Kendrick Lamar as MLK Jr.
“What are you listening to?”
I know. I’m not supposed to have kids listening to their iPods in school. It was after the ELA state test, and they needed to decompress after another long period of little to no movement.
“What do you mean, Mr. V?”
“I mean, what are you listening to?”
“You know, stuff.”
“Stuff? Like, what kind of stuff?”
“Umm, rap, you know …” as he waves his hands, presumably to shy away from actually answering what he’s listening to.
“Like …” I’m not afraid.
“What song?” with my sternest Mr. Vilson voice.
Was he serious?
“Yeah, like, the song is just about ballin’.”
I didn’t ask for lyrics. When he told me the next song was called “Macaroni Time,” I didn’t push him any further.
A few months later, we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of hip-hop, a rebel music born in New Jersey (really), but matured in the Bronx. Its international reach has now been achieved in all art forms, from the breakdance and the graffiti to the DJing and fashion. Yet, the rap component has gotten the most attention, and for obvious reasons.
Rap’s been through so many phases, where we’ve been treated to a whole spectrum of lyrical possibility, from the super-simple a-b-a-b of Sugarhill Gang, the politically charged era of Chuck D, the rhyme dexterity of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, the smoothness of A Tribe Called Quest and the Roots, to the rawness of NWA, Biggie, and 2Pac, the gangsta of Snoop and Dre, the ebullience of Ma$e and Fugees, and the luxury raps of Jay-Z and Kanye.
Today, Kendrick Lamar, an up-and-coming rapper of this generation, dropped what many consider a gem of a feature on Big Sean’s “Control.” Twitter lost its mind as he challenged the current crop of rappers to the throne. In the middle of that discussion, someone dropped the meme above.
My sense of humor dropped in before I could be offended, but many found the meme to be offensive, saying that kids these days have no historical context and thus, this meme was disrespectful. Of course, I completely understand this perspective. The Civil Rights Movement is nothing to sneeze at, much less make light of in a meme. Martin Luther King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Monument didn’t just represent a great opus in American history, but the hopes and dreams for a better America for all citizens, regardless of background.
Having said that, my question is, who do kids relate to? A guy who’s been diluted in schools to a caricature or a young rapper who exposes all his flaws and speaks their language? It’s almost as if every generation continues the tradition of denigrating the generation after it for lacking historical context, as if our generation somehow assured the next generation would understand these histories in their language. If anything, the previous generation finds a way to talk down to the next as a means of control and, frankly, an elitism that shouldn’t exist.
So, rather than conform, they revolt. Jazz, be-bop, blues, rock, disco, and rap (and surely many others) came out of his intergenerational frustration, growing extra-explicit by the years.
Those of us that work with students ought to notice this and, rather than have kids fit into a small box that we’ve created for what a “leader” looks like, understand the context in which the “congregation” resides. For, if we remember MLK Jr. as the legendary activist, not the lowly preacher and party-starter in his early 20s. We remember Malcolm X as the great orator and community spark plug, not the drug selling pimp of his youth. We don’t know if they had the “audience” that the Temptations, Little Richard, or Miles Davis had at their times. We just know that, over time, they came to represent something.
My kids are listening to Chief Keef, Wiz Khalifa, and Kendrick Lamar. They think LeBron James is better than MJ, or soon will be. They may not make any of my lists for favorite rappers. Rather than blast them for being wrong, let’s listen to what they have to offer, show them an alternative, and hope they somehow tap into a more human experience, one that empowers them and not through violence.
I’m happy for those that want to promote the “positive” hip-hop, too, but what made hip-hop great wasn’t just the Slick Ricks and Run DMCs, but the Digital Undergrounds and Outkasts as well. When we appreciate rap for all its capable of, and then decide which side we lie on, that makes for healthy rap. If, as we have now, we only focus on “negative” rap, then we cloud our own judgment, and thus, how we react when kids listen to Drake or J. Cole.
Perhaps we’d do well to understand the nuance in his lyrics too. With songs like “Real,” “The Art of Peer Pressure,” and “Black Boy Fly,” we get a chance to listen to the voice of a generation of youth of color. To listen intently. To listen with both ears. Then speak. When it’s our turn. Then teach accordingly.