By LENNOX FARRELL
So, what is Hip-hop as regimen-implemented? On one hand, is it the possibility of educators using hip-hop to appease Black students into staying in school? Like being in the mall; another option for hanging-out, but under supervision?
Or, is it educators implementing hip-hop into the curriculum with the same expectations of pedagogic rigor had for any other genre of literature, drama and art? In other words, curricula designed to prepare students to grow into adulthood with a sense of anticipation for lives of fulfillment and a sense of consequence for their actions.
So, fair or unfair, prepared or not, let’s spring full-panoplied into these assumptions and concerns. First, concerns about quality come from experiences in mid-1970s Ontario. Then, there were some schools with overwhelming majority Black student populations, and majority White staff. In some such schools, a principal, teacher or others out of favour with school board officials, could be penalized by being banished into the professional dead-end of these educational Gulags.
On one occasion in one of these schools, a Black student was at her desk, her ‘A’ grade getting the attention of a visiting Black official. When the student was commended for this grade, she said, in all innocence, that she got this for anything she did (regardless of quality).
Unbidden, the memory of this Grade 3 student came to mind when, in the May 7, 2014 edition of Share, I read the article titled, “New book uses hip-hop to engage minds of youth”. Championed by several skilled educators from our community, the announcement heralds an official inclusion of ‘hip-hop’ into the Ontario high-school curricula. On reflection, and in all fairness, especially given who are the architects of this inclusive curriculum and, as well, the positive changes in expectations and staffing now more readily available in Ontario schools, the memory is unwarranted, surely.
An accompanying supportive statement on this curriculum initiative by Dr. Althea Prince, in her own right an essayist, fiction writer, spoken word poet and playwright, was also most apt. “(Her) vision,” she said, “was that hip-hop would (finally) take its place alongside ‘normal’ poetry”.
In short, taking its rightful place here in formal education, hip-hop must be treated and taken, not as peripheral, but as core curriculum. It must assist students to learn, and use as a matter of course, the elemental skills of grammar in parsing explicit language and analyzing implicit intent. It must impart such staples as the specific poetic and literary features of literature in their various forms. Subsequently, for practical purposes and aesthetic possibilities, it must assist in enlarging and enlightening the livelihoods, and the lives, of our Ontario students.
If the above is hoped-for expectation, what about hip-hop’s curricula content? A third article will consider it as history and possible myth-replacer. Here, the multi-faceted hip-hop is assessed as resistance art (music, literature, et al).
In North America, holding pride of place in this resistance genre is the Negro spiritual. Also called the spiritual, or the ‘anthem’, it is the baby mama of gospel music, soul, rhythm & blues, jazz, etc. Through their influence, the spiritual is the great-grandmother of disco rap, break-dancing, hip-hop, blockos. The spiritual is also kin to kaiso, calypso, steelpan, soca, John Canoe, reggae, etc. And this list only includes some former English-speaking colonies.
If the spiritual is mother, grandmother and kin to these, who is their common ancestor? The griot: that multi-dimensional African artiste-persona of story-telling, history-recalling, dream-revealing and myth-making regulator of social, spiritual, communal and cosmic rites-de-passage drama.
The vestigial presence of the griot remains embedded in every art form of Diasporic Africans. Thus, Carnival celebrations in Portuguese-speaking Brasil; Spanish-speaking Cuba; French-speaking Louisiana; and English-speaking Trinidad & Tobago have the same iconic forms: Moko Jumbie (stilt-walker), puppets, masques, African drumming, Dame Lorraine, Jab (Diablo) Molassie, etc. Unfortunately, like Carnival, a debased hip-hop has also commercialized the sacred bodies of Black women into wh*res and b*tch*s.
Not surprisingly, then, in her ancestral role as resistance art, the spiritual is created, using most often the pentatonic scale: the Black and minor keys on the piano. This scale is also used in many other forms of folk music: Celtic, Hungarian, West African. Interestingly, too, other genres of Black resistance music were created using these Minor keys. For example, the kaiso or chantwell, distressed uncle of the calypso, and created under similar conditions and in the same era of the spiritual, was also shouted. It was used, however, to fortify ‘stick-fighters’ contending in dirt-floor ‘gayals’ in rural Trinidad.
In a summative example, vestigial forms of the spiritual also bear witness to the griot in hip-hop performances. Here is a YouTube link for “Rough Side of the Mountain” www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKQC2qf8gMg&index=26&list=RDqKQC2qf8gMg
Looking closely, one can see the following: first, a lead singer who does ‘the call’; and second – standing beside him – is a woman leading the ‘response’.
In their roles, while he makes the call, she with small half-turns, cues those behind on when to join in the response. Third, he sings the first stanza alone. Fourth, the choir seated behind him stands and sings only after he gives a cue, fifth – incidental-looking – with his left hand. Sixth, this cue is picked up by the pastor, a smiling woman seated centre-stage behind him. She stands, and is followed by the others on the platform. Seventh, looking closely at the almost imperceptible signals of the lead singer’s left hand, you realize that he is directing the choir behind him throughout.
Immaculately choreographed, juxtaposed with messages deeply felt and expressed, the lead singer as prophet-preacher and social commentator – epitome of the griot – paints lyrics groaning under the individual and communal weight of pain, struggles and hopes: social and spiritual. These unfold under a spirited rhythm of instruments, syncopated hand-clapping, and encouragement ‘hollers’. Encompassed within this rainbow range of skin-colours, everyone is present as participant; not spectator. In short, like the spiritual, and the Carnival, hip-hop is inclusive.
Finally, the combined roles of the lead singer as preacher, social commentator and choir director appear seamless, unrehearsed. In reality, however, what this performance shows is that nothing else requires as much practice and preparation as spontaneity; the spontaneity of the Negro spiritual. For, after all, is there ever any rehearsal for resistance against injustice, racial injustice?
To Be Continued: What relationship is there between hip-hop, Bob Marley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet who penned, “How Do I Love Thee?”
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