Using Popular Music to Challenge Social Justice Issues

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

Using Popular Music to Challenge Social Justice Issues


Morrison, Sarah, The Canadian Music Educator


In my last CME article, I discussed racism in popular music with a focus on using popular music as a vehicle to challenge racist views. I highlighted aspects of a project-based music education program through the Toronto District School board that is doing just that, the One World Youth Arts Project, which deals with social justice issues, such as racism, in meaningful ways through the creation and performance of popular music (Lashbrook, n.d.).

Another program which is confronting social justice issues through the use of popular music within a classroom environment is the Literacy and Values through Music: The Future We Want program in the Peel Board of Education. In this program, the elementary-aged students have been empowered to find their own voices in their classroom environment through the composition of popular music.

Literacy and Values through music

Instructional Co-ordinator of the Arts for the Peel District School Board, Mary Ann Fratia explained in an interview a project that uses literacy as the foundation, combined with the social justice/equity document, The Future We Want, as the lens with which to examine issues. The Future We Want document examines social justice issues through a series of seven 'isms:' racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, ableism and faith as an 'ism.' In this project, music, visual arts and drama are the ways through which the students explore these seven isms. The Literacy and Values through Music: The Future We Want project links literacy, social justice and equity themes and the arts through lyric and music writing projects for elementary school students in the Peel District School Board.

Each elementary school that was involved in the project last year (11 schools in total) was assigned an artist who worked with each class to compose lyrics and music around the particular social justice issue that they were assigned. The artist who worked with the students last year and who has been involved with the project for the past four years is Canadian singer-songwriter, Gregg Lawless. During the project period, Gregg visits the classes three times to talk about popular music, discuss their "ism," brainstorm words and rhyming schemes as well as demonstrate chord progressions and musical aspects of the pop music form such as verse, bridge and chorus. The students and Gregg, the songwriter, work through the brainstorming, creative improvisation, and composition process together in a partnership, thus resulting in the co-writing of the songs. The students also write letters to mayors and superintendents inviting them to come to their concert to experience the performances of these songs that they create and that mean so much to them. The culminating event of this process is an art exhibition and final performance showcase: the Literacy and Values through Music gala showcase and art exhibition, which is performed each year at the Living Arts Centre with all of the elementary school classes performing their composition supported by Gregg Lawless and his rock band. Last year, the compositions had titles such as: I don't need a label, The way you treat me, Don't hide and It's a rich life, all of which reflected the variety of social justice issues that were being examined and deconstructed by the students through musical activities. As Mary Ann outlined, these compositions encompassed a variety of popular music styles and instruments:

They perform these songs at the Living Arts Centre with a rock band, a rock/pop band. There's piano, there's a saxophone player, a flautist, a drummer, bass player and guitar. Sometimes we use world instruments, sometimes we use a reggae beat, sometimes it's pop, sometimes it's spiritual, sometimes it's rock, sometimes it's a ballad but it's all pop styles about social justice issues. (Fratia, 2007)

During our interview, Mary Ann expanded on the idea of exploring social justice issues through musical experiences and tasks. …

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