A music teacher colleague of mine wrote a wonderful piece about some recent classes he taught and posted it on Facebook. I commented: “According to today’s standards, everything you did in this class is wrong, wrong, wrong. And I love it! And most importantly, the kids did too!” He granted me permission to share it on this Blog and here it is. Congratulations to Aaron Kierbel for refusing to drink the Kool-Aid and trust his own intuition.
One of my favorite hip hop songs growing up was “Ya Mama” by Pharcyde.
It’s a playfully absurd diss track where each member of the group takes turns insulting each others’ mothers with quips like “Your mama’s got snake skin teeth,” and “Your mama’s glasses are so thick she look into a map and see people wavin’ at her.”
What I love most about the song is how much fun they’re having with each other. Normally insulting someone’s mom would be an incitement to violence but these guys sound like close friends hanging out, laughing and enjoying one upping each other.
They’re not just playing around having a good time — they’re drawing from an African American tradition called playing the Dozens (or the “Dirty Dozens”) a game of verbal dueling where two people go back and forth exchanging increasingly severe insults about their opponent’s character, appearance or family, to the delight of the group watching, until one of them gives up.
Rapper and scholar KRS-One says the game originated with enslaved Africans. They were usually sold one at a time but if any of the enslaved people had a physical or mental defect, they would be grouped in lots of a ‘cheap dozen’ for sale to slave owners. They would go back and forth with each other in front of the group, making fun of one another’s defects until one person would give up or wanna fight.
This tradition found its way into other forms of African American cultural expression, from blues music to Harlem Renaissance literature to jazz and rap. Author Elijah Wald wrote a fascinating book connecting the Dozens to insult duels in other cultures, such as Arabic rhyming duels, drum fights of Greenland and Flyting from Medieval England.
This was on my mind this past week when I was teaching a middle school drumming class, all African-American students. I had initiated a group discussion about what each student thought their unique talent was. After each kid had spoken, one student wanted to know what mine was. I gave my go-to answer:
Naturally, I was put on the spot and asked to demonstrate. Without hesitation, I got a beat going and tried to start rapping but the majority of the class wasn’t paying attention. I announced that if they didn’t quiet down I would turn my freestyle into a roast of each kid.
They all immediately got super quiet and attentive, little grins growing on their faces.
I knew exactly what was going on: They weren’t quiet out of fear — they WANTED to get roasted by me! And I knew they wouldn’t settle for a light roast. The insult needed to be based in truth and have the right amount of diss to be funny without being too mean or inappropriate.
And that’s exactly what I did.
With their full attention, I went around to each kid and dished out an insult which rhymed with their name. There was Amani who “looked like old salami”, Royalty who “smelled like fish oil to me,” Marshaun who needs to “put deodorant on,” Marcel with the “old car smell,” and so on. It got the whole room laughing and participating, even the kid who I was roasting.
They were being good sports about it and none of the kids visibly got their feelings hurt or antagonized one another. Sociologist Harry Lefever and journalist John Leland point out that other ethnic groups often fail to understand how to play the game and can take remarks in the Dozens seriously.
The energy in the class felt just like that Pharcyde song.
I’ve never gotten formal training as an educator, but I would assume that roasting your students is not a recognized tool in the teacher toolbox. But in my 15 year experience working with predominantly African American and Latino youth, it’s clear that, if done in the right way, it’s an effective way to connect, engage, and build rapport with the students.
It allows the student to be seen and joked with in a way usually reserved for their close friends/family. It’s a culturally relevant teaching tool that uses African American cultural traditions as a bridge to connect something familiar in the outside world to the classroom.
It also happens to be a really effective way for the teacher to blow off steam and diffuse the stresses of teaching in a creative and playful way. It shows that the teacher is willing to step out of their typical role and participate in the thing middle schoolers love to do most:
Play with the boundaries of what’s appropriate.