- Who is the ‘I’ of the song? (How) can we tell?
- If he doesn’t believe in God, why reference religious things?
- Who is the ‘you’ of the song?
- Why does he use the word ‘Nigga’?
- Could the song be read as a justification for gang culture / victim status?
- (In what ways) could Australians be termed ‘criminal minded’
The questions above were created by members of ‘The Dead Historians Society’ a voluntary group of A-level History students at BSix College, Hackney that includes their teacher. I met the group a few days before at an exhibition that featured their words and photos and was struck with their passion for discussion. Their teacher had invited me to the meeting as she wanted to build on the students’ interest in Hip-Hop. I chose a song that contained numerous historical references. (I should probably add here, as I did in the session, that the video contains violent images and strong language.)
We listened to ‘The Point of No Return’ by Immortal Technique. The lyrics (which we read), along with some commentary (which we didn't) can be viewed here: http://rapgenius.com/Immortal-technique-the-point-of-no-return-lyrics
In the spirit of Philosophy for Children/Communities (P4C), I invited each member of the group to reflect on what was interesting, challenging or confusing about the song and then shape his/her thoughts into a question.
The questions were then written up, and clarified where required. The members then voted for the question they wished to explore together in the session.
The question that proved most popular was;
“Could the song be read as a justification for gang culture / victim status?”
This question, offered by a student whom I gather listens to Immortal Technique regularly, is striking. It forced the group to consider a critical reading of Technique’s lyrics and find evidence to justify accepting or refuting such a reading.
The fact that it was selected by the group does seem to fly in the face of populist arguments that young people are vulnerable and in need of protection from messages in Hip-Hop songs. It may even have challenged my preconceptions as a self-declared ‘Hip-Hop Teacher’. I had anticipated fostering critical analysis of rap lyrics using my skills as a teacher, P4C practitioner and apprentice academic. In fact, the critical analysis was already going on.
Given the many historical references in the song, and the students’ own historical knowledge, the discussion was at time understandably free-wheeling. It was also inter-disciplinary. I was too engrossed to take notes, but from memory;
There was literary enquiry
- Looking for textual evidence to support an interpretation of the lyrics and to speculate as to authorial intent. For example, is Technique using revolution in a metaphorical or literal sense?
- Does he view violent death as inevitable?
There was historical enquiry
- Does Technique’s apparent message that all human change / evolution / revolution is ‘bloody and dramatic’ hold up to historical scrutiny?
- Can we think of counter-examples?
There was philosophical enquiry
- Is our own choice between dying (or living) for the throne or ‘our own’? Or is this only a choice at ‘the revolutionary moment’?
- When do we have enough knowledge to commit to something?
- How are to we discern who is and is not ‘our own’? Are we ‘looking at the world through a crack’? Is this like Plato’s simile of the cave? How can we gain the knowledge and understanding to see beyond this?
- Is Technique’s reading of the situation one of optimism or pessimism?
- (In what ways) are we more than ‘merely’ products of our environment?
- What are the similarities and differences between ‘gang culture’ and ‘guerilla warfare’?
These are just some of the questions we touched upon and many of them deserve their own enquiry. As you can see whilst some of the questions are quite abstract, many of them took us to areas both practical and profoundly personal. I think that this is what philosophical enquiry, and Hip-Hop, can and should do.
I regret not giving more space for the idea raised by one student that 'Living in the hole, looking at the world through a crack' might not be only a prison metaphor but could also refer to Plato's cave. My own dislike of the theory of the forms clouded my thinking and resulted in my blocking this line of inquiry, albeit very subtly. However we did later return to this, discussing the idea of partial knowledge and how we can ever ascertain that we have sufficient understanding of a situation.
If I had one aim it was to encourage the students to reflect on the world and their role in it. If I learned one thing it was that they were already doing this. That's not to say that I, as an educator, have nothing to offer them. I think I can help them to reflect critically - but only if I remain committed to doing so myself.
I’m very grateful to the members of the ‘Dead Historians Society’ for giving me the opportunity to dialogue with them and consenting to me writing this blog-post.
I would like to invite the Dead Historians to add their thoughts about the session below.