In most Cambodian classrooms, discussing complex social issues is often avoided. But at the Liger Leadership Academy, students are learning the power of dialogue through the magic of music.
In Senior Literacy, for example, students arrive to class, equipped with annotations of music lyrics and thought-provoking questions. After pledging to create a safe space and respect each others’ opinions, they begin a fruitful discussion related to the topic of the day. Students use song lyrics as the textual vehicle for understanding societal ills such as racial inequality, misogyny, homophobia, poverty and suicide.
Through the analysis of song lyrics from popular artists such as Justin Timberlake, Lil Nas’, Alessia Cara, and Macklemore, just to name a few, students are not only paying closer attention to the underlying messages of the music, but they are also more engaged in class and actively participating in conversations that could shape them for the rest of their lives.
Fifteen-year-old Puthea expressed, “I think music helps people understand social problems because everyone listens to music and learns from those messages in a creative way. People don’t always like spending time reading articles, but they enjoy music, so it is easier to understand.”
“I always think about artists and the way they contribute to society because I am a big fan of music and I am an activist as well. For artists that do advocate, Logic for example, it is really empowering as a listener. They use music as a medium for communicating about sensitive topics to a wider audience,” added Rika.
When I was in high school, I was not trusted to have these conversations; the teachers were kind and knew their material well, but the traditional model of teaching was the norm: teachers lecture, students take notes, and a test is given every few weeks. College was the first time that I was allowed to share my opinions and learn from others’ perspectives through facilitated discussion. These opportunities shaped the way I think, and now, the way I teach. I have been teaching English and Social Studies for twelve years, and I can honestly say that nothing engages my students more than discussion.
Take “Old Town Road” by Lil’ Nas, for example. Not only did this song set Billboard’s longest-running record at #1 and give us all a much needed urban yeehaw anthem, it more importantly sparked controversial conversations about the sanctity of country music, the impact of social media, and the homophobia that often plagues the hip-hop industry. The provocation of country-trap by an openly gay 19-year-old college dropout shattered social barricades and bent the rules for other up-and-coming artists.
“Same Love,” released in 2012 by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert, brings issues and misconceptions faced by the LGBTQ+ community to the masses. In class, we debunked myths: “In the third grade, I thought that I was gay ‘cause I could draw, my uncle was and I kept my room straight;” we addressed hypocrisy: “America the brave still fears what we don’t know and God loves all his children it’s somehow forgotten years ago;” and we were united and empowered: “No law’s gonna change us, we have to change us. Whatever God you believe in, we come from the same one. Strip away the fear, underneath it’s all the same love. About time that we raised up.”
Clearly, dynamic discourse can and should happen without music; however, music adds a more creative element, lights a fire in some students that are not typically as engaged, and inspires most to dig deeper into their playlists.
I truly believe that I am not just a teacher of literacy, but a teacher of life. Educators have a responsibility to provide young people, the future leaders of our world, with the tools to deconstruct the perpetuated myths and systematic methods that have kept people silent, segregated, exploited and oppressed. Music just may be the antidote for prejudice and the answer to unlocking the door to understanding, compassion, and positive change.
By Cara Shelton