Speak Up, Speak Now (September 2023)

Last time I spoke to you, I talked about sharing our enthusiasms – well, I’m going to start again with one of mine, lyrics from the world of popular music, but a more recent artist, and I’m going to give you a chance to recognise the lyrics before I tell you who it is.

“You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again
Got me feeling like I'm nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Calling me out when I'm wounded
You, picking on the weaker man

Well, you can take me down
With just one single blow
But you don't know what you don't know

Someday, I'll be living in a big old city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean”

Well done if you have been thinking Taylor Swift to yourself, and bonus credit If you identified that this track, Mean, comes from her 2010 studio album “Speak Now”. Words like knives, calling me out when I’m wounded – it’s a song about the power we all have to hurt each other with the way we speak, and yet it’s not from an album called Shut Up, but Speak Now – and today I’d like to think a little bit about why, and more widely how we can and should use our words in our community here. In what may be becoming a habit, I have two key lessons to take away and put into effect.

Before we get there, though, another piece of modern poetry – not one of my enthusiasms, but one of yours – thank you to the students who came and recommended it to me. DJ Khaled and Lil’ Baby teamed up to write this line: “I'ma turn up on a hater every chance that I get. I want the biggest watch that they got, don't care if it hurt my wrist.”

Maybe you’re wondering why this is a line worth quoting, maybe you’re wondering why the rap song only gets one line whilst the pop/country gets a whole verse. Those are good questions – if this was a more interactive experience, a lesson rather than an assembly, I hope you’d be putting your hand up to ask them. I’m a firm believer in the Humpty Dumpty approach to pop lyrics – making them mean what I want them to mean and not worrying too much about the artist’s original intention and I see the two songs, Every Chance I Get and Mean as talking about the same experience from different ends – of facing haters, bullies who put you down and making a success of your life instead. Taylor sees that success as living in a big old city and Lil Baby takes it from having a really big (and presumably expensive) watch.

There is a similarity in how they made their success too – in the crafting and use of words. Lil Baby was born in Atlanta Georgia and grew up in a single parent family, his father having left when he was two. He gave up on school after year 9 in order to deal drugs, was arrested several times and sent to prison. I’d like to emphasise that this is not a career path that I endorse or recommend – most people who go this way do not end up well. Lil Baby was lucky – really lucky - he found himself in music studios, was noticed by a label owner who encouraged him to try rap – he worked hard, put together mix tapes, collaborated with others (as he has with DJ Khaled) and won a Grammy for Best Melodic Rap Performance. Taylor Swift, meanwhile, won two Grammys for Mean – best Country Song and Best Solo performance. The album from which it’s taken, Speak Now, was written entirely by her without co-authors, practically because it was written at 3am whilst she was touring and nobody else was awake to help her finish her songs, but now, I think, it’s something she’s proud of having done – proved that she could do it herself, her words.

This is the first point I’d like to draw out – I’d like you to use your words – to put your hands up in class and ask questions or give answers – to write – and I don’t so much mind what, songs, essays, poems, loveletters, campaign speeches for the next election, it doesn’t matter what, so long as you practice putting words together to convince, persuade, charm, or amuse yourself or others. I’m joining in – what is an assembly but that? I know it can be scary to volunteer answers, what if you’re wrong? But this is courage term – doing the right thing even if it’s the hard thing – and having a go is the right thing. If you want to learn then you need to be prepared to be wrong, and if you’re going to be wrong, I’d like to encourage you to be wrong loudly. Don’t mutter the answer into your beards where nobody will hear it even if you’re right and where you’ll be able to  pretend you never said it if it's wrong – speak up, speak now, enunciate clearly and precisely so that if you’re right you can receive the adulation of your peers and if you’re wrong, then, well, you know you were wrong and can be right next time – this is the point of sixth form, after all, not to be right first time, but to be right next time.

But what about the other question you were going to ask me, why haven’t I quoted more of Lil’ Baby? Well, partly because I have honestly no idea what he means when he says “Drop the load, ain’t got no room right now, I took her to the O’ Then I pulled up on the Lamb’ ‘cause she’s a fan of Boonie Moe”, and partly because I suspect that those lyrics aren’t Lil’ Baby at all, but Lil Durk, but mostly because I struggled with the language in this song – it’s not very principal friendly, is it?

And this brings us to the second element of what I want to say today – I’m sure we all agree that we shouldn’t use words like knives, starting wildfire lies and humiliation as Taylor’s bullies did – at least, I hope we agree, but I know it’s an easy unkindness to fall into, especially if they are rude themselves, or deserve it, or started it somehow, so I’d like to ask you all to work hard to do better, be kinder, expect more from your friends, call them out when they’re mean to those they don’t like – there’s no need, there’s no cause. I’m also sure that you all agree that it’s reasonable for me to place an edict against swearing, against a stream of four letter words that we both know but agree to keep for our respective social circles rather than impose on each other. But actually, that’s not my biggest problem with Every Chance I Get – that’s the use of slurs, of words that are used by some people to target marginalised groups. There’s one in there that’s used against black people – and I’m sure Lil Baby and DJ Khaled would argue that they were reclaiming it, subverting it, appropriating it – and it’s not my place to tell them they’re wrong. What is my place is to create rules in our community that enable us all to go about our day without hearing words that cut into our soul like nails drawn down a chalkboard, and I think that for some people it feels that some words have gone beyond redemption, that there’s too much history of hurt in there for them to be used. And so we’re not going to use that one, thank you. There are also two words in that song that are used to refer to women derogatively and I think Lil Baby has much less right to claim their use, so I wonder if he’s trying to shock, trying to upset. We won’t be using those terms either, but I don’t intend to provide a list of proscribed words – what I’m saying is that slurs are not allowed in our community, racial, sexual, or based in any other category of minority.

I’m going to finish by returning to Taylor – another song from that remarkable album – Back to December, in which we see her admitting to having hurt someone else and modelling for us the only correct response to having done so. The chorus goes like this “This is me swallowing my pride, standing in front of you saying I’m sorry for that night.” Living in a community isn’t always easy, relationships aren’t always easy, using words isn’t always easy – and sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes we hurt people (sometimes deliberately, sometimes clumsily), and then we have to say sorry and that’s a hard word. Swallowing your pride, standing in front of someone without making excuses, without passing on the blame, saying sorry. Courage is doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing.

And that’s also why I don’t think the correct response to this confusing, difficult, complicated world is to sit quietly, not saying anything for fear of getting it wrong. Words have power to change the world for the better, words are what got Lil Baby his watch and out of a life of crime, what took Taylor Swift to that Big Old City. Words are what will get you the jobs, the future that you want, but you have to learn to use them, and to do that you have to be prepared to be wrong, and if you’re going to be wrong then I encourage you again to be wrong loudly. The point of sixth form, after all, is not to be right first time, but to be right next time.


1. More about that big old city here: Big City Ambition

2. More from the remarkable Mr Baby: Start Here