Monday, 25 June 2012

"Living in the hole, looking at the world through a crack"

  • 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 I chose a song that contained numerous historical references.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:

 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Given the many historical references in the song, and the students’ own historical knowledge, the discussion was at time understandably free-wheeling.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.


  1. I didn't know about Plato's cave till I looked it up just now. Maybe Technique does see himself as a teacher enlightening the "prisoners" who aren't seeing the true reality of their situation. But he also identifies with them - he says he knows what it's like in the struggle. He's been in the hole too.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      This was something we discussed in the session. We wrestled with the problem of how, if you don't see the 'true reality' you can be sure that someone who claims they can, really can. Is it a leap of faith? Or something else?

  2. Maybe it's something more down to earth. You might be in the hole to some extent and read a book or listen to an artist like Technique and think 'ok, this person has thought deeply about this, seems to know more than me, and seems to have synthesised that knowledge into a description of reality that makes more sense of more stuff than I have been able to' Then you look into it more and construct something that makes sense to you. Technique, I think, implores us to read more. He also says 'I'm just a man, don't follow me' He knows nobody can flick a switch and suddenly 'see' reality - I guess he just wants us to begin the search for truth. By being provocative like Socrates.

    1. "Provocative like Socrates" - that's a great line!

  3. The discussion on Tech was great, thoroughly enjoyed delving into the song and it made me realize even more the power hip hop music has.

  4. Thanks Anon!

    I'm really glad you enjoyed the discussion. I'd be interested in hearing more about what you see as the power of hip-hop.

  5. Refreshing to see a teacher who recognises that we can learn from our students and that they are not simply empty vessels to be filled with our 'expert' knowledge. Sessions like these that encourage crtical thinking, build confidence and get students to question and challenge the world around them are needed more and more to combat the ever narrowing view of education. Young people genuinely at the heart of the learning process - well done.

  6. Thanks for your comments of support Anon!