Last week at school I jumped into a conversation about music with a couple of PE teachers discussing who would put together the music playlist for our upcoming Sports Day; one of my favourite days on the school calendar.
Memories from my own school days and those I have been involved with as a teacher over the last 15 years have carved this joy into my psyche. From the tribalism of the banner carrying and cheering for your own form; the timeless subversion of PE kit rules; the 'inclusive' celebration of obese kids anchoring the tug-o-war to the flirting, picnicking and student/teacher relay races, sports day is an organised chaos that hints at a better way to structure the educational experience.
Music is a big part of any good Sports Day and one that is steeped in its own traditions and that carries its own canon of dead white cultural norms; as much as any subject area of the curriculum. Queen, Spandau Ballet and Survivor are the Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale and Henry VIII of the sports day playlist; songs that many of my North West London ethnic minority students only know from Sports Day and perhaps BBC Olympics coverage in 2012; music as alien to them as the dead white 'heroes' they learn to quote in GCSE essays.
Back to the conversation. I was reluctant to offer my services to compile the music for this event despite itching to do so. The reason for this was that it would not have been the first time I had taken on this task, and last time it literally ended in tears. Not my tears but those of a more senior teacher who was "too upset to talk" at the end of a beautiful day in the sun because despite my greatest efforts, the Dizzee Rascal tune I was convinced had no swear words contained a solitary F bomb that came to represent their entire experience of the day. I brushed it off despite being slightly annoyed with myself for not managing to construct a playlist that both represented the culture and times of our students that also conformed to the squeaky cleanliness that is required for such an event.
Most of the staff and all of the students commented on how good the music had been, with a few staff merely commenting that it was possibly a bit 'edgy' or 'untraditional'. But the students loved it. I know this from the dancing, gun-finger salutes and exclamations of "SHUT UUUP" issued from their grinning faces when their/our music blasted from the sound system perched atop the school minibus parked like some west coast gangster's lowrider on the side of the school field. Needless to say, I was not asked to contribute the following year and the playlist returned to the canon amongst a selection of top 40 hits that contained an equal level of sexualised, misogynistic, patriarchal messages as anything that had been filling the students ears the previous year did, but with an absence of that solitary 'fuck' that had come to define the entire day's selection in the previous year. A couple years have passed since then and the memory of that 'upsetting' moment has receded to back of my colleagues minds. I bite the bullet and interject,
"I've got loads of music, I can do you a playlist if you like."
My offer is met with looks of relief rather than the suspicion and fear I was concerned it may elicit.
"Ah, could you? That'd be great Chris; I don't have a clue about music."
I add that,
"I'll put a few of the classics in their and a mix of new music. I've got plenty of pop music since I had kids, it'll be easy."
The job is mine.
Later that evening I sit down with iTunes and start curating. The canon installed I start on the more exciting task of selecting tunes that will be relevant, contemporary and representative as well as some that are educational, political and subversive, all the while screening each choice for the stray profanity that could 'ruin the day' for some of the more fragile staff at the school. This proves a harder task than I had hoped for. From songs that celebrate local London culture from local artists to pop bangers from Rihanna, all seem to contain these stray shots of swearing that either require their deletion from the list or several hours of editing in Pro Tools to remove B words, N words, H words, S words and other 'trigger words'. An hour or so in and having spent a few quid on iTunes to purchase 'clean versions' of a few 'must have' tracks I wonder why I am bothering. Spending 99p on Rihanna's 'Work' to remove Drake's guest rap N bomb while it still includes his assertion that he knows Rihanna needs to get "done, done, done, done, done" is frustrating to say the least. The same problem persists as I trawl through Hip-hop track after R&B track after Grime track until what I am left with is a compilation where the poignant, insightful and most importantly relevant music of the generation it will entertain has had many of the positive political and educational messages removed due to profanity. Notable exceptions that do make the list come from Shay D, Lady Leshurr, Nas, Jay-Z and JME, but not from Jamie's brother or a whole host of other big names that I want to include. As a DJ there is no way I can treat this task with any less importance than were I filling my Serato crate to open up for Wu Tang or to rock a weekend set at XOYO - every gig is the most important gig at the time you are doing it and if you can't muster that passion for your music or audience then you don't deserve the gig.
So, 5 hours later, once I've padded the set out with the safer old school Garage anthems; Dubstep remixes; Soul classics from James Brown to Charles Wright; pop anthems from MJ to Beyoncé and the few 'real bangers' that manage to avoid the perceived necessity of 'adult language' to convey universal messages, I am 99% sure I have fulfilled the brief to create a diverse and relevant compilation without inadvertently including any 'bombs' that could see all that effort thrown back in my face by a weeping colleague, and I am left to lament Hip-hop's persistent leaning towards profanity; a leaning that narrows its scope for inclusion on radio shows and in school classrooms; two places where the messages of hip-hop can reach a deservedly wide audience and contribute to the mass consciousness and discourse of our time. Most Hip-hop will not make it into these spaces and that is a shame. At its widest level this means that while Kendrick will get a radio edited version of his message onto mainstream radio, many other artists without the resources or savvy to produce radio versions of their work will continue to preach to the converted on underground shows and in underground clubs. More narrowly it means that my Sports Day playlist will contain no Skepta; no Stormzy; no Dr. Dre; no Kendrick (I'm not paying double); no J Cole; no Dizzee; no Giggs, Getts or Kano, despite them being some of mine and my students favourite MCs.
Now, this is not some 40 year old puritanical epiphany post as I fucking love swearing and love it in my music too, but it does frustrate me that some of the important messages held within the music I love and want to share with young people (including my own daughters) will remain unshared and possibly unheard by them. If they are heard they will be heard outside of the formal education space; a space where they can be debated and built upon; critiqued and celebrated alongside their dead white counterparts. This is also not to say that this is solely the fault of the music or artists as schools have a lot to answer for in this also, as while it is acceptable in school to read Of Mice and Men and discuss the meaning of the N words it holds within its pages, it is not acceptable to hear them coming from a rappers lips over a 140bpm beat that sounds like a collage of gunshots and gravel. I understand the difference in context between debating language in and English class and blaring it out of a PA system for the entertainment of students at Sports Day and that is why I find it frustrating that some of this great music rules itself out of inclusion due to its profane vocabulary despite also containing emancipatory, socially critical, culturally relevant concepts delivered through rich, complex, dynamic phraseology - the kind of stuff that can change minds and lives, but only outside of the school space.
So, in conclusion, respect to those artists that manage to get that rawness across without the need for cussing, and props to those who don't give a fuck about having their shit played at a school Sports Day alike. As I've said already I don't have a single motherfucking problem with swear words, but perhaps, if we as artists are making music that we really want to change the world and school the youth then perhaps we need to think about occasionally holding fire on the F bombs and N bombs on certain tracks to ensure that they are not automatically disqualified from entering the school space; a space where many students struggle daily to see themselves reflected in the content of their lessons; the characters in their books; the heroes on their wall displays or the songs on their Sports Day playlist.
So, here's hoping I have done my due diligence and don't make any fragile white teachers cry with my playlist. If I have, then at least any crying and protesting will not be able to so easily hide behind the facade of an anti-profanity stance, rather than more likely being as a result of the fragility often triggered in certain white teachers when urban contemporary blackness enters the school space unannounced and uninvited.
For my students I hope it goes some way to paying back for the weeks of hiding themselves, contorting themselves and restraining themselves into the structure and rigidity of a school system that rarely holds their cultures, arts or histories in any great esteem.
© Poetcurious 2016