Saturday, April 10, 2010
Creativity and Learning in Hip Hop
Reference: Söderman, J. & Fokestad, G. (2004). How hip-hop musicians learn: strategies in informal creative music making. Music Education Research (6)3, 313-326. doi: 10.1080/1461380042000281758
Söderman and Fokestad set out to observe two hip hop communes (or “groups”, this was the participants' preferred term) in Sweden while they laid lyrics over a pre-prepared beat. Group A was from a Swedish middle-class background and Group B’s members were all from a foreign background (Ghana and Lebanon, with a third member from Switzerland who did not make it to any of the sessions). The focus of their study was the “creative learning process and the meeting between music and lyrics” (p. 315). They also conducted interviews with each group before and after the creative event. The songs were recorded and provided the topic of conversation during the post-recording interview.
Each group was found to hold differing images of themselves as hip hop musicians. Group A saw themselves as “missionaries” who had a message to relay to the Swedish population about the importance of hip hop. Use of the Swedish language was important in their lyric-writing. They viewed their music-making as a hobby and an alternative lifestyle, and did not consider it as potential career.
Group B, on the other hand, aspired to a career in music, so the entertainment aspect of their work was emphasized. The rhythm of the lyrics as it met with the beat seemed the most important aspect of their work, as opposed to the lyrics themselves. Söderman and Fokestad attributed the difference in career choice and purpose for music-making to the each group’s socio-economic background.
For both groups, however, involvement in hip hop led to a self-monitoring of their progress not only with music but in the knowledge they were gaining about their lives.
The researchers found that each group came prepared with lyrics that were either individually or collaboratively written.
Upon hearing the pre-prepared beat, Group A began writing lyrics, presumably different from those they brought in (not clear from the article), with members helping each other obtain the right flow of words with the underlying beat/music.
Group B used the lyrics they had brought to the studio, and it seemed each person knew the other’s lyrics well. There was no need for this group to prepare as they began rapping right away, incorporating a call and response without much cueing from each other. They were observed to feel the beat with their bodies right away and to add natural ‘ad-libs’ (words added for emphasis while another is rapping). Though Group A also used ad-libs, the researchers did not elaborate on their use of this technique.
Two members of Group A seemed concerned about their image rather than their music-making, upon starting to watch the video. With prompting from another member, they began to take notice of their actual performance. Finding flow seemed the focus of the conversation, which included being able to decide when to cut off words, or perhaps combine fragments of other lyrics.
Group B let the interviewers know that their third member, who didn’t participate in the recording at all decided to leave the group because “’[he] did not feel black enough…He is from Switzerland and we are from Lebanon and Ghana’” (p. 320). This group tended to talk about the music and lyrics in interaction more than how well they did. They placed much importance on writing lyrics down first, rather than completely improvising them in the moment. According to them, writing the words down before performance allows them to spontaneously change words or syllables in order to fit the beat that’s given them. More so than Group A, members of this group showed a detailed concern for the number of bars in the music, as well as the number of beats per minute they were able to lay over the beat. They were also able to play with the beat more, e.g. rapping off-beat, rather than simply emceeing with it, creating an “alienation to the beat” (p. 321).
Discussion of Observations
The authors took special note of the collaborative nature of communes’ creative process. Though not every member of each group followed through on participating in the recording and interview process, this did not seem to bother other members very much. Someone simply filled the gap.
Lyrics seemed most important and varied depending on personal circumstances. Practice appeared integral to improvement in lyric writing and emceeing, as the groups, discussed their progress.
Söderman and Fokestad found that Group B’s feel for the music allowed for a better flow and control of words, whereas Group A’s focus on lyrics and choice of language (Swedish or English) seemed more controlled by the music.
The groups used a collage technique, wherein each person contributed a personalized part of the lyrics. The listener is then tasked with synthesizing possible meanings generated from the interaction between each person’s words.
This article provides a good platform for social psychological observations on the interaction between group members and the listeners to whom they present their messages. The interaction between members affects the creative space allowed each person, leading to a more conversational approach to composition. The result is an ownership of one’s contribution to the whole product, allowing the group to be honest about their observations and to monitor their progress effectively.
It is also interesting to note that the collage approach accommodates different perspectives within what becomes a whole, unified piece/track. As mentioned, the listener also has a particular function in producing an understanding of the finished work. In addition, (this was not mentioned in the article and is taken from my personal observations of emceeing) I would say that an important aspect of emceeing is being able to generate a response from the audience by effectively taking another emcee's lyrics and responding creatively to them. The whole performance becomes a dynamic process. When this is done in the context of a freestyle emceeing battle, the creative process takes on another level of intensity, with audience response being an integral gauge of skill.
The authors alluded to different ways that cultural and socio-economic groups may use hip hop. It also seems that each group's identity within the genre differs accordingly. Though this observation seems quite astute, the way in which the authors make this connection is unclear. As a result, I'm left wondering why the authors chose two groups who varied according to these categories in the first place, if they were not going to make a more explicit connection. For example, they state that a hip hop is simply a hobby for the Swedish, middle-class group as they “did not have to worry too much about their future income” (p. 317). Without a stated method for determining each group's economic situation, this conclusion simply leads readers to infer that Group B's members, from a foreign background, are from lower-income families. This leads me to wonder how much their interpretations are informed by the interviews with the music-makers themselves, and how much of it is simply a product of their own preconceptions.
Nonetheless, their interpretations are an indication that a social psychological framework is always at work in the way we listen to and observe a musical event. Whether we are teachers, performers, listeners, composers, etc. the musical situation is understood within a context that affects how we think and how we act within it.