Before beginning our comparison and contrast of Bob Marley and Carlos Santana (it’s actually a required reading from the book), I ask students to brainstorm what they know about either artist. For Bob Marley, all I get is “pot head” or “weed smoker” or “ganja.” I’m not really upset by this. I had friends in college who claimed to enjoy his music, but never saw the deeper political and social and spiritual elements to his songs.
We move into a short activity where they fill in the blank, “Music is . . .”
So, we analyze “Redemption Song” to build the prior knowledge about post-colonialism and the social climate of change in the sixties youth movements. The students begin to see the ways that he defines freedom in social and spiritual terms, but they fixate on the line, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
“What does this mean?” I ask.
The conversation ping pongs between the rap songs they listen to that objectify women. “I would listen to rap that wasn’t disrespectful, but it’s not like I have a choice. The radio plays what it plays,” a student explains.
Others connect it to more personal issues like fear and insecurity and how easy it is to be enslaved mentally so that you lack the freedom to move forward with an idea or a plan or a dream. Still, others connect it to the media and how it portrays the ideal man or woman. A fairly silent kid who excels in football says, “I am considered valuable based upon how well I can tackle. But that’s not all of me.”
At one point, they finally venture into school. I run a fairly structured classroom, so I prepare for some criticism here. “It feels like school works against emancipation. We are almost never the ones who get to free our minds.”
One of the best parts of teaching is getting to talk about music in such a way that it honors the power of the medium and doesn’t treat it like we’re discussing flavors of ice cream. When I get around a group of adults at a social gathering, we rarely talk about music except to play the unspoken game of “Are you enough like me that we can get along?” or “Look what random knowledge I can bring to the table.” So, I talk about Sufjan Stevens or Damien Rice, but it’s never about the lyricism or the way a song shapes how I think. But when we talk about songs in class, they become redemption songs. Songs of freedom.