Tuesday, January 27, 2015

“The Beat is Designed So I Can Enter Your Mind”: Youth Pop Cultural Texts in My Life as Student and Teacher

By Buster Nelson

A quote from a song by a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hip-hop group gives this piece its title.  I must have first heard it in 1988 when I was in sixth grade.    The quote represents how the youth pop cultural songs, movies, and clothing fashions of my youth have affected my life-long learning.  Today, regardless of whether you, or I, or anyone else disapproves or approves of the artists, songs, films, and movies mentioned above and below, the fact remains that they are influential.  Whether that influence is positive or negative or somewhere in between, youth pop cultural texts are influential nonetheless.  My question is . . . do we as educators want to be aware of such influences on our students and then engage the students in dialogue about those influential texts, or not?  What are the costs of ignoring or dismissing such youth pop cultural text influences?   If youth pop cultural texts are introducing controversial viewpoints into the awareness of students, are we doing the right thing in ignoring the controversy, or should we help students untangle and understand the complexities of the issues at hand?  In the coming paragraphs of reflection on my own education, I will trace the influence of pop-cultural texts in my own life with the hope of spurring myself to examine the ways that today’s students might be affected by today’s pop-cultural texts. 
                  To make a long story short, my introduction through radio and video airplay to the aforementioned hip-hop group’s music and its allusions to political figures made me at least superficially aware of political controversy beyond what I was learning in school. Another track by the group, which is critical of paramedic response times in black communities, reached number 15 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart, and number 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart in 1990.  Again, people’s disapproval or approval of the song is not the point here.  The point is that the song had a clear message and that the message was circulating in youth pop cultural consciousness when I was a middle-schooler. 
Also reaching number one on the Biillboard Hot Rap Singles and number 20 on the Hot R&B Singles was another track by the same Hall of Fame group in 1989.  The song channeled extra attention to a realistic fiction film by Spike Lee that details racial tension ending in violent tragedy.  At the end of the film, two contrasting quotes appear from Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X about their different philosophies of non-violence versus self-defense in struggles against oppression.  This movie led me to become interested in the other films of Spike Lee, and Lee’s film, “Malcolm X”, starring Denzel Washington, was released in 1992.  Along with the release of the movie, clothing such as t-shirts and ball caps branded with the letter “X” became popular youth fashion around where I was living in Connecticut.  I began wondering “What does the ‘X’ represent?” 
This curiosity driven by my experiences with youth popular culture between sixth and ninth grades, led to my choice to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X during one summer break. Yet, this book was not read as a required part of my school’s curriculum.  My youth pop-cultural “curriculum” led me to read it.  It was the start of my self-directed reading of works by other authors of African American descent, study which has given me much food for thought when considering educational issues.  However, back in ’89 through ’92--a seminal point of my adolescent intellectual curiosity--none of my teachers were aware of what I was studying outside of class.  My teachers were not able to help me navigate the complex, controversial issues raised by my exposure to the aforementioned youth pop cultural texts and subsequent readings.  How much more motivated, informed, and prepared might I have been by my schooling had a connection been made between my pop-cultural “syllabus” and my English class’s?
I am aware that many students today may not have experiences similar to those of my youth, in which aspects of youth popular culture intertwined with history and politics.  However, how are the youth pop cultural texts of today influencing the interests and potentially long-term intellectual trajectories of our students?  Due to my own ignorance of today’s youth pop cultural texts (e.g. movies, videos, comics, songs, and video games), how much of an opportunity to engage and to learn with the leaders of tomorrow am I missing?  How much do we recognize the power of our youth‘s pop cultural (con)texts? Are we doing the right thing?

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