Today in my creative writing class, students wrote essays about songs they brought in, discussing both the meaning and the writing of the lyrics. This is my own take on the assignment.
Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise moves me, precisely because I am the person the song is written to. I am that teacher, that intellectual, that political activist, that, well, white person who once thought it was easy to solve the world's problems. Education is the answer, right?
"They say I gotta learn, but nobody's here to teach me / If they can't understand it, how can they reach me?" Coolio's question towards the end of the song is, to me, the crux of his narrative. Having described life in the gang world – the complex mixture of pride, self-loathing, competition, fear, and brotherhood that comes with the kind of upbringing most eventual gangsters find impossible to escape – Coolio responds to my righteous indignation. He needs to get an education, I say. His response: you don't get it. He's right, I don't. And, what's more, I'm far from alone.
It's easy to take the next two lines as resignation: "I guess they can't; I guess they won't / I guess they front; that's why I know my life is outta luck, fool!" I would argue, however, that there's something else going on here. Indeed, this isn't resignation, but rather frustration and anger at the resignation of those few who are willing to try to teach the otherwise disenfranchised, the gangsters, the "dangerous." The problem is, that effort to teach is usually an effort to conquer, to impose, to "reform." "They can't" and "They won't" because they're afraid to try to understand a life that asks "I'm twenty-three now, but will I live to see twenty-four?" without irony or sarcasm.
What would it mean to be a teacher in a Gangsta's Paradise? There are plenty of teachers there, already. There are the ineffectual schoolteachers, who lament their students' stupidity, disobedience, and laziness, and then there are the brothers and fathers and uncles who teach their kids how to survive on the street, who have a more nuanced view of those students' flaws. Regardless, there's not much communication across those boundaries. The innocent outsider, there to solve the problem, is afraid to actually understand and experience the problem he or she wants to solve. The insider has more important things to worry about that than 19th century European History or Trigonometry.
I don't have solutions, myself. Even as a former teacher of at-risk and high-risk teens in Hawaii, some of whom were well-versed in the gang lifestyle, if only by proxy, there's no magic bullet to becoming a cultural insider. Taking away the expectation that teaching is about distributing knowledge is a start. Eliminating the distinction between teacher and learner is another step. But even the most radical and progressive pedagogy is no guarantee. Because, at the end of the day, you can't "front." You can't bullshit. And that's really hard for teachers to do.
Gangsta's Paradise is a brilliant, well-written song because it's not afraid to address the complexity, to challenge the assumption that access to knowledge and education makes all the difference. Beyond that, though, it's reflective, recognizing that the Paradise of the L.A. (or New York, or Honolulu) gang world has its own responsibility: "Tell my why are we, so blind to see / That the ones we hurt, are you and me." That does not absolve me, or those millions who are afraid to even acknowledge the issue, of responsibility. Rather, it only further illustrates how important it is not to be a conqueror, not to fight gang culture, or to try to "enlighten" the people caught in it. The process is subtler than that, and more risky. I should say, the process is subtler than that on the ground.
Higher up, the problem is starker, and very much analogous to the gang experience: "Power and the money, money and the power / minute after minute, hour after hour / Everybody's runnin, but half of them ain't lookin' / What's going on in the kitchen, but I don't know what's cookin." This could just as easily be about politicians, corporate leaders, banks, insurance companies as about gangsters themselves. What better example of the brilliance of the lyric writing could you find than this? The audience expands; we learn that we're all living in the same Gangsta's Paradise, where the ones we hurt are, far too often, you and me.
Gangsta's Paradise moves me, however, not because I can empathize. The analogy between the gang world and the commercial and corporate world may be apt, but it doesn't mean the experience is the same. No, what is moving is the challenge to my perceptions, the self-awareness and fear of the author, and, in spite of it all, the pride. I don't get it, but I do respect it, and that's a start.