Can Pop Be Relevant? Using Popular Music to Address Issues of Racism

By Morrison, Sarah | The Canadian Music Educator, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Can Pop Be Relevant? Using Popular Music to Address Issues of Racism


Morrison, Sarah, The Canadian Music Educator


See I had these walls, built up so strong,

Built when I was young in wars I won,

Fortified alone, stone upon stone

So tall I could not see beyond my wall.

(Malinowski, 2007).

What is happening to that music [of Africa]? Who is going to the trouble to resuscitate and give dignity to that abundance of musical richness? When are we going to finally and truly say and mean it when we say our culture has richness that demands serious attention to be shared with the rest of the world? (Makube, 2007)

In an educational context, social justice can be approached as a series of "isms" to discuss and consider such as racism, classism or sexism. For my second CME popular music column, I have decided to reflect on the topic of racism in popular music. This is major issue with many subtopics and areas of investigation which cannot be adequately covered in one brief column. My goal is to open the dialogue. I will begin with some personal reflections, then describe a school music program here in Canada which deals with social justice issues in relevant ways through the creation and performance of popular music.

The images and experiences that shape us

As I reflected on the idea of using popular music as a vehicle to confront and to gradually overcome social justice issues, such as racism, many thoughts and images whirled around in my mind.

First, there was the recent news that the Toronto District School Board is establishing Afro-centric schools to address dropout rates among black students. The proposal is to implement black-focused curriculums at three existing schools in the northwest end of the city; and that these schools would be open to all students (Rushowy & Girard, 2008). There are worries that this is simply a step closer to the days of segregation. What changes, positive and negative, will these alternative schools bring to the city of Toronto?

This conjured up a memory, from my stay in Vryburg, South Africa this past summer, of South African students performing rap and hip hop routines at a school talent show. In particular, I remember a group of young black men whose step-dance and improvisational hip hop routines were based on the folk heritage and dances of the Batswana people. My Canadian students, who were there with me in South Africa, were mesmerized and inspired by this exceptional dance and the clear importance of the performance to the South African students as not only a dance but as a part of their culture worthy of preserving and celebrating.

This past week, I was watching scenes from the movie Hairspray with my grade nine vocal class as we are preparing a medley of songs from the musical. As I watched, I was reminded again how recently the issues of segregation among young people were a reality and I mentioned this to my students. They told me that they felt that the 60s were a long time ago, also mentioning that this was the decade in which their parents were born, and so not at all recent from their perspective. They assured me that things are much better now; that things are different.

I was reminded of another scene from my South Africa trip when the South African students and the Canadian students were working together on a joint painting project and the South African students were singing a pop tune by Rihanna. One of my students joined in and belted out a line in a soulful fashion and then, embarrassed, remarked that she felt too "white" to really sing this song properly. The other students laughed along with her and seemed to understand her remark. What did she really mean by this statement? Why did she say it?

I recall a day last week when a student read the excerpts of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior's message in celebration of the upcoming Martin Luther King Day in the United States. The words of Dr. King are incredibly powerful and never cease to move and inspire me as they did on that day in the midst of the January cold. …

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