Back to school

It’s back to school week for thousands of British children and young people, as well as all the teachers and support staff who work in our 24,000 schools and colleges. Uniforms are being pulled out of bedroom corners. Folders are being dusted off.  The first hints of autumn are being carried in the air, even if we’re still being embraced by the longest, sunniest summer in a decade.

All of which makes it the right time to post this video of Ken Robinson speaking at the RSA earlier in the summer. I squeezed in right before they closed the doors. It was a delight to hear him saying that creativity should be embedded into every school – especially as that’s at the heart of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, where I’m proud to be a (relatively new) school governor.

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It’s worth watching the whole video, but here’s a taster of what he said.

Why, he asked, do we ‘do’ education? His answer came in four parts: economic, cultural, social and personal.

Education, he said, has powerful economic purpose, contributing to health, vitality and sustainability. We want to make our children economically independent – so what does industry want? An IBM report from 2011 of 1,800 leaders in 80 countries said they wanted adaptability and creativity.

The world is complicated and increasingly conflicted. Value systems are knocking against each other head on.  We need forms of education that respond to and reflect culture  – that allows you to see your own identity and to understand others’.

He points to evidence of political disengagement. It’s important we take part in civil engagement. You do this by having a culture of participation – and schools are a vital part of this.

And finally, it’s about people.  “Anything not nuanced to diversity will increase alienation.”

His belief is that change needs to come from the ground up. “We need policy makers to think differently. They appear to believe that you improve things by issuing directives. It’s a false consciousness of how education actually works. If we do something different, government will respond.”

“You cannot improve education,” he said, “by vilifying teachers.”

Too right!


Litefeet NYC

It’s Friday afternoon on Union Square, NYC. There’s a guy in a gold crown holding a crappy handmade sign inked with the legend ‘Butt Man’. He makes half-hearted attempts to engage with the tourists and with the school kids zigzagging around with their backpacks but it’s no use. Something much more interesting is happening on the concrete flat that divides the street from the tree-dappled heart of the park: two dozen dancers have magnetically appeared, drawn by the power of a new Kid The Wiz joint barking out of some speakers and the impromptu Litefeet cypher that’s popping off.

Litefeet is a dance that was born in Harlem and the Bronx in the mid 2000s and is part of a family tree that includes the real Harlem Shake, the Chicken Noodle Soup and popping. Over the last few years it has been adopted and adapted city-wide, and there are Litefeet outposts in Conneticut, Virginia and Florida. It’s spread internationally, to London and to Tokyo where the XYZ Boys run battles and shows under the slightly mangled tagline: ‘Since 2010, Litefeet 4 ever!!’

I’ve come down because of a conversation I had at the screening of rare hip hop documentaries at the Sunshine Cinema. One of the films was Dian Martel’s awesome ‘Wreckin’ Shop Live From Brooklyn’, which shone a light on hip hop and house dancers including MOPTOP and Misfits, whose freestyle moves added extra swagger and verve to ’90s hip hop. Where’s that swagger and verve now, I asked panel member and MOPTOP founder Buddha Stretch. “Litefeet,” he said, suggesting I might find dancers riding the D train, or perhaps on Union Square after school. The former sounded a little unlikely– this Londoner reckons MTA subway experiences come to you, not the other way round – so I headed up to Union Square mid-afternoon on a sunny May Friday.

And there they were, hanging out on the southerly edge. The first five dancers I randomly collar all turn out to be YouTube fairly-famous. There’s Boy Aero, 18, from Brooklyn, Sha Smoove, 19, from Far Rockaway, Queens, 17 year old Lady Slic, 18 year old Sonic from The Bronx, and 19 year old WAFFLE crew founder Goofy (it stands for We Are Family For Life Entertainment). They all have water-tight rep online, particularly the latter, who also appears in mini doc ‘Getting Lite Under New York City’ and who just performed the original Harlem Shake at MoMa. “There might only be five or six crews,” says Goofy, “but there are hundreds of dancers. And there’s a lot of history behind us.”

Naturally, there’s bespoke music. Ruling producer Kid The Wiz makes ultra-raw tracks designed to provide sonic architecture for litefeet moves. Tracks like ‘Dark Gospel’ share a drilled down tuffness with grime or ghetto house whilst ‘Beverages Are Needed’ speaks to the comic side of Lite. “We have our own producers,” says Sha Smoove. “Adele, she got ‘Set Fire To The Rain’. We got our own version. We got Kid the Wiz, Tykestar, Krypto. We working with geniuses in the making.”

They dance, one by one, with the incrementally-growing circle providing vibes. There’s buffered popping and locking, balletic toe sweeps, contortion and cartoonish facial expressions. Dancer tip-tap their bodies, they slide and lunge forwards, dropping 1930s jazz moves and even tiny slivers of what looks like strobe-staggered vogueing. It’s a unique, beguiling combination of athleticism, physical comedy and serious groove.

“Lite feet is hip hop dance,” says Sonic. “It is hip hop.”

Litefeet dancers have a mean line in hat and shoe tricks, where outer apparel becomes part of the show. Dancers slide a sneaker down their chest like it’s on string, or catch a baseball cap on a perfectly-posed elbow, tricks honed as part of dancers’ sideline busking on the subway (there are thousands of clips online). “We’re getting more recognition,” says Goofy. “A lot of people are taking notice. Us being on the trains, it gets the whole city to know us.”

It’s a proper self-sufficient culture of dancers, producers and DJs, teams like WAFFLE, Brotherhood, 2Real Boyz and Teams Rocket and Demon, as well as YouTube entrepreneurs and community leaders who have created a vibrant and evolving world around impossibly wavy moves. And as ever, the dancers lead the way for new musical hybrids: like house, disco and jazz before it, this is music rooted in a rich conversation between feet and ears, dance floor and DJ booth, dancer and producer.

Back in Union Square, there’s an old dude watching as the dancers fall away and the circle reshapes into groups of teens just hanging out. I ask him what he thought of their skills.  “Got to keep the wheels on the wagon,” he says gnomically, and walks off.

This post appeared originally on the RBMA site as part of their New York stories series.

London Festival Of Education 2012 #Gove

I went down to the inaugural London Festival Of Education yesterday, with Live Magazine politics editor Omar Shahid. It was clear it’d be an interesting day when we turned the corner onto Bedford St to the end of a queue that snaked all the way to the Institute of Education and to the expected handful of protesters in Gove masks, handing out leaflets with suggested questions for the Secretary of State for Education.

The attendees, a mix of students, teachers, heads and the miscellaneously interested, didn’t need much help with questions for Mr Gove, the best of which was one from the front which asked the famously erudite Scot whether he was aware of the truism that weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to blog about the festival in two parts because there’s a huge amount to reflect on. First up, then, the opening session, where Michael Gove was in conversation with journalist and writer David Aaronovitch for a talk titled ‘What does an educated person look like?’

The festival was opened by a Year 10 student, who spoke eloquently about wanting to be a barrister. It was the right note to open on, as you really can’t talk about 21st Century education without involving students, and the Festival did a good job of starting to get the recipients of education involved – although I hope next year they get more students running or adding to sessions, interviewing big names, and being visibly at the centre of things.

Gove came on stage to a few muted boos. “Don’t boo me,” said Aaronovitch with a neat line in diffusion. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

I’m waiting to hear if the session will be hosted online, but it was fascinating, depressing and vaguely tragicomic all at the same time. At the start, Gove used an unlikely example: the British Communist Party of the 1950s, with their libraries and demand for education, was, he said, “quite admirable” . I imagine this was the quote bone he was throwing to waiting journalists, and he even brought a book along as a visual prop should this be required for photographs.

There were a few specifics points worth commenting on. It looks like he wants to introducing individual purchasing power into sixth forms, saying that every student over 16 should have cash and be able to say to schools and FE Colleges ‘you have to tell me which course will get me a job’ and chose on this basis. He claimed that the EBacc is the encapsulation of what happens in other countries that have been successful at raising achievement, particularly Poland, and said that his proposed examination system would not preclude the teaching of arts, although @localschools_uk claimed that 187 schools have dropped Art GCSE in the last year which may suggest otherwise.

Gove was unrepentant, as you’d expect, on Academies, claiming that he’s never met an Academy head who wants to go back, although I imagine that the increasing use of Non-Disclosure Agreements for staff in both academies (and in the state sector) may be influencing this. “Resistance to academies is with people who want to swim at the edge of the pool, not strike out to the centre. To them I say come on in, the water’s lovely.”

He appears not to believe that schools focus aggressively on exam results to the exclusion of everything else: “Someone people say some schools are exam factories and are prisons of the soul. These schools do not exist”. The audience murmured and occasionally heckled their dissent.

It also looks as though education will remain ring-fenced after the Autumn budget. “The Lib Dems have helped me argue that education remains well-resourced.”

The most instructive moment (apart from when Gove experienced what body language experts call ‘leakage’ during a discussion about the sense of making hormonal teenagers do exams, when he talked about things ‘going wrong hormonally’ during teens and stiffened his left leg in a most peculiar fashion) was during the Q&A session. He was asked about over-assessment.

Gove: “You can’t have education without assessment.”
Audience: “Why not?”
Gove: “We need it. Education without assessment is just play”

As someone pointed out to me later, what does he think happened in Primary Schools before SATs?

It’s a classic example of why politicians shouldn’t get involved in the content and mechanics of education. Governments need assessment, in order to prove they’ve raised standards, and whilst students need some assessment, there’s plenty of evidence, particularly at Primary Level that too much assessment is bad for students.

For what it’s worth, my cod-psychological take is that Mr Gove is involved in a powerful psychological projection in which he wants to replicate his own schooling. I once read an interview with his mother who described her son being so brilliant that teachers would invite him up to the front of the class to take the rest of the lesson.

I think it’s ego leading this, not evidence about how young people learn, nor 21st Century requirements. This is a shame because on today’s showing he’d be a most entertaining conversational companion – and a damn dangerous person to have in charge of education for a generation which is more diverse, in all senses of the word, than any before.

Jay-Z, Nas and the Illuminati

An argument broke out yesterday down at LIVE Magazine, the youth-run website, magazine and Youtube channel where I work as editorial mentor. It all started because someone said that they couldn’t even look at Rihanna because of her ‘illuminati ways’ and before we knew it a 45-minute debate broke out across the banks of Macs.

Jay-Z wears illuminati clothes. He knows what he’s doing. He’s controlling the youth – he’s a big man, how could he not know what he’s doing? The illuminati run everything. They run politics and banks. Everything is organised, nothing happens by chance, and devil-worshipping illuminati are controlling hip hop in order to control the youth. Frank Ocean denying its existence only makes him more guilty. The only exception, it seems, is Nas – and if I told you why I’d have to kill you.

This is a discussion that comes up at least once a month and it’s done so for pretty much the entire five years I’ve been involved with LIVE. It’s perennial and perennially depressing because conspiracy theories alienate young people from democracy. What’s the point in voting when the illuminati really run everything?

There’s also a shadow of anti-semitism that runs through all illuminati rumours. I was reminded of how wrong these things can go (as if you need any reminding, with Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria and a terrifying ramp of examples of ethnic massacres) by that lovely long-haired Scottish man who does TV history shows and looks like that bloke that used to be Robin Hood in the ‘90s. He talked about Viking incursions into Britain a thousand years ago – and how in retaliation, King Ethelred ordered the slaughter of all Danes living in the country. These were just normal people. Danes who’d been living in England for generations. They weren’t Vikings, they weren’t a threat, they weren’t running anything or trying to control the population. They were Danes… actually, they probably thought of themselves as English, with Danish forefathers, and they’d been brutally cut down whilst running away, with the sword marks visible on their bones and skulls a thousand years later. Hatred, and in the worst cases, death is what really waits at the logical conclusion of the illuminati idea.

The world is way too complex for over-arching conspiracy theories to be true, although that doesn’t negate the reality of powerful people manipulating crises, currency and communities for their own personal profit. That’s not a conspiracy – that’s abuse of power.

Conspiracy theories are widely circulated through Youtube films that review film, music and even the Olympic opening ceremony through an illuminati prism. This is no longer just the domain of people who spend their evenings stuffing their lungs full of high-grade skunk. Ten years ago, as my twitter friend Tramshed3000 pointed out, only Wu Tang fans and arcane book geeks were into conspiracies. So why now? Conspiracies are a comforting blanket when faced with real disempowerment, unemployment, widespread anti-youth messages in the media, racism and a serious lack of autonomy – no-one asking people what they want for their schools or their jobs or their lives. I’m with Bonnie Greer, who made a speech entitled ‘yet the young lead’: maybe then conspiracy theories would dissolve back to the edges rather than the bizarrely central position they currently occupy.

Now, honestly, can someone explain why Nas isn’t illuminati? And ‘because he doesn’t worship Satan’ doesn’t count…

Enter The Positive Hustle

So, Generation Next, presented by Gemma Cairney went out on on Sunday and it’s on iPlayer til the end of the week. The idea was to shine a light on the young people coming up with creative responses to the recession but it also required some historical digging. This was a highly enjoyable part of the process.

It was clear to me that grime had a big part to play in this story. I remember seeing what my friend Kevin Braddock once called ‘crews with a business plan’ right back at the point where UK Garage turned into grime. Acts like So Solid Crew might have seemed like a raggle-taggle bunch of talented MCs but from their perspective, they were an early incarnation of band as brand. They were a business, with a record label, promotions arm, radio station and huge fanbase. They were a Wu Tang Clan, born from a Battersea estate rather than Staten Island projects. To the front and centre of Wu Tang were crews like Ruff Sqwad, More Fire, Pay As U Go, Musical Mobb who were channelling music and business without the former polluting the latter. The old idea that art and money shouldn’t mix was being broken down by a new generation of artists with an eye on the future.

I didn’t actually cover So Solid in the documentary but that’s because you have to make fairly brutal decisions about what to include and what to leave to the side. I did catch up with JME though, who provided a perfect Year Zero for the new generation of grimepreneurs. He was the first person to monetise the impulse sent out by the UKG Wu Tangs in a way that resonated outside of the margins. Boy Better Know became famous within and outside of grime for selling thousands of T Shirts, and built a solid base primarily by being one of the funniest and smartest MCs on the block, but also by making sure his business was on point.

You can’t look at grime without looking at hip hop. Dan Charnas wrote The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip Hop and provided the expert American voice for this section. I read the last part of his book before we spoke but hadn’t read the whole thing til afterwards. It’s an incredible read and one of the best music books I’ve ever read. He has a lovely style that fuses a minute attention to the detail of what happened with dialogue that reads like fiction. You don’t have artists telling you the boring stuff about what they did, you just hear them talking amongst themselves, as if you’re in 1984, hearing Rick Rubin motormouthing across a table somewhere, or as if you’re earwigging Damon Dash and Jay-Z shooting the breeze somewhere in the mid ’90s.

He placed hip hop firmly at the centre of this trend for a new wave of enterprise that sits comfortably with art: rap, he says, changed everything.

There was one more historical corner to examine. You couldn’t normally justify talking about punk on 1Xtra but it’s a jubilee year and the parallels were just too compelling to ignore. So I went along and interviewed Pete Donne from Rough Trade East who spelled out the links between the new wave of creatively-inspired entrepreneurs in 2012 and the kids inspired by punk to start record labels, make fanzines and start bands.

It’s up til Sunday, if you want a listen.

I just made a documentary for BBC1Xtra about the new wave of young entrepreneurs coming up with creative responses to the recession, presented by Gemma Cairney. It’s going out tonight.

It was a real pleasure to be able to make this, and not just because I’ve discovered I love making radio. It was a pleasure because I know there’s a huge disconnect between what the mainstream thinks about the youth and what I know from my work as editorial mentor at Live Magazine. Most people are just fed stories of doom and violence, dispossession and laziness. We hear that exams are too easy, that school-leavers can’t read or write, that young people are addicted to their phones or to celebrity and that’s not to mention the constant hum of our obsession with the tiny minority of youth who get involved in criminal violence, who end up as inaccurate poster children for a whole generation. They’re not.

I see a different reality, of a generation – or perhaps more accurately a sector of a generation – who are incredibly motivated and capable. These are people who are spending their teens and easily twenties making their own jobs, setting up charities and social enterprises, starting businesses that will end up employing other young people, or otherwise just doing stuff that will help make them more employable. Enterprise these days, says one of my interviewees, Andre Campbell, isn’t all about The Apprentice. It’s just “a positive hustle”.

I interviewed some positive hustlers for my documentary, like Sam Harris who set up Pedal Power in Bristol, or Live Magazine editor Celeste Houlker who also runs 12th Estate, a social enterprise to support young women who want to set up their own businesses.

The only downside was that I couldn’t include more people, like Beejay Mulenga who I first met when he was 13 and was hurtling headlong into a world of enterprise with his Supa Tuck Shop company and charity Supa Inspire, or the Rianna Price from the supa dupa fly Run Dem Youngers or Shadrack Straker who dreamed up a business that would bring people together and would solve youth unemployment at the same time. He became one of the first Virgin Media Pioneers and has subsequently met Richard Branson on a number of occasions. There are thousands more like them all across the country and I think they’re great.

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