Decolonize the Classroom: Song Analysis, Utilizing Indigenous Teaching Practices & Colonized Narrative
On my first day of spring break, I thought I would get some work done for my own projects before I would turn grades in early so I could relax and here I am writing this piece as I caught myself weeping over “Shelter” by Vic Mensa, Chance The Rapper and the legendary Wyclef Jean. I am weeping as I am trying to prepare a lesson for teachers on decolonizing the curriculum and as I am grabbing evidence in hopes to bring awareness on why it is imperative for us to change the way we are teaching our students I am feeling the weight of colonization. These colonial systems are killing thousands of people everyday. When I say colonized people I am speaking as an African on Turtle Island which is the land referred to as the amerikkka. I am an African, and most of my students are African or Mexican (which still doesn’t even embrace their full indigenity) and yet the amerikkkan education system brainwashed them to believe they are apart of this amerikkkan system that has waged war on them and their ancestors for hundreds of years. Understanding who my students are indigenously helps inform me that these students and their ancestors have learned through art, music, dancing, and storytelling for centuries. Understanding that, I know that I can utilize a song like “Shelter” as a historical document and a source of news just like a current event article/story on an amerikkkan news site/channel.
With the History–Social Science Framework for California Public Schools as a guide to the eras and civilizations to study, these standards require students not only to acquire core knowledge in history and social science, but also to develop the critical thinking skills that historians and social scientists employ to study the past and its relationship to the present.
The standards do not exist in isolation. The History–Social Science Framework will be revised to align with the standards, and it will include suggested ways to relate the standards’ substance to students, ways to make connections within and across grades, and detailed guidance for day-to-day instruction and lesson plans.
CA State Board of Education
With that in mind, it appears evident that utilizing non-colonial ways to engage students with curriculum is a best practice. Accounting for the fact that my students are indigenous to this land, present-day Mexico, or The Continent, and understanding the ways in which these students and their ancestors have lived and learned for thousands of years, it would be relevant to teach them with a culturally tradition pedagogy. Through study, we can see that all of these cultures learned and kept history in a multitude of different fashions: art, music, story-telling; and lived and learned in a communal manner, both of which are relevant to student achievement. A sound analysis will then leave us with this thought: what better way than to use these cultural practices to discuss the theme and content of a song and how it connects to our historical content?
My students are already familiar with two of these artists from music being played during independent work time and when I take song requests a large majority of the songs requested are hip hop. We have also utilized song lyrics several times throughout the year to learn how to analyze a historical document/textbook and so kids are familiar and have shown a high level of engagement in these music lessons. As I begin to read and re-read the lyrics, and listen to the song on repeat, this sounds like the beginning of a beautiful lesson.
Wyclef begins with “There’s a war going on outside/That nobody’s safe from” and sets the stage early for what is to come. As a reader/listener we should be understanding of the tone this sets. Understanding perspective and bias is always valuable, in many classes we also call it sourcing. Clearly we must address that this song will come from a viewpoint of the oppressed. No different than sourcing documents as loyalist vs “patriot”, federalist or anti-federalist or researching newspapers for their state allegiance during the amerikkkan civil war. This song comes from the colonized Africans in amerikkka.
who do you call when the ambulancеs don’t come?
Or watch as the ones sworn by law to protеct us
Wrongfully convict us, then call the corrections
Next, they bail the banks out when we in recession
Or hang us in a jail cell so they could swing the elections
I walk Chicago streets with potholes that’s deep, and
Tahoes creep like TLC
Hospital workers in scrubs with no PPE
But they got money for riot gear, my nigga, we dying here, yeah
You tell me not to move with my gun
But we got more funeral homes than schools where I’m from
And on the news, all you view is homicides
Tell me why it ain’t no trauma units when everybody traumatized?
Tryna get on your feet playing the hand they dealt ya
If your house is not a home, let this song be your shelter
There are several lines that stick out as we study this in a historical lens; “they bail the banks out when we in recession”, “hospital workers in scrubs with no PPE”, “they got money for riot gear”. These lines serve as a historical account of governmental policies that have a significant historical impact. A historical account of corporate bailouts during the pandemic, and the push to defund the police are being told. Vic is writing down the description of the history happening in front of his face, no different than any other historical document you would utilize to teach. As a historian, it is also important to look at the narrative being painted and the “human element”, and Mensa doesn’t miss in capturing the emotion colonized people are feeling in the second half of the verse; a desperate “my nigga we dying here”, and “Tell me why it ain’t no trauma units when everybody traumatized?” stand out as bars that touch the soul and echo the pain felt inside the colonies. Racism was a deadly virus long before COVID and the trauma colonized communities face are a result of amerikkka’s white supremacist genocidal colonial regime.
It’s a hunnid bags under the underpass
Rumbling stomachs, cups jingle when Hummers pass
Brisk wind, summer’s done, winter is coming fast
And then they Zoom teacher wonder why they don’t come to class
The internet been out, the hot water been out
She moved to her aunt’s house, then to her friend’s couch
Her abuser went to jail, but that nigga been out
Producer was in-house, they closer than pen pals
Homeless in the home of the slaves, I wonder how that would feel?
The manifested destiny, a bunch of land they could steal
Think about Kenneth Walker and Philando Castile
How they only wanted to protect they family
Chance The Rapper
Chance opens up his verse with the reality of what the COVID pandemic has exacerbated in every major city across this colonized land; the (un)housing crisis. According to Economic Roundtable’s recent report “over the next four years the current Pandemic Recession is projected to cause chronic homelessness to increase 49 percent in the United States, 68 percent in California and 86 percent in Los Angeles County”. How can this issue not be addressed in a history class? A historical event that causes a major economic recession is definitely something students should be aware of. Chance then drops what is my favorite line, “then they zoom teacher wonder why they don’t come to class”; it is the very real situation my students, myself and my fellow educators are experiencing and a reminder to students of how connected to history they are. Students everywhere are being forced to keep showing up for school despite the world being on fire, their tech issues, their life issues, despite the fact they are human beings. This disregard of human life is a result of our capitalistic society, a direct result of imperialism or as amerikkkans call it — manifest destiny. Chance reminds us of the history of the land and its people, he names two men who were recent victims of this genocidal colonial empire. See I must admit I believe Lerone Bennett Jr. when he said “an educator in an oppressive system is a revolutionary or an oppressor” and I refuse to be an oppressor.
I write for my niggas doing life with no possibility of parole
You playing Fortnite, that’s how long he spent in the hole
Live from death row, free my nigga Julius Jones
I had a dream that Mumia was home, I speak freedom in song
’Cause all I see is racist faces
Where hate lives and they rape kids in cages
What kind of nation lynch Elijah McClain?
And send us to the Middle East to die for the flag?
They drive us insane to sell us medication
We demand reparations, and they tell us, “Have patience”
‘Stead of cash payments, we get minimum wages
Schools throughout amerikkka teach children that the 13th Amendment to the constitution abolished slavery, but through a critical close read we can see that the 13th Amendment states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The exception clause, therefore, makes slavery legal and it is up to me as an educator to give that information to my students while we study the constitution, slavery, and the abolition movement as I relate the history curriculum and draw connections to the issues facing students today. Understanding the current structure of the prison industrial complex, the sentencing policies, solitary confinement, and political prisoners (Free Em All!) and how they are all interwoven, connected, and institutional legacies of chattel slavery seem to be relevant in a history class studied the development of this amerikkkan colony. Learning how to analyze amerikkka’s violence amongst its colonized citizens and that violence’s relation to military occupation of foreign lands is imperative for students to understand the history of amerikkka. Students must be able to make these connections between the very real events of the world and the ways in which history has influenced them.
Students can utilize this song analysis to compare the song to narratives of Africans throughout the history of their oppression here in amerikkka; students should be able to “develop the critical thinking skills that historians and social scientists employ to study the past and its relationship to the present.” Students can examine historical events such as the COVID pandemic and its economic outcomes, state-sanctioned violence, and the government’s history of repression and how all of those are connected to the history of amerikkka and european imperialism. Decolonizing the curriculum doesn’t just mean including Black and Brown Indigenous People into your lessons, it means completely restructuring the way we teach, what we teach, and why we teach. Education can no longer be about control and compliance; it should be learning in a liberating fashion, where students are able to learn from their perspective, through methods that their ancestors have used for thousands of years, in ways that don’t condone and normalize their genocide. Decolonizing the classroom is imperative to our survival and our resistance against this fascist colonial system.
Only a fool would let his enemy teach his children.