Civic Media for 5th Graders? Hmm, Let’s See . . .

This morning my son Joey and his buddy Michael were singing/reciting virtually ALL the lyrics to a 10 minute song called “Trapped in the drive-thru” by Weird Al Yankovic. Listen to the vocal: this guy (it sure isn’t Weird Al) can sing. While I see no visible civic tie-in here, what I heard this morning is proof positive that the oral tradition survives among elementary school kids today. Far from destroying the ability of young people to recall lyrics, TV and the Internet seem quite possibly to be enhancing it, even if for the yawningly mundane (nihilistic/cynical?) ends of this song. Should you lack the intestinal fortitude to hear it through, it builds up to a final, melodramatic and revelatory line: “they forgot the onions.”

Rap music can likewise give proof of the same recollective ability – and what’s more it can give voice to the creative and improvisational abilities of its performers. Once after lunch at an inner-city Chicago high school I came across an audience of 10 or 12 students sitting in the empty cafeteria at a respectful distance from a circle of five students who were taking turns rapping in 4 or 8 line stanzas to the same rap beat – b0m bom BOOM, ba-dum-dum BOOM – from five perspectives: satirical, comical, drug, political, racial. The performers were good enough that I first thought they were reciting they lyrics from memory. Only after some time did I realize that they were thinking and rhyming out loud, trying to get through to their small audience. There was no dancing, no movement. The audience was hanging on every word with a raptness and seriousness that most teachers only dream about. I took a seat and listened for twenty minutes. I watched the faces of the audience to see how they were responding. They were doing privately – not to their friends, but to themselves alone. No one was even looking at anyone else. That’s what amazed me the most. This moment ten years ago totally changed how I think about rap, though today most of the lyrics and almost all the music that I hear leaves me yearning for the good old days of 1960’s R&B.

One striking exception from mainstream rap is the 1988 haunting reflection of a gang banger drifting deep into paranoia. Get ready, it’s the Geto Boys doing “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”  It’s brilliant musically (it samples the absolutely gorgeous guitar licks of the Isaac Hayes song “Hung Up On My Baby”) and brilliant lyrically – and here’s the brilliant scary Hallowe’en video.

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