Popping the Speech Bubble – Part 2

So, as I said, I emailed Mark Grist yesterday and it was only afterwards, in thinking it over, that the irony of what I’d said hit me with all the force of a rapper spitting venom in an opponent’s face.
I told him the story of my daughter sending me the video link and how the young rapper had irritated me so much that I’d clicked it off.  I boasted that since I’d seen his performance on Monday, I’d gone back and watched the clip all the way through and thought his battle very cleverly done, though the seventeen year old irritated me still. I also told him that I, too, am a teacher, that shortly I’m to be made redundant and that like him, I intend to move across to a creative path, my plan being to work with teenagers, coaching them as writers so they can tell their own stories.  I’ll miss the pupils I work with, I said, especially the quirky ones who think outside the box.  Those, I added, are the kids I want to work with.
Have you spotted the irony yet?
I watched the video again.

Even during the first viewing I’d winced at Grist’s attack on Mrs Green – Blizzard’s mother – and a second look didn’t help it sit any better.  In fact Blizzard – AKA Bradley – is probably marginally less offensive than Grist.  What’s certain is that he is, as he states, “smarter than you think”, his wordplay actually complex and clever and his demeanour at the thrashing he’s taking evidencing humour and good grace.  He quips good-naturedly “that’s true, that’s true” after one of Grist’s put downs, graciously clapping comments he considers clever.  It’s a gesture Grist reciprocates.  Blizzard is much more eloquent than I am in that battle,” he later stated.  “He wasn’t ‘destroyed’.”

Like many other literary forms, battle-rapping follows a predetermined format.  It’s an intellectual exercise, opponents engaged in a war of words in order to outsmart each other.  The danger lies in assuming they’re having a real life, hatred-fuelled sparring match.  And judging by the reaction to Grist and Blizzard’s battle, many of those who’ve watched the clip believe that they are.  The victory those viewers are applauding so prolifically is the victory of the middle-class professional strata of society over working-class youth, a battle we’re invited to participate in daily in programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show and the proliferation of on-the-street police documentaries.  “I am middle class,” it confirms, “and I am better than you”.

This realisation raised a lot of questions in my head.  Would I have looked so favourably on Grist if he’d been wearing one of those god-awful hats or hadn’t appeared, to my sensibilities, so recognisably ‘one of us’?  If he’d spoken with a pronounced regional accent or performed poems that weren’t about teaching or books?  What does my reaction say about our society’s over-reliance on image, status, class?  Those young performers parodying and ridiculing rap at the spoken word event were all students, the antithesis of Bradley Green and his disenfranchisement from education.  I thought of my own younger self, crossing the road from our council estate to university, and I was ashamed of having joined in their laughter.

So here I am, all this time thinking that I’m accepting of difference, working in my day job to promote tolerance in school and doing all I can to challenge stereotyping whenever I come across it.  But my tolerance of difference only extends so far, it seems, confined to my own particular interests.  Left wing and radically minded in many respects, it appears I’m as small-minded and bigoted as the next man in others.  And realising that was quite a shock.

I’m still not keen on the aggression that is a part of the rapping culture, of a format which requires homophobic put-downs and the disrespecting of women.  (Though neither, apparently, is Grist, who has reportedly vowed to cut the more distasteful aspects of the genre from his patter.)  And I’m not likely to try out battle rapping myself – am not likely to take up rapping in any form, I don’t think, neither writing it nor coaching others to write it.  It’s still really not my thing.  But who knows?  Who can say for sure?  What I do know is that next time I see a young, spotty rapper in flat-fronted cap and over-sized, graffiti-motifed t-shirt, I’ll do him the courtesy of listening to his ’round’ and judging him on the merit of his words, rather than quickly grabbing the mouse and shutting down immediately.
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Popping the Speech Bubble – Part 1

I sent an email today to Mark Grist – a performance poet who headlined a spoken word event in our town this week.  Now you may or may not have heard of Mark Grist – and I admit that I hadn’t until very recently – but an awful lot of people have, largely due to a video of him battle-rapping which has gone viral around the world.
The spoken word evening, hosted by the University, is a relatively new event put together by my friend and fellow Creative Writing MA-er Lauren.  The first evening saw about twenty of us huddled in a corner of a brightly lit, over-large and incredibly cold night club in the Students’ Union.  For event number 2 we’d moved downstairs to a smaller, darker and, thankfully, much warmer bar area, with an audience easily double of that previously.  And by event number 3, the room was packed to overflowing with people, chairs were very difficult to come by and the showcased talent – professional and otherwise – was phenomenal.  Which is great, as well as incredibly inspiring. 
On that first night I bribed my sixteen year old daughter to come with me.  Not because I’m scared of sitting by myself, you understand, but because she’d shown resistance to my assertion that poetry done properly is funky.  She’s studied poetry at school, she assured me, and it’s crap.  She loved that first performance so much, however, that she invited five schoolmates along to the second, and loved the second so much that she scoured the internet afterwards for clips of performance poets, excitedly emailing across a link to a video she titled ‘chav versus poet’.  “Watch this, it’s wicked”, her message instructed, and smiling at her enthusiasm, I stuck with it through the overly-long intro ads, despite having very little interest.  But then the ‘performer’ kicked in and shouted an invitation for the audience to ‘make some fucking noise!’ and I clicked off, overcome by my dislike of the hostility and the bad language, of rapping culture itself.
Which left me, then, without any understanding of my daughter’s excitement at learning that the poet at this week’s event was to be Mark Grist – “Mark Grist, Mum, the guy in that video!” – and a complete misconception over what his performance would be like.  Across the dim bar my old eyes made out that Mark wasn’t wearing the regulation baseball cap, though he did have a hoodie.  The student crowd were certainly excited enough by his rapping reputation for several of them to parody a ‘bad-manz’ style in the open-mic session, causing Luke, another creative writing student, to ask if he was the only one feeling uneasy over teenagers hearing such foul language.  I told him not to worry, they’re serial watchers of Skins.
So the expectation in the room for Mark’s session built to a fever pitch and I braced myself, ready to endure a performance I would in no way enjoy. 

And then Mark came on, looking fresh faced and not dissimilar to a nephew of mine, and he was polite, witty and erudite, his poetry intelligent and well written.  He performed a poem which indicated his respect for women, he performed a poem infused with passion and personal integrity and another which, constructed entirely from words that include the letter ‘e’, hinted at his recent literary studies.  From beginning to end he had the audience in the palm of his gesturing hand, listening intently, laughing in strategic places, at several points, even, so quiet you could’ve heard a pin drop.  He was, in fact, nothing like the angry, aggressive rapper I’d been expecting.  Which was, as it turned out, the whole point of the battle, if only I’d watched the clip long enough to find out.  Pitched against a 17-year-old ‘champion’, Mark Grist was the ‘teacher/poet’ who won out against the authority-hating, rapping ‘chav’.  And in slapping him down, it seems, he’s won the admiration of the world.

You can watch Mark Grist’s rap battle against Blizzard here, though some may find the language in it offensive.   The battle begins around 1 min 50 seconds in.