Straight Outta Govan (Rap, Literacy, and Youth Empowerment)

 

First day working at this new school. First class of the day: all boys; all thirteen-year-olds; bottom-set. Got my plan all sorted out. I’m going to be the big man. Get their respect first, then I can loosen up a little after a few weeks. So I’m standing in the corridor outside my classroom kidding on that I’m strict and grumpy as they swagger up, pushing and jostling each other and screaming various swear words in high-pitched voices.

I line them up and lay down the law. No reaction yet. They are still sizing me up. They walk into the room quietly to sit in the seats I’ve assigned them, and within seconds they all suddenly stop and look around the class in amazement.

“Where’s the burds, sir?”

 

“Whit? This an all-boys class?”

 

“Aw naw!”

 

“This is a doony class. It must be. Kieran’s in it!”

 

They all laugh at Kieran and start shouting random stuff.

This was a bad start. I eventually calmed them down and tried to explain to them that the reason for the all-boys class was so we could focus on more “boy-related things” so they would be more interested and not get bored and maybe enjoy learning English more. They looked at me like I was just talking shite. And I was.

It was the “doony” class (which, of course, I explained to them was a very offensive term). It was basically a class with every single bad boy in the year group in one place. The Head Teachers had decided this was a good idea as it would free the other classes with “the nice kids” from being terrorised by “the nutters”. Essentially a third of the class consisted of boys with severe learning difficulties (reading age of seven-year-olds / autism / dyslexia / ADHD / don’t speak English); another third were dubbed ‘PWS’s (Poor Wee Souls - backgrounds of severe deprivation; abusive parents; absent parents; psychological damage; and/or “looked-after” kids); the final third were boys who were basically trouble-makers. Obviously the three categories above inter-bleed massively. Essentially, they were the most vulnerable kids in the community. I will not comment on whether I believe relegating them all to the “doony class” and penning them together out of sight was good for their overall motivation and development.

Teaching the class was one of the greatest challenges of my life and often it felt more like fire-fighting than teaching. But I was determined that this was not going to be a shite class for shite kids. I was determined to make the other kids in the other classes envious of this class.

 

So I tried to do stuff about football and cars and all the male-stereotypes - to various degrees of failure.

 

Then one day, one boy (who always liked to get wide and push buttons) interrupted me mid-sentence: “Sir, do you like 2Pac?”

 

It threw me off guard so I simply replied truthfully, “Aye, he’s alright.”

 

“What about Biggie Smalls?”

 

Well, I love the rapper Biggie Smalls so I just quoted: “Birthdays was the worst days, now we sip champagne when we thirsty!”

 

The class shook their collective heads in sheer disdain and every head went onto the desk in embarrassment. I knew this was a victory!

 

So, they liked rap... And 90s rap. Turned out their favourites were Dr Dre, 2Pac, and Eminem. My favourites when I was their age. I didn’t expect that.

 

So, I decided to get them to write raps: raps about where they grow up and what it’s like growing up there. We analysed various rap lyrics, some of their favourites and some of mine, and wrote the rap and then I recorded it at a friend’s studio and gave them all a CD of the recording. I wanted to get them to record it themselves, but it wasn’t possible. Some of the lyrics they came out with were great - “Everyone here lacks intelligence; They think they talk sense but it’s all just mince; They better rinse their mouth; They think they’re stars; But round here it looks like Mars; Burned-out rusty cars and guys wae scars.”

 

These kids were obviously not thick, but they lacked literacy skills. It’s hard to explain the levels of illiteracy amongst these young guys as it is a complex thing. But it’s not good. And, for me, literacy is the key to the world. The boys instinct was to write their raps in the same dialect with which they spoke. I see this as a great thing but I think the root of it actually lay in their own illiteracy. Give the task of writing a rap to the ‘top-set’ English class, most of whom had the same accent as the boys in my class, they would mimic the standard American rap slang. This is because it takes literacy to be able to imitate other voices. It is also because they would think that that was what rap was “supposed to sound like”. The boys in my class were unable to ape 2Pac’s style because they didn’t have the literary skills to do so. Therefore they wrote the way they spoke. And were all the more expressive for it.

 

Young people need to hear artists speaking about subjects they can relate to, in a voice they recognise. For me, that is why the young lads in my class were into American Gangsta Rap. Stories about growing up in urban poverty - however glamourised, however cartoonish, however immoral - were the closest thing they could relate to amidst the great thundercloud of modern culture. Therefore, a strong local hip-hop scene in local dialects is one of the most important cultural movements for empowering a community. Hip-hop is perhaps the most subversive and empowering art-form of modern times. It gives a voice to the underdog. You don’t even need great musical ability or much equipment - you can sample / steal the beat. You just need a voice.

 

Of course, it is clear how hip-hop has been hijacked by corporate capitalism. The narrative has been changed (deliberately?) to one celebrating criminality, sexism, violence, and wealth-worship. The political and self-emancipating element of hip-hop’s folk-power has been stripped from the popular charts. That does not mean to say it no longer exists. Far from it ...

 

Nearly every country has a thriving and nationally popular local hip-hop scene: from Mongolian gangster rappers to Malawian reggae rap. So why not Scotland? In the UK the London grime scene is fairly popular, but what about the rest of the country? Are there no young people growing up in urban poverty with a story to tell in Manchester, in Belfast, in Glasgow? Clearly there are, and there are local hip-hop scenes in these places too. But access to the music remains limited to a passionate group of aficionados; most fans actually being rappers themselves, or directly involved in local music in some way. For me, it is imperative that this local hip-hop be given the amplification necessary to reach the ears of those who need it most - disenfranchised youth without a voice and without a story they can relate to.

 

When I let the boys hear songs by the likes of Glasgow rappers Gasp and Loki, they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. They had no idea you could rap in Scottish, never mind be good at it. As Mark McG from The Girobabies said: “I thought I invented Scottish rap when I started doing it. Turns out so did everybody else.”

Most people when they first hear rap in a Scottish accent are not sure what to make of it. Yet, it does not have to be “The Proclaimers daein hip-hop”. Rapper MOG laments the issue in one of his lyrics: “A wish a wiz the formula; Wish a wiz the antidote; A wish a wiz the answer to the genre bein a laughin joke.”

 

Indeed, the very fact that Scottish people feel awkward listening to Scottish people speaking in their own voice in an expressive, poetic form, says a lot about Scottish people. I would even suggest that this self-doubt about speaking in our own voice stems from our culture’s subjection to British Imperialism over the last few hundred years. The Glasgow accent is good for joking in, but not for saying anything meaningful. It’s a simple truth that you should lose your brogue quick if you want to be taken seriously down in London.

 

A strong local hip-hop scene expressed in local dialects, I believe, is a step to addressing this cultural-identity disaster.

 

Step up: MOG. I am willing to state that Glaswegian rapper MOG, from the Penilee scheme in Govan, is a genius. This is because, like his fellows Loki and Jackal Trades, he has never read a single book, and yet is precociously literate.

 

He raps about growing up in an abusive environment: “Blocked out the first eleven years of ma life; Loast the next six to the weed and the wine ... ”

 

The experience of being trapped in a vicious circle of inescapable environmental violence: “My choice was be a murderer or be scared; Now am baith. Somebody ran a razor doon ma face.”

 

Depression: “I’m sick of aw this time a waste rehearsin; Tryin tae dae an impersonation ae a person.”

 

And love: “She wants her fifteen minutes to last forever; Ma fifteen I’d gladly give her.”

He also constantly rhymes words which only rhyme in Scots (e.g. “let loose” with “henhoose”), thereby creating lyrics that could not exist in any other language.

 

He doesn’t celebrate the ‘scum life’, but he expresses it in all its ugly reality. He tells the story that is not told. The story that young people need to hear: they are not alone; others suffer, others fear, others desire, others know where you’re coming from. When they know it can be done, young people can learn to tell their own story.

 

An emergence of these unheard voices in our society could be the spur for the social change that we so badly need. Rap music can be introverted and thoughtful, but it is also often edgy and angry. This anger stems from artists growing up in the most impoverished environments telling their story in the most potent way. Their story both vindicates the painful struggles of their peers and raises the underclass to a higher cultural pedestal than the often fatuous and sterile middle-class narrative.

 

The desire for a new narrative among the youth in Glasgow is clear. I don’t imagine Glaswegian youths feel emotionally connected to the Los Angeles drug wars narrated by the hip-hop artists that they do listen to. But it seems to make more sense to them than what they hear in church or in school or in the news. If they have no need of a narrative, why do they buy into the sectarian tribalism of yesteryear? Why sing Irish Rebel Tunes or God Save the Queen? Do kids care about the complex history of Irish Republicanism? Do they feel that monarchism is the most effective form of governance? No. But these are the narratives that appear available to them. I think it’s self-evident that we need new narratives, new groups. We need real voices. We need a thriving local culture more than phoney and remote international superstars.

 

And perhaps, when ‘discovered’ by academics in 100 years, the Scottish rap scene will be analysed by cultural theorists. Forget Glasgow’s Poet Laureates, Lochhead and Duffy, who are studied by the middle-classes in schools but not widely read. MOG says it best: “They spent so much time trying to be clever, they forgot to make sense.”

 

Hopefully kids will be doing their Nat 5 English exams on the poet MOG in years to come…

But what happened to the boys in the infamous 'all-boys-class'? Well, I know that four of them were expelled and most left at the end of 4th year without an English qualification. I also heard that a couple are currently sitting their Higher English. Maybe in ten years some of them will look back and remember that time they wrote a rap and think - that was a good laugh.