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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