Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Many of our young’uns by now must be familiar with the controversy that erupted in the hip-hop scene a few days before Christmas involving award-winning rapper Iggy Azalea and fellow musician Azealia Banks.  For those who aren’t, here’s what happened in brief:

Iggy Azalea, a Caucasian woman who hails from Australia, has been recognized by many to be hip-hop’s newest It girl, with Forbes magazine claiming that today, “hip-hop is run by a white, blonde, Australian woman.”  Other artists, especially those of African descent, are none too pleased, beginning with Azealia Banks, who openly criticized her through Twitter.  Banks tweeted:  “Black culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t, huh?”  Banks was primarily referring to the recent spate of police brutality against African Americans that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, incidents that have been met by outrage by many Americans, celebrity or not, and black and white alike.  It also seems that Banks was also working from the wider perception that Iggy Azalea had built her career upon (and earned money from) an art form with roots particular to an ethnic sector, while ignoring, and even denying, the political realities that are affecting this sector, and with which her kind of music had traditionally been suffused.

Rapper Q-Tip, of the legendary A Tribe Called Quest, then used the feud as an opportunity to tell the story of hip-hop to Iggy Azalea through Twitter, educating the public at large in the process.  In an extensive series of Tweets, Q-Tip narrated the development of hip-hop and the context from which it emerged:  in poor black ghettos where drugs and gangs ran rampant, and under a political atmosphere that denied poor black families social services and instead shipped their sons off to Vietnam.  Q-Tip finishes off with a reminder for Iggy Azalea and for all other listeners as well:  “You have to take into account the history as you move under the banner of hip-hop….  Hip-hop is fun… but one thing it can never detach itself from is being a socio-political movement.”

Aside from the opening the door for a lot of meaningful discussion about cultural appropriation, art, politics, and political art, which, as a music fan, make me very excited, it is Q-Tip’s use of history that makes me, as a teacher, positively giddy.

Many as a timely response to and a reasonable voice in the controversy hailed Q-Tip’s Twitter history lesson.  It was also completely swallowed up by many of my students as it was posted and reposted on Facebook.  The fact that many of my students were interested in the history of music – or the history of anything, for that matter – was the source of much elation on my part.

Let me digress with a disclaimer that I was not a history major in college, but had to teach Philippine history when I moved to UP Mindanao.  It was intimidating at first, of course, especially since history is such a sacrosanct discipline in the UP academic tradition.  The one thing I had going for me was that I was an activist (still am) in my college days, and – think what you will about those “hooligans” – I don’t think anyone will disagree when I say that youth activists are among the most assiduous students of Philippine and world history.  So, I forded on and discovered that this could possibly be the most challenging and rewarding subject that I have had to teach.

It is challenging because, quite simply, many people no longer see the relevance of history.  I remember once, a faculty member from another department asked me, “History?  Kailangan pa bang ituro ‘yan?” [“History?  Should that still be taught?”], albeit good-naturedly.  “Eh, mag-enroll ka kaya sa klase ko,” [“Well, why don’t you enroll in my class.”] I snapped back, albeit good-naturedly.

If there are teachers who are like this, then it is no surprise how little students appreciate history, not just as a subject, but also as ideas and concepts that they can actually use in their everyday lives.  The commonly blamed culprit is how history has been taught at lower school levels, as a mere litany of names and dates to be memorized.  It would be a small consolation if indeed these names and dates had indeed stuck, but more often than not, with no Philippine history subjects in the junior and senior years of high school, even these would have long been purged from their minds by the time they reach college, along with embarrassing crushes and bad break-ups.  What happens then, from my experience, is that history has to be re-taught all over again, not just the names and dates, but the more critical appreciation that you would expect college-level students to already have a handle of.

But beyond the matter of the capacity of the individual student, I think that we currently live under a social atmosphere that is quite hostile to the development of a historical consciousness and the values that we can gain from it.  For example, a couple of years ago there were actually this proposal to remove Philippine history as part of the UP General Education curriculum.  That a top administrator in the national university could make this proposal with a straight face was stunning.  Thankfully, this was met by vigorous protest from teachers, and now it’s back among the required subjects.

The reason for this proposal was that the K to 12 system would already have taken care of the teaching of Philippine history, but the question of the quality of historical education under K to 12 remains.  The confinement of the study of history to mere memorization of names and dates seems to be a prevalent practice at the lower levels; the more crucial skills of critical thinking, and of gleaning the implications of past events to our present situation and the future are severely neglected.  As a college-level history teacher, this is what I find myself trying to get my students to catch up with, and I for one am not convinced that the K to 12 system is the solution to this problem.

Also, teachers’ groups have already pointed out that the K to 12 system was geared not so much toward molding responsible citizens with critical minds and the sense of national pride that will truly put them on par with other nations, but to churn out cheap labor for the domestic and overseas market.  With K to 12’s institution of tech-voc subjects (and its implicit message that the tech-voc path is a viable way towards realizing the individual’s full potential, because what is education for, right?) it is hard not to agree with this view.  It is also not hard to correlate this with the slow but sure marginalization of Philippine history and Filipino as a subject, as evidenced by the current dispute between the Commission on Higher Education and teachers, writers, and defenders of the Filipino language, including two National Artists.  After all, who needs Philippine history when we train – and expect – our children to be call center agents or welders or domestic helpers?

Another aside:  a few days ago I went to see “Bonifacio, Ang Unang Pangulo”, a film with a solid message about struggle and patriotism clearly aimed at a younger set with teen stars Daniel Padilla and Jasmine Curtis-Smith included in the cast.  But among the advertisements before the start of the movie was for a private school that proudly flaunted that their graduates are guaranteed to be highly employable as – and this is verbatim – front desk officers, executive assistants, and BPO agents.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  There we were, ready to be inspired by a film about how a member of the lower class who had little formal education was able to fire up a country to revolt for independence, but not before being confronted by such a saddening irony.

And this brings us back to Q-Tip’s now historically significant riposte.  Not only did he inject what could have been just another Twitter war about hip-hop with historical verve, but in doing so elevated it, along with the art form itself.  By asserting through history that hip-hop is first and foremost a political movement, Q-Tip used history as a tool, or a weapon, against commodification.  By urging everyone to return their gaze to the past, he flips off the very system that created the conditions for frivolous celebrity feuds, and which equates artistic legitimacy to earning money, winning awards, and remaining trending on the social network.

And this is the (history) lesson we can learn from this episode, young and old, hip-hop fan or not, alike.  In a system that is turning our children into fodder for the capitalist machine, we as a nation need a solid historical consciousness to prevent us from simply accepting the conditions we find ourselves in.  Why do we look at education as merely a means to an end, i.e. employment, preferably abroad?  Did this view just fall from the sky?  Or is it tied up with a historically contextualized economic and political phenomenon such as neoliberalism?  What is this ASEAN Integration?  Hasn’t the ASEAN been around for ages?  A quick historical fact check will show that yes, it has, and yes, we have tried it before, to less scintillating results, which begs the question why we are trying so hard to do it again.  What do we want to gain from internationalization?  Jet-setting students who finish their degrees abroad and then make lots and lots of money?  Or genuinely global citizens who can discuss Apolinario Mabini, Aristophanes and The Abstract in the same breath and on equal terms, and who, through their education, can envision a truly equitable world and would plunge headlong into the role they can play to realize that?

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