Hey! If you found yourself here, than you must be wanting to give me a hand. Any advice or thoughts on any aspect of this paper would be awesome.
I suck at writing, but made a deal with my boss that I would write an article this summer. Help a librarian out, help me get closer to putting a nail in this thing and calling it done.
“Give Life Back to Library Instruction: Using Music to enhance library instruction in the academic setting”
By Royce Kitts
People love music. Students are people. Students love music. Therefore students love library instruction? Well, we wish they did. As instruction librarians, we know that active learning techniques reach out to more students and engage them in their own learning. We also know that it can be difficult to get students engaged in library instruction. One technique that has worked for me is incorporating music into my lesson plans.
My goal in writing this article is to provide you with some concrete, straight-from-the-field examples that you can use in your own instruction activities. If you tailor these techniques to your own student populations, I think you’ll find that both you and your students will become newly engaged and enthused about learning. And maybe every now and then you can all enjoy a good beat together.
Music allows the practicing library instruction teacher to build upon student’s current love and or appreciation of music. In my experience, most everyone has a favorite style of music, but when openly queried some students go through a feeling out process of not wanting to state a preference for one style over another. However when questioned, much like conducting a reference interview, about their favorite artists or songs, students will typically mention artists from a specific style. When a student says “I don’t have a favorite type, but I like Wiz Kalifa, Kanye West, and Jay Z,” it becomes apparent that they do have a favorite and that is hip hop music. In my experience, most students enjoy hip hop music at either a superficial, or a primary level.
What style should I work with?
In my initial introduction of music into library instruction two years ago I was certain that since most of the students were Midwestern that country or rock music would be a common starting point. This shows my own misperceptions and a lack of understanding of the current musical landscape.
I thought for certain that most would have an appreciation or understanding of the history and sounds of rock music, again showing my own biases and misunderstanding. The truth is that some students might know of these bands from my youth, but only superficially. They have grown up listening to them at the grocery store more than they have on the radio. As evidenced when a friend of mine recently said to me, “I just heard ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica at the grocery store.” That pretty much puts a stake in the idea that my understanding of rock would bring any other meaning to the classroom than to make me sound like an out of touch music snob.
Why do I mention this? For starters using music in the classroom has to start at recognizing that your own musical taste is not necessarily going to be that of your students. Discuss with your class what they like in a song. Songs that start off soft and get loud? Songs with a guitar solo? Choirs? Instrumentals? Get a feel for what the individual tastes of the students might be and hope to hit a middle ground where you can connect musical examples to their own familiarity with music. Music changes rapidly. Two years ago I could have spoken to new students about “dubstep” music and most would have not known what I was referring too. Mention “dubstep” today and you seem like someone who is not keeping up.
In my discussions with students and with those who have taken my class Library Research Strategies, a one credit hour class in library instruction, I was amazed to find that the common ground was Rap and Hip Hop music. My surprise comes not from an unfamiliarity with the genres, but from my own life experience. Growing up in the 80s I loved rap music and have since the day I first bought a Beastie Boys cassette at a used music store. Performers like Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run DMC and my personal hero Ice T were the bands I sought inspiration from and whose opinions on life shaped my own. One cannot listen to a song from Public Enemy and think that is okay to remain ignorant of the news, politics, and the ways in which media shapes our society. Examples like the song “911 is a Joke”, which juxtaposes the harassment of black youth by law enforcement with the inability to get emergency assistance when it is needed, or “Night of the Living Baseheads” that talks about the 1980’s African American crack cocaine epidemic in which drug dealers sought profit while at the same time destroying their own neighborhoods. Interestingly, in the video, Public Enemy shifted the narrative to include the way the justice system enacts harsher penalties for black users of crack cocaine, than for white users of cocaine.
In short, I was amazed that Rap had gone from the days of radio stations proclaiming “No Rap, No Crap,” to our modern era where we have multiple stations in most media markets devoted to Rap and Hip Hop music, where these genres top the iTunes downloads, where the Billboard Top 200 is filled with the artists of this genre. In short, Rap and Hip Hop music is everywhere. Ubiquitous. Lil Wayne and Nikki Minaj on the television telling us what popular beverage to drink, Dr Dre Beat headphones, Lil John Energy Drinks, Jay Z everything.
What I learned from my students is that no matter where they come from or what age or socio-economic background, they all, for the most part, had some familiarity with the artists and songs that shape the hip hop genre. The beauty of using hip hop as an example in your class is that there are many popular books, documentaries and websites have been produced that tell of the history of hip hop music. This is true of most all musical genres, except for the very recent additions to the world of music.
You do not need to be an expert on hip hop music. Become the facilitator and let them be the experts. Be the one who highlights the ways in which library instruction and Rap and Hip Hop can meld into making them a better researching.
Activity 1: Breaking the Ice: Beginning your Hip Hop Journey
As the point of this article states, my students tend to fall into the hip hop genre in terms of what they like. If you don’t know anything about hip hop, let your students and yourself learn together. I love hearing the ‘revisionist’ history that I often hear about hip hop. For me, I tell them about my lifelong love of hip-hop and mention the rappers and albums that have influenced me and why. To help drive the point home I also accompany this by singing snippets from my favorite songs, mimicking the original artists as much as possible. I like to think this helps to build some credibility on the subject, if almost always draws few laughs and a look that says “I think this guy is crazy” from my students. As most of everyone knows, hip hop music relies heavily on sampling and re-purposing the beats or hooks from other songs. A good way to visualize what a hook for a song might mean is to take the most recognizable part of a song and hum it. We often do this when we say to someone “You know that song that goes ‘Harder, better, faster, stronger?’” It is the meat of what makes that song memorable.
What if you don’t know anything about hip hop music? Use the initial introduction of music into our classroom as a way to break the ice, and learn about music together. Check out your library’s online databases and reference sources, as well as internet sites to help build your base knowledge. The next activity I suggest outlines a way that you can achieve this goal.
Activity 2: Defining Hip Hop Music
A nice way to get the students engaged and involved is to do a pair and share activity. Break the students up into small groups and have them work on creating a definition of hip hop culture and music using sources that they are able to find online and through group discussion. Ask them to keep track of things they found and where, and information that was ‘stuff they knew already’. Have each group report back and start to build a classroom definition. The benefit of this activity is in demonstrating to the students the importance of becoming engaged in classroom discussion and reinforcing the idea that they are able to be content experts. Only through showing the importance and power of group work and group discussion are we as instructors able to wear away at the idea that group work is an onerous task. Now that we have a definition of hip hop, let’s use this base to talk about other aspects of the songs in this genre.
Activity 3: Breaking down a song
In my classroom the next step is to bring up a song by one of my favorite rappers Mathangi Arulpragasam, more commonly known as M.I.A., a British rapper of Tamil descent. Before I play the video I mention the global reach of hip hop music and talk about how almost every country has homegrown artists in that genre. Groups from Uganda, South Africa, Brazil, Korea, and, as in the case of MIA, England, all interpreting the music that originated in the United States.
As a class we listen and watch the video for M.I.A.’s biggest hit “Paper Planes”, released in 2007. Even though the song was released years ago students still remember this song it. We listen to the song and I ask the class to talk about what the song is about. The responses from the class are most commonly the same: “It is about dealing drugs.” “It is about being a gangsta and making money.” “It’s about being tough.” We then bring up the lyrics and read them to further analyze the song for content. I then bring up a video interview of M.I.A. discussing the song and the meaning behind it. The song is about growing up as a marginalized member of a minority group in England. Specifically about how when people see how she looks they assume she is a thug or a gangster and as she says in the song “All I want to do is (shots fire in the background) (cash register chings) and take your money.” Juxtaposed with the visuals of the video as you see her working a food stand in a cramped kitchen. She talks about the struggles of trying to fit into a world that has already decided what she will become. I encourage the students to then talk about the struggles they have experienced in their own lives. Don’t be afraid to learn about your students, and don’t be afraid to let them learn about you. I have found that when my students and I learn about each other that an atmosphere of trust is developed that makes the class enjoyable for everyone involved.
The message of struggling to succeed in one’s environment resonates with many of my adult re-entry and transfer students. This idea of separation they feel from the overall collegiate experience. For many older students college is not going to football games, dorm life, or worrying about floats at homecoming. In that aspect the video has already proved its worth in the classroom discussion. But we dissect it on another level.
I replay the beginning part for them a couple of times so they get a feel for how that segment sounds.The next step is talking about one of my old school favorites The Clash, also from England. There is no doubt that far removed from the feelings that the mainstream had about the Clash thirty years ago, we now view The Clash as one of the first socially conscious punk bands. I queue the song “Straight to Hell”, released in 1982, and only need to play about 15 seconds before students realize that the hook for M.I.A. song is based on the opening intro.
The Clash song also provides another opportunity to critically analyze the lyrics of the song to derive meaning. The Clash are singing about a marginalized population, one judged for their appearance and their history—the children of Vietnamese women and American soldiers following the Vietnam War. This song talks about how these children were outcasts in two worlds, looked down upon in Vietnam and ignored by their American fathers. Sadly, the song is about how they have no hope of ever meeting their American fathers. As the line in the song states “Let me tell you about your bloodline kid. It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice.”
We add another layer to this lesson when we discuss the song “Swagga Like Us” by T.I featuring Kanye West and Kid Cudi. We notice that this song samples “Paper Planes” which in turn sampled “Straight to Hell.” At first listen, however, it is harder to determine what this song is about other than T.I. bragging about he has all that he wants and being the best rapper in the world. This type of bragging is familiar to fans of hip hop and is a theme that runs through a lot of the popular songs in this genre. But it is more than just bragging, T.I. is celebrating his hard fought accomplishments and rising above what he feared would be a life of poverty and despair to be the person that he wants to be. Basically the theme is “You can judge me all that you want, but what I have I earned and it is mine.” And much like M.I.A., T.I. is also careful to give songwriting credits to all of the artists involved.
When you talk about hip hop artists sampling other music you create the perfect moment in the lesson to talk about citations of your sources and how through properly citing your sources you are able to avoid plagiarism. In terms of being a popular recording artist not doing this could cost you untold millions and credibility amongst your fans and peers. Commit plagiarism on campus and it could cost you a good grade in the course, your place at the university, and just as important, your credibility amongst your peers and professors.
There is a general feeling that hip hop artists “steal” these hooks. But thanks to high profile cases such as Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and the legal issues he faced over illegally sampling the song “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen. Initially Vanilla Ice (Mr. Van Winkle) tried to state that his song was fundamentally different and did not include the hook from “Under Pressure”. Vanilla Ice’s explanation didn’t even pass the casual listening test; it was obvious. Vanilla Ice settled the case out of court and gave songwriting credits to David Bowie and Queen on all subsequent releases. As an interesting aside to the financial aptitude of Vanilla Ice, he purchased the publishing rights to “Under Pressure” and now enjoys all of the royalties that song and his song provides. Vanilla Ice hit the gold mine of the modern era, licensing music for advertisement.
A good way to determine the origin of a hook in hip hop is to research the song online through websites like youtube.com or vevo.com. Often in the comment sections of a song, commenters will talk about how the song pays homage, or rips off, another song. Let the reader beware when you read comments on a social media site. Often times the discourse can be rather coarse and offensive. There are also numerous online magazines, blogs, and websites devoted to all aspects of hip hop culture. If you are able to view the liner notes for the album, or access the artist’s website you will often find information about the song.
This example is just one of many that can be used in the classroom. The repackaging of information that takes place in hip hop is something that students grasp and also becomes a great way to reinforce how information evolves from the primary source to the secondary source, and also of citing sources.
Two other examples to consider for Activity 3 are the Run DMC song “Walk this Way” which relies heavily on the original version by Aerosmith and Eminem’s song “Spacebound” which features samples from Nick Cave and REM.
Activity 4: Evaluating Information
One of the beauties of hip hop is that there are lot of stories that have evolved over time about artists. It can be hard to determine what is myth and what is reality. Once again, we talk about Vanilla Ice. There is a common myth that Vanilla Ice was visited by the producer Marion Hugh Knight Jr., or as he is known in the music business, Suge Knight of Death Row Records in a hotel and that Mr. Knight threatened to throw Ice from a balcony if he did not sign over rights to the song “Ice, Ice, Baby”. Depending on what year you find the information this story got bigger and bigger, sometimes involving Mr. Knight and a member of the Oakland Raiders dangling Ice from a hotel balcony until he signed over the rights. To help illustrate how Wikipedia can be misleading, we read the Vanilla Ice entry. In that artist entry we read the story and see that he signed over the rights when being threatened. When we look up the entry for the song “Ice, Ice, Baby,” we see that he did not sign over the rights.
The truth is that both parties went to court and reached a settlement related to a member of Death Row Records assisting Vanilla Ice with the writing and production of the song. We get a chance in the classroom to talk about bias and purpose. What purpose would it serve Vanilla Ice or Suge Knight not to tell us what really happened? For starters it helped to give both of them the credibility in the hip hop community that they wanted. For Vanilla Ice, his goal was to show people that his life was one that was reflected in his music. Although, lost in the bouncy hook and repetitive verse of “ice, ice, baby” is that the song is about drugs and a drive by shooting. For Suge Knight it was the building of a perception that he was not to be messed with and what he wanted he would eventually receive. There are plenty of myths in hip hop to provide you and your students the opportunity to evaluate resources as you seek out the truth.
Activity 5: Locating Information
Another example of using hip hop in the classroom is assigning a song to a group of students and asking them to critically analyze texts for information by breaking the song down into its context in the time frame it was written and the life of the performer. When we consider the historical moment in which it was written and performed we start to understand the artist’s motivation for producing that music. We ask ourselves questions about why they use the lyrics they use and the music that they provide alongside the song. Asking questions about where the artist is from and what impact that might have on how they make music. The second thing we do in class is to look at how the song is perceived in popular culture. By pulling apart the song and seeking the meaning of the lyrics we often are surprised to learn that the message gets lost behind the perception of how we perceive the performer, or how a music video producer interprets the song.
Does it matter what songs you pick? Yes, it does. I prefer to let the students pick, and if they are having trouble picking a song to analyze then you need to look no further than the Billboard Hot 100. The goal of this activity is to find the meaning of what we are analyzing. We strengthen a number of skills with this activity when we start to discuss how to use databases and how to read articles to discern whether the information we find is relevant to our search.
I have introduced you to a few examples of how you can use hip hop in library instruction to reach today’s college students. I encourage you to be open to re-thinking the topic as you go along. Students change and music changes. The important thing to remember is that we want to ensure that library instruction is relevant to our students and that the “vocabulary” that we use speaks to them in a language they already understand.
Providing the opportunity for students to be experts from the first day of class to the last will help to reinforce the lessons we hope to teach them in regards to using the library, library resources, and other information resources. Our goal is not to turn them into the model student but to show them that their worth in the academic environment already exists. We just need to help it shine.