. That’s part of it, but just a small part. The real reason rappers talk clothes is because clothes denote culture and style, as well as wealth. Fine clothes  = refined living, be it RUN DMC bragging about unlimited supplies of Adidas, Biggie’s Coogi sweaters and Versace glasses, Meek Mill’s “fly as hell YSL“, Theophilus London’s “$900 Givenchy jeans“, Tyler the Creator’s affinity for SUPREME, Nas’ declaration of ‘never wearing less than Guess‘, Kanye West’s excursions into Martin Margiela or having ‘more clothes than Muhammad Ali’, almost every rapper has a fashion preference. Even when being ANTI-fashion, rappers can still find themselves name dropping, as in Roscoe P Coldchain’s assertion that he prefers Dickies workwear and Timbaland boots to flashy outfits.

Why? Because clothing is branding and rappers are masters of self promotion. It is perhaps unsurprising that many rappers have dabbled (with varying degrees of success) in clothing ranges. Notable examples include Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Wear, Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club and (Kanye shoutout!) Kanye West’s excursions with Louis Vuitton. The clothes maketh the man…

Worth noting that even relatively modest brands can be worthy of bragging, if they are the accepted mark of style. Case in point, Timbaland boots, which stomped all over 90s hiphop, and hiphop’s ongoing love affair with NIKE, ostensibly a mass-produced sportswear brand. We can all afford this stuff.

4. Cars

Hiphop does NOT mess about when it comes to materialism. In the world at large, cars are an obvious and ubiquitous status symbol, so it makes sense that rappers park their self-esteem in automobiles. That said, there are deeper resonances to the significance of the car. In the US, cars are a powerful symbolism of freedom and driving harks back to the pioneering spirit of the USA’s forefathers. Getting a car is a major US rite of passage and to own cars is akin to owning your own freedom. It makes sense that a rapper might boast about having wheels.

In this, the marginalised status of minority peoples cannot be ignored; having access to personal transport is highly self-affirming. Of course, the more prestigious the brand of car the better, hence why Rick Ross has (somewhat perversely) named his music ’empire’ after the Maybach automobile company. Some rappers, case in point Ludacris, positively evangelise over their cars, as the ode to the automobile ‘Two Miles an Hour‘ attests.

Kanye shoutout: The car as a status symbol has evolved nowadays to include all manner of light aircraft and high-performance water-based vehicles. Kanye says as much in the ‘Otis line’: ‘Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?” and, in ‘Clique’: ‘Speedboat swerve homie, watch out for the waves!’ Wheels are so 20th century…

5. Travel

When, in ‘Big Spender’, Theophilus London (pictured above) states “My nickname international, my accent change by accident” he exemplifies the rapper bragging about being well-travelled. Hiphop, at its core is a local phenomenon, born in ghettoised communities and never really expected to go global. Whenever rappers start bragging about having seen the world, they are effectively celebrating their emancipation. Similarly to ‘Cars’ above, travelling denotes true freedom – an important concept if you were born into socially constrained contexts (such as the ghetto). Furthermore, the well-travelled person is the cultured person. To have seen the world implies a high level of cultural capital that sets you apart from ordinary, home-bound nobodies.

Another Kanye shoutout: In ‘Gone’ Mr West rhetorically muses over how he can be out in Europe living large, having started in Chicago… “How we out in Europe, spending Euros…?”

Ok, so that’s the first five. Phew. Watch this space for numbers six to ten…

Best,

-Unseen Flirtations

Rap Genius: Notorious B.I.G – Insecure misogynist?

Hola,

So my recent Rap Genius exploits led me to start annotating Notorious B.I.G’s ‘One More Chance/ Stay With Me Remix’, a song that is ostensibly about the pursuit of women for sexual adventures, using wealth as bait. Fair enough.

A few minutes in, I realised that the song (one of my all time favourite tracks) has hidden depths that I am only now starting to appreciate. Which leads me straight to the question: Is Biggie an insecure misogynist?

You can read all of my notes by clicking here or on the picture below, but here’s an extract, focussing on one line in particular:

 

“The finest women I love with a passion”

Hang on. In the first verse, he declares how he has a predilection for ‘honeys, dummies, playboy bunnies and those wanting money’. Now he’s saying he has a passion for ‘the finest women’.

What’s going on?

Option A: Biggie is confused. He is (like most men, really) sexually insecure and actually seeks the validation of strong, independent, beautiful women. Being sexually unattractive (‘ugly as ever’), he is forced to rely on his wealth, which will only ever attract ‘inferior’ women, so that is what he does. He also resents this, as alluded to by the sinister connotations of ‘death stroke’ and ‘tongue all down your throat’ in Verse 2, which could imply a latent malevolence towards women.

Biggie’s affiliation of fine women to a flashy lifestyle is problematic (as raised by my wife) because it suggests that ‘fine’ women will only ever go for ‘fine’ men. Biggie should perhaps have more confidence in his creativity, intelligence and wit.

Option B: Biggie is seeking to empower women. He understands that many women, like him, (especially from America’s ghettos) are looking to empower themselves through financial means and he appreciates this. (Those wanting money/ They the ones I like…) This song charts the transformation of poor girls into rich girls. Then, in this final verse, he asks if said girl would ever go back to her old life, through the ‘him or me’ dilemma.

Option C: Both. Biggie, like Gatsby, has the power to live his dreams, transform women into queens on earth and win the finest women around, but cannot let go of his poverty-born insecurities. He validates himself through his ability to secure wealth and secure women, which is poignant because he ignores the thing that validates him most of all: his artistry.

Whoa.

Right then, That’s it for now.

-Unseen Flirtations

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