A writer’s account of bridging the gap through a rap superstar
By: Jack Stein
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Part 1: The Chasm
As a white, twenty-something male teaching at a dilapidated public school amidst the industrial decay of northwest Indiana, I have found that establishing common ground with my students has been simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding part of the gig. Other than the fact that I’m young, not too far removed from juvenile humor myself (hell, I still partake in it regularly), and can rattle off NBA stats and storylines like a young Bethlehem Shoals, the chasm between myself and the students with whom I spend 6 hours a day is often a yawning one. Why would black and Hispanic inner-city kids give a damn about what I had to say when I retreat to the bourgeois Chicago neighborhood of Lakeview after a long day at work, while they return to oft-broken homes with a paltry pantry selection and a brewing animosity for people like me? Such is the class-concerning conundrum that I found myself embroiled in as my current teaching stint unfolded.
People often have this convoluted notion that teaching in low-income areas is “noble”, “altruistic”, etc., etc.; frankly, that’s simply trite and self-important bullshit that naive Ivy League seniors probably write their pretentious theses on before applying to Teach For America as a gateway to Harvard Law. Teaching is no more noble than anyone else’s job, it simply is that the stakes are critically high. The reality of this position is that you desperately want kids to learn the skills and mindsets that will make them successful; in order to do that, you must connect with these children on an (oft-frighteningly so) intimate level. You have to win them over to your side, to show them that you can be trusted, a tall order when so many have been screwed over by authoritative or paternal figures in the past. Even after rifling through my common-thread toolbox for Derrick Rose diatribes and offhand references to seeing Odd Future in concert (twice, mind you), I found that the gap between these students and I was going to be difficult to span.
That is, until Take Care dropped in November of last year.
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Part 2: “Marvin’s Room”
November 14, 2011
“I’m just sayin’, you can do bettaaaah.”
Intrigued, my ears perked up and my mind shifted mid-lesson from some academic minutiae about photosynthesis to the new Drake record. These students love to sing and rap, but this was the first time that I had made out audible lyrics from an artist other than Wakka Flocka Flame or Lil B, neither rapper whom I’m the most fond of. That morning, I had undergone my typical pretentious & pseudo-intellectual morning ritual of perusing Pitchfork’s daily record reviews over hastily made breakfast before succumbing to the type of soul-crushing commute that Radiohead probably wrote “Airbag” about. Lo and behold, the new Drake record had earned the heralded Best New Music tag; trusting in the Pitchfork powers-that-be, I put my biases (wasn’t he the Canadian dude in the wheelchair on Degrassi?) aside and gave it a spin on the pre-dawn drive to Indiana.
Speeding along the slithering concrete expanse of I-94 with billboards, rusting factories and the occasional pair of headlights as my only companions, Take Care was already winning me over. Drake is a pretty repulsive Lothario on record a la The Weeknd; his tiring of advances from surely-beautiful women (“After a while girl they all seem the same/I’ve had sex four times this week I’ll explain” is particularly groan-inducing) and laments on the trials of fame can be pretty cloying. Aside from Kanye, there aren’t many big-name artists whose reprehensibility factor is higher.
However, Drake dodges your outright contempt by being (1.) a hell of a rapper (2.) an aficionado for ridiculously woozy, otherwordly beats. Similarly to how House of Balloons entranced listeners by balancing The Weeknd’s tales of hedonism and late-night carnage with perfectly complementary dark and twisted soundscapes, Take Care avoids emotional excess by artfully supplying the perfect beat at the perfect time. The sludgy, Portishead-indebted crawl of “Cameras” accentuates Drake’s monotonous intonations; “Marvin’s Room” features masterful use of an old voicemail recording and ethereal wooziness that makes you feel as faded as Drake himself. “Take Care” brilliantly pulls from Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx’s collaboration “I’ll Take Care of U” to make for one heart-wrenching beast of a pop song, the tasteful sample choice keeping the melodrama from reaching red-alert levels. Rather, things just kind of quietly simmer, leaving us inside Drake’s head but removed enough that his pained paens to love/money/etc. never become overwhelming.
Frankly, the student who I caught singing the chorus to “Marvin’s Room” probably doesn’t care about any of that. She doesn’t fall victim to the same English 101 detritus of “pathos”, “symbolism” or the Iceberg Theory notion of some hidden meaning existing that must be uncovered that I do. She doesn’t listen to “Marvin’s Room” and hear the deafening internal dissonance of arbitrary music blog ratings, superlatives that I just read on Pitchfork, or self-consciously left-field artistic touchstones (who’s Gil Scott-Heron?)
To her, a 14-year old, the new Drake single is catchy as hell, features vaguely rebellious and incendiary subject matter (drunk-dialing an ex), and hits the emotional pleasure centers that we all are susceptible to, not in the least a teenage girl. She probably listens to “Marvin’s Room” and hears a completely different modus operandi, a different artist, a different context than myself, nearly a decade older and a world removed in multiple ways.
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Part 3: “Crew Love”
And yet, this moment, this record, this artist became a catalyst for connecting with my students in a way that I had as yet been unable to. Upon revealing that I liked the record myself, I was able to have a discussion with them about favorite tracks (I like “Cameras” & “Under Ground Kingz”, they like “HYFR”; I digress) and humanize myself in the process. I quickly became known around the high school as “the dude who likes Drake, despite wearing a tie to work and toting a messenger bag”, a tag I gladly accepted for the opportunity it gave me to talk to these kids about something besides their homework or how they should want to go to college.
I could go on and on with Drake-esque melodramatic pandering about how this brought us so much closer together, et al., but this goes deeper than that. It illuminated for me that music can still be an incredibly social experience, one that transcends race, “class” and age to bridge chasms that were previously impossible to span. It gave me hope that, despite the increasing propensity for adults to live alone, forsake conversations with strangers for the comfort of their iPhones and ostracize themselves from others even amidst social situations, it’s still possible to connect with others through art in ways that you never thought possible. Unbeknownst to you, the soundtrack to your day is very likely playing for someone else, whether down the hall or across state lines; it’s when these soundtracks overlap and we share in appreciation of the art itself that we are able to acknowledge why music is so important to us.