Lil Wayne And School Reform, Or, Change Isn’t Separate From Culture

A coworker sent me this amazing reflection by David Ramsey about how listening to Lil Wayne helped him get through his first year of teaching in New Orleans:

In my first few weeks teaching in New Orleans’ Recovery School District, these were the questions I heard the most from my students:

1) “I gotta use it.” (This one might sound like a statement, but it’s a request—May I use the bathroom?)

2) “You got an ol’ lady?” (the penultimate vowel stretched, lasciviously, as far as it’ll go).

3) “Where you from?”

4) “You listen to that Weezy?”

I knew that third question was coming. Like many RSD teachers, I was new, and white, and from out of town. It was the fourth question, however, that seemed to interest my students the most. Dwayne Carter, aka Lil Wayne, aka Weezy F. Baby, was in the midst of becoming the year’s biggest rapper, and among the black teenagers that made up my student population, fandom had reached a near-Beatlemania pitch. More than ninety percent of my students cited Lil Wayne on the “Favorite Music” question on the survey I gave them; about half of them repeated the answer on “Favorite Things to Do.”

For some of my students, the questions Where are you from? and Do you listen to Lil Wayne? were close to interchangeable. Their shared currency—as much as neighborhoods or food or slang or trauma—was the stoned musings of Weezy F. Baby.

The answer was, sometimes, yes, I did listen to Lil Wayne. Despite his ubiquitous success, my students were shocked.

“Do you have the mix tapes?” asked Michael, a sixteen-year-old ninth grader. “It’s all about the mix tapes.”

The following day, he had a stack of CDs for me. Version this, volume that, or no label at all.

And that’s just about all I listened to for the rest of the year.

I was talking to Alexandra Lange of Let’s Get Critical about how frustrated we were that, in addition to not announcing women columnists in its expansion of its opinion section, the New York Times hadn’t announced a single cultural initiative in that same expansion. The segregation of culture from policy and politics has always struck me as extremely strange. If you want to talk to and deeply engage with people who come from profoundly different places than you, it may be helpful to know facts and figures about them, but the actual conversation will probably not begin with a discussion of their graduation rates or poverty rates. Icebreakers aren’t the sum of change. But conversations and common ground have to begin somewhere.