Exploring Popular Culture in Education


Tim Weedon

"In this module, I explore music, in particular hip-hop music, in education and suggest that using popular music approaches designed to add, supplement and encourage meaning, needs to relate to young people's contextual experiences - their daily life experiences outside of their formal/vocational educational structures however challenging this may be for the educator."

A note about Tim Weedon

Tim Weedon is a popular educator who specialises in popular culture with a focus on Hip-Hop. He is a music manager, writes his own music and has now dedicated his career to supporting and promoting young people interested in the music industry.

Tim began his career in the music industry writing, performing and managing 'rap' and 'hip-hop' bands'. He is originally from Washington DC in the US and now lives in Sweden where he founded the Modern Soul Academy (MSA), an educational charity that promotes and supports young people interested in music. MSA provides young people with the skills necessary to engage with the music industry, including music 'culture' - rapping, singing, songwriting, 'DJing', live instruments, graffiti, breakdancing, choreography dancing and media, music production, etc. (See http://www.soulacademy.com for more information). In Ireland Tim has worked with the North East Inner City Youth Network since 2005 designing a music course for young people to encourage interest and appreciation for music at all levels. (See http://www.neicyouthartsfestival.org/ for more information).


A note about this module

www.developmenteducation.ie commissioned Tim to help us develop a module that encourages educators in a variety of different educational settings to consider using popular culture to explore development and other broader issues in education.


Popular Culture in Education

'Are teachers, schools, youth groups and educators prepared to cross the threshold to becoming cool?'

Young people today consider popular culture to be 'cool'. Popular culture has a major impact and influence on the development and learning experiences of young people. I define popular culture as a relationship associated with young people's everyday interests of music, art, media, internet, TV, radio and fashion - it offers creativity, challenges, participation and engagement.

One important consideration in exploring today's popular culture (just as in previous generations) is the type of lyric used among various artists which can be quite explicit, although reflective of the changing times. Today's 'information age' which I define as a fast paced, easy access, consumption-driven society, constantly bombards and confronts young people with very complex ideas and (often adult) information. I sympathise with young people having to deal with the growing gap between traditional/mainstream education and the 'real world' - how can we expect young people to make informed decisions when faced with such conflicting and often contradictory information? For this reason, as an educator, I focus on the development skills that offer young people a level of familiarity and which may assist them in finding solutions to everyday challenges. My approach for implementing music is not only focused on basic educational skills but also on the more complex life-long learning development skills that present themselves in daily life. For example, I once experienced a young person in a class who was having difficulty in understanding the historical geography of a particular country - Sierra Leone in Africa. In this instance I was able to make a link between researching the country Sierra Leone and a specific theme within the rapper Kanye West song, Diamonds are Forever' (or "Diamonds from Sierra Leone").

Suggestion: Making use of popular culture in education requires a willingness on the part of the educator to research, experiment and have a general awareness and interest in the area. Try to find out about your group/class interests in music/art/media/role models/etc., and ask why these interests? Are there other nationalities in the group that can contribute a wider world perspective?

Let's explore some examples of music and lyrics that can be used in education.

I'll begin with an 'experiment' - I have chosen four different song lyrics reflecting various experiences, knowledge and information. I begin with the group U2 particularly because, I am writing in Ireland (although I was very surprised to learn that not every Irish person likes U2) and because I really like the group. Some educators may not be familiar with the other artists I have chosen - Kanye West, Common and Mos Def - who are American hip-hop artists. I have taken a short excerpt from various lyrics of each song for this short exercise.


Exercise 1

On a piece of paper write (4) four bullet points per song showing how the brief text could be integrated into the classroom/workshop. This is designed to stimulate popular educators to create dialogue for further discussion in the classroom/workshop with young people around a variety of issues/topics. At the end of the lyrics I list some suggestions where I would use them.

A.) Lyrics: "New York" by U2

"In New York freedom looks like
Too many choices....

The Irish been coming here for years
Feel like they own the place...
They got the airport, city hall, asphalt, dance floor, they even got the police..."

Suggested use: These few lines could be used to open up a discussion and further research of Irish emigration and the Irish-American diaspora. These lyrics could be used in a Geography, History, Maths and/or English class.


B.) Lyrics: "Hey Mama" by Kanye West:

"(Hey Mama), I wanna scream so loud for you, cuz I'm so proud of you
Let me tell you what I'm about to do, (Hey Mama)
I know I act a fool but, I promise you I'm goin back to school...

Forrest Gump mama said, life is like a box of chocolates
My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate...

Can't you see, you're like a book of poetry
Maya Angelou, Nicky Giovanni, turn one page and there's my mommy..."

Suggested use: These lyrics draw upon family relationships, specifically between a mother and son. It displays unfulfilled expectations regarding school completion and parental advice around education and can work well when used with youth groups or younger groups in topical areas such as culture, self-awareness, independent enquiry, career guidance, relationships.

Additional note: this particular artist's mother is a professor lecturing at a university in America.


C.) "Misunderstand" by Commom, original (chorus) Nina Simone

"Yeah, uh (Misunderstood)
We do this, for the people that walk that path
Tryna get to their dream, yeah, uh (oh)

He stood on the corner with the rest of them
Though he knew that this corner wasn't the best of him..
Hard streets and a life that crested him

He knew the President wadn't addressin him
Though dead presidents was undressin him
Two kids from hot sex no protection and
People don't see how AIDS is affectin 'em
It get hard to get the get the God question in
Can't find a job so you robbin and hustling
He killed marks and sold dope for cousin 'em

He on the ground he could feel God touching him
He heard the sound of his moms sayin trust in him
Or send me back to tell my people to be better men

Life would break her, now she powderin
She was high when she fell down and then
Crowd surrounding and, heart was poundin and
She fell into a deep sleep the siren sounded and
Seen bright lights in the midst of clouds and then
Talked to God, feeling like his child again"

Suggested use: The lyrics to this piece could be used when discussing the issues and repercussions of illicit drug use, unprotected sex, HIV/AIDS, responsibilities within society, etc. Some suggested areas include: Citizenship, mentor/leadership programs, sex education/HIV & AIDS prevention, drug/alcohol awareness.

Additional note: this particular artist's mother is a professor lecturing in a university in America.


D.) "New World Water Lyrics" By Mos Def

"There's nothing more refreshing (that cool refreshing drink)
Than a cool, crisp, clean glass of water...

Tell your crew use the H2 in wise amounts since
it's the New World Water; and every drop counts
You can laugh and take it as a joke if you wanna
But it don't rain for four weeks some summers...

Used to have minerals and zinc in it (New World Water)
Now they say it got lead and stink in it (New World Water)
Fluorocarbons and monoxide
Push the water table lopside

Used to be free now it cost you a fee
Cause oil tankers spill they load as they roam cross the sea
Man, you gotta cook with it, bathe and clean with it (That's right)...

The rich and poor, black and white got need for it (That's right)
And everybody in the world can agree with this (Let em know)
Consumption promotes health and easiness (That's right)
Go too long without it on this earth and you leavin it (Shout it out)"

Suggested use: In these lyrics, Mos Def raises the awareness of the need and importance of water for survival and how the precious commodity is misused. These lyrics can be used in sessions looking at international development in particular water and sanitation, desertification, water scarcity and preservation, etc; social studies, politics and sciences, social responsibility.


Motivation to use music and lyrics

This simple exercise can be used to encourage and motivate us to engage with popular music and lyrics in exploring various issues and contexts with young people- and all without the need for a trained professional musician or even knowing or liking the music!

Some educators may consider the cross-curricular use of popular music and lyrics challenging due to various restrictions within the traditional curriculum or various educational policies, and also because of the educators unfamiliarity with the music - but do try it, it's not as hard as it might seem at first glance.

Yet, the young person's familiarity with the music/musician can be a strong resource tool for teaching and learning. There are many studies that attest to the enhancement of the learning experiences of young people through their engagement with music - music in any form can be related to the idea of storytelling, language, history and collaboration, etc.

I recommend that all popular educators should feel confident in using music. Music can be adapted and integrated across all curriculum subjects. Making music is one form of learning and music-listening is just as important as music-making as it provides meaning and structure to the way in which ideas are created and realised (Elliot 1995). Using music holistically as a tool within education is not an abstract concept - if we look at its use within primary education: children learn pronunciation and syllabic construction of words through song rhythms. Music within primary schools is associated with teaching children reading, articulation, memorisation, vocabulary, language development and understanding culture. Studies also show that there is a link between the use of music and literacy, numeracy and social skills.


It's show time and the curtain goes up!

Now I will look at drawing all these various aspects together using three (3) stages:

  1. Preparation
  2. Personal development
  3. Practice (classroom experiences)

In addition, I will suggest resources and references that may be used to further develop innovative approaches to integrating music within education.