Protest is fully rapped

30th September 2005 at 01:00
A national project in songwriting and performance is giving students a brave new voice. Joe Clancy reports

Gun crime, free and fair trade, the quality of food in the college canteen.

These are among the subjects about which some students feel so angry that they have been inspired to write rap lyrics and protest songs.

In colleges across the country, students are being encouraged to put to music their feelings about the burning issues of the day.

At one college in east London, classes in writing and performing rap have been developed to enable students to express their views.

The students are following in a long line of protest singers, says James Barber, who has co-written a pamphlet about protest music for post-16 students.

"In Roman times, the early Britons used to sit around the camp fire at night singing about the soldiers who had stolen their sheep," he said. "In any struggle against injustice or oppression, such as the slave trade or the civil rights movement in the United States, there has always been music to accompany it.

"The young people I deal with are familiar with protest as a genre, once you point it out to them. We use music and lyrics as the vehicle to engage them in citizenship."

Now, as citizenship project manager at BSix sixth-form college in Hackney, east London, he has set up a rap course attracting more than 50 students.

His students have recorded their raps in lessons, and they have been played on local radio stations, he said - "some licensed and some pirate".

Some 70 per cent of the student population at BSix are of African or Caribbean origin, and fewer than 3 per cent are white British.

"We teach them how to write lyrics and perform their songs," he said. "In this college, rap and hip-hop are the musical genres that are most popular among students.

"In other colleges where I have given workshops, students prefer to use rock or country music for their protest lyrics."

The history of protest music is an important part of the course, in which students are encouraged to discuss the role music has played in changing history, he said.

His pamphlet, called "Get, Up, Get Started", has been produced for the Learning and Skills Development Agency for use by lecturers and trainers in post-16 education. It aims to introduce citizenship to students through the medium of music and poetry.

Mr Barber and co-writer Kenneth During have devised a series of activities to motivate young people into expressing their views and making a difference in their communities.

The pamphlet outlines some themes for protest music, such as nationalism, workers' rights and environmental issues. It details how Woodie Guthrie and others sung in protest about the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, the hundreds of songs written about the Vietnam War and how music helped to bring down apartheid in South Africa.

It recalls how, 20 years ago, very few young people had heard of Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned African National Congress leader, until the pop group Special AKA released the song "Free Nelson Mandela", which reached number nine in the charts.

But Mr Barber said some students prefer to rap about more local issues.

"At one workshop I did, the students wrote lyrics about the standard of the food and the lack of reaction from the senior management team when they complained about it," he said.

The LSDA is now running a competition to find the most talented young songwriters on post-16 citizenship education programmes.

Andrew Thomson, the agency's chief executive, said: "I think it is a really good thing that the LSDA should be championing the various forms that intelligence takes in young people.

"We have a rich history in our country of great culture.

"People have always been prepared to experiment, and we have an education system that should encourage all forms of intelligence, particularly creative intelligence."

Mr Thomson is a product of the punk era. His teenage years happened in the late 1970s. and he says his own musical tastes extend from Beethoven to The Clash.

A father of two teenagers and a 10-year-old, his interest in youth culture also grew as a result of being principal of two sixth-form colleges, East Norfolk and Long Road, in Cambridge.

"I have an empathy with young people and the world they are going into, and I am concerned about helping them to make it a better world," he said.

"Music can be very positive. It affects people's moods and states of happiness.

"It requires enormous intelligence to produce any type of music. It is a celebration of what they are capable of doing."

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