Committed to the Conversation (January 2023)

Last term I spoke to you about humanity and the importance of saying good morning on the school gate, of beginning that little conversation. Recognising each other’s humanity, getting started, beginning conversations are all appropriate topics for an assembly in Courage term, but now time has moved on, we’re in Commitment and that means taking things further. This morning, therefore, I would like to think about what it means to be committed to that conversation, not just recognising the humanity but engaging with it. I have some song lyrics for you and we’ll return, fleetingly, to the school gate, but first two of your own number, examples of students who have done what I’d like you all to do, who have demonstrated commitment to conversation.

You’ll remember that in my last assembly I quoted some lyrics from Lil’ Baby, initially attributing them to “the poet”, wondering if anyone would recognise them. “Start here,” he said – well, a few days later, a couple of year 13s came up to me and started a conversation by asking if I liked Kendrick Lamar. I murmured something about not having been exposed to enough of his music to make a judgment and asked for a recommendation. I was told to start with Untitled 5, so I did, and recommend it if you like your hip hop to be infused with weird jazz and aren’t too offended by explicit lyrics.

Explicit lyrics are a challenge when it comes to incorporating Kendrick Lamar into an assembly – it’s not so much that his lyrics are dotted with expletives – one can always follow my mother’s advice: “Don’t use those words,” she says, “say bother” – it’s more the way he talks about race and gender, using words so taboo that I don’t feel I can even talk about his songs without explaining I don’t endorse his language – that he has to make his own decisions, but that you have to follow the school rules, and the way he speaks is not acceptable, even as a joke, even quoting, even if you’re part of the minority the language attacks.

But I’m committed to this conversation, I can’t fall back on quoting Paul Simon rather than Kendrick Lamar simply because he uses the f-word slightly less frequently – conversation means listening to each other – not dismissing, not shouting, not mis-representing. We live in a world in which conversation is getting lost – one which is increasingly tribal – one where the commitment to each other’s humanity is lost. This affects politics – instead of parties aiming to do what’s best for the country, working together where necessary, we have them scoring points, reducing our faith in anyone – giving the impression that they’re all the same, all crooks. In his song Hood Politics, taken from the 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick says “From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around. Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” He seems to have lost all faith in those that run the country; the comparison with LA street gangs is deliberately provocative, I don’t know if he really thinks congress is that bad, but he’s certainly recognising an increasingly polarised country where the colour of your state is more important than doing the right thing.

Things aren’t as divided in the UK, but there has certainly been movement in that direction – Brexit was a hugely polarising issue, Boris Johnson’s premiership had elements of a cult of personality with a split between those who thought he transcended rules and those who found his attitude repulsive. There are, however, good politicians, politicians who are committed to improving the world for us all – you just need to look, and read, and think. You’re all likely to be able to vote in the next general election and I’d urge you to listen to what politicians say, to think about the issues that affect your life, to think about what values are important to you, to do more than stay at home, to do more, even, than simply put your cross in the right coloured box.

Before I leave Hood Politics, I just want to take the opportunity to geek out a bit on the album title, which was originally going to be Tu pimp a caterpillar. Why was it called Tu pimp a caterpillar? Well, it’s a backronym for Tupac – one of Kendrick’s inspirations. That’s fascinating in itself, but I can’t move on without taking a minute to talk about backronyms – taking an existing word and finding a phrase it could stand for. A lot of the time it’s simply a false etymology – SOS doesn’t stand for Save our Souls, it’s just a convenient and unmistakable piece of morse code – POSH doesn’t stand for port out starboard home, nobody’s quite sure where the word comes from but it’s more likely to be the urdu for “white robes”. Sometimes a backronym has serious intent – the Apgar test is done on newborn babies to check the first minutes of life are going according to plan and was named after Virginia Apgar who came up with it, but the backronym Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration helps to remember what is being tested.

Kendrick says he changed caterpillar to butterfly because “I just really wanted to show the brightness of life and the word pimp has so much aggression and that represents many things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good,” and that’s an idea I’d like to take further – he is known for his socially conscious songwriting, for trying to use his skills for good, so let’s move on to his 2017 album which my mother would call “Bother”, and a song called Pride.

“Now, in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive, cold as December, but never remember what winter did. I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid. Seems like I point the finger just to make a point.” I’m not a Kendrick expert – for that I must refer you to my Year 13 advisors – but what I think he’s talking about here is the difficulty of conversation in an imperfect world. People misunderstand you, maybe assume you’re trouble based on the parental advisory stickers on your songs, but you make mistakes yourself, and the way you speak is chosen to project a certain image – in some ways you make your own bed.

For those of us committed to the conversation we have to be ready to be misunderstood and to explain where we’re coming from – we have to be ready to misunderstand and apologise, and so I’d like to explain where I’m coming from when I stand on the front gate and complain that you’re late. I get up at 6, I leave the house at 7, I have an hour and a quarter commute with a couple of miles walk and two trains. I get to school by 8.30 every day, I’ve never been late – and so, when some of you arrive from homes much closer than mine at five to nine blaming traffic it feels rude – it feels like you’re not committed – it feels like you’re not bothering, not making the same effort that I am. If that’s you then I’m asking you – as part of this conversation – to get up earlier – to leave the house earlier – to get to school by 8.30 and just fix this problem. I can’t make you, certainly can’t do it for you – it’s down to you and your choice. If you don’t choose to fix it, then it looks like you’re choosing to be rude.

More from Pride, Kendrick writing about making choices: “See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches, I’ll choose work over women, I’ll make schools out of prison.”

We don’t live in a perfect world, our choices are not always perfect – sometimes I think riches and women distract him from faith and work – but he’s made a commitment – he’s decided on what matters, on the direction he wants to travel in. And that’s what I expect of you this term – not that your choices will be perfect, not that you’ll never make mistakes, that there will never be misunderstanding, but that you commit to your future, that you commit to doing your best, that you commit to this conversation – that you’ll keep saying hello on the gate, that you’ll start extending that conversation, sharing recommendations, telling me what’s interesting - what you’ve learned in lessons. That, in the words of Kendrick Lamar’s greatest track which you will remember from the opening paragraph of this assembly is definitively the remarkable Untitled 5, that means the world to me.