If you cast your mind back to the early part of Commitment term, you’ll remember me saying that I wanted us to be committed to being in conversation with each other. The example I gave was Kendrick Lamar, that great avoider of principal’s quotability, and you’ll therefore be unsurprised to hear how delighted I was to find out that his album Mr Morale and the Big Steppers has won the Grammy for best rap in 2023. In news that I’m sure would delight Mr Lamar, were he to be a keen follower of the Harris Clapham Sixth Form assemblies (and why wouldn’t he be?), I continue to find his work challenging – the way he uses language remains a taste that I’m yet to become accustomed to. Actually, though, there’s a song on Mr Morale and the Big Steppers in which Kendrick reflects on his own use of language, and, whilst he and I have come to different conclusions, we’re clearly thinking about the same things.
I’ll come back to that song later, because right now I’d like to tell you about one of the other Grammy winners – this year’s best new artist was a young woman called Samara Joy. She’s 23, older than you, younger than me – but closer to your age than mine. She was born in the Bronx in New York and she’s a jazz singer – an occupation that hasn’t been common among new artists since the 1920s (which is before even I was born). Jazz is also not my natural musical idiom, but it is easier both to listen to and ignore than rap – perhaps you have indulged the latter. The songs of Jazz tend to be old: the first track on Samara Joy’s second album Linger Awhile is called Can’t Get out of this Mood and was written by Frank Loesser, best known for writing the musical Guys and Dolls (which I’ve not seen, but obviously need to catch up with) and other songs before and just after the second world war. Can’t Get Out of this Mood is not a song that says anything particularly novel, depicting as it does, the romantic daze that follows a first kiss, but there’s a line I want to pick up and take out of context.
Before I do, though, a reflection on how Samara Joy became only the second jazz artist to win this Grammy. She has some advantages – she comes from a musical family and she has a quite wonderful voice – this is the reason to listen to her music, I think (it’s certainly not the profound reflection upon the lips of whoever Frank Loesser was ruminating upon) – I do recommend looking her up and listening to decide whether jazz is for you. What did she do with those advantages, though? She performed in her school jazz band, she entered a local school competition, she enrolled in a college to study singing, to do it better, she put together an album, released some songs on Tik-Tok, which I guess means that some of you may have come across her already – certainly a couple of million viewers have.
You don’t become a Grammy award winner by rolling out of bed one morning and deciding you fancy the idea. You don’t get there by dreaming up a shortcut. You get there by joining in, by taking opportunities, by entering competitions, by working hard, by having confidence that what you have is worth someone else’s time and money.
This, of course, links us to this term – last time I spoke to you I quoted the Sound of Music and said that whilst some have confidence in sunshine, or rain, or the idea that spring will come again, the most important piece of confidence is the confidence in yourself – the belief that your roots and your wings can give you the security and daring to take on the world.
I think some of you lack that confidence. I think that some of you withdraw from opportunities and competitions because you fear they might not work out, that you might not win. I think that some of you avoid committing to hard work because you fear that the effort might be wasted, that you might commit your heart to something and not get what you wanted. Well, as the great Canadian ice hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, once said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Ice hockey also being one of the tastes I’ve failed to acquire, I’m unable to regale you in a scholarly way on Wayne Gretzky’s brilliance, but I can tell you that he’s the all-time lead goal scorer and that his advice on specifically scoring at ice hockey is therefore worth taking. If we return to our Jazz theme then the standards are littered with songs of heartbreak – perhaps my favourite is Autumn leaves whose lyrics (translated from the French by Johnny Mercer) go “Since you went away, the days grow long and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song, but I miss you most of all my darling when autumn leaves start to fall.” Heartbreak is the price of love, I’m afraid – and the chance of failure is the price of taking a shot, and I’m not here to give you romantic advice, but I am saying that in life it’s worth having a go, worth working hard, worth taking part, taking opportunities, trying again when things don’t go your way.
But perhaps that’s a mug’s game? Perhaps you have a better idea? We hear about successful people who took the shortcut, who somehow gamed the system, claim to have broken out of the matrix. Jeremy Clarkson likes to tweet about how bad his A-levels are and how much money his car is worth every August, but these stories neglect an important truth: you don’t hear about the people who fail. The ones whose schemes don’t come off, the ones whose bad grades don’t get them hit TV shows never make the headlines, don’t sprawl across social media, you don’t hear about them.
But I do, because I see hundreds of students through school each year. I see the ones that worked hard from the beginning, and the ones for whom a light clicked on part way through and suddenly they made an effort, and the ones who kept struggling, kept falling back and then having another go, and the ones who thought that the rules wouldn’t apply to them, that they could do well without work. And I can tell you that there are no promises in this unfair and unpredictable world, that there will always be Jeremy Clarksons who find success despite not deserving it, but that most people who work hard do better than most people who don’t; that for most people success comes from taking part and finding what you love and working hard.
Samara Joy’s song begins “Can’t get out of this mood, can’t get over this feeling, just can’t get out of this mood,” and I think it can feel like that – particularly if you’re in year 13 – that you’re tied into a mood that isn’t productive, that isn’t what you want it to be, but that you can’t shake, can’t get out of. And to you I give the same advice that I’d give to Samara and her mood. Have a shower, go for a walk, clear your head and work out what’s important. And then advice that’s more specific – decide to work hard. Decide to take advantage of all the help your teachers can give you. Arrive at school early and work in the library. Stay until 4.30 to study – maybe just Monday to Wednesday, but for most of the week. Don’t rush off, instead follow the lyrics of the album’s title track and linger a while.
And the thought of lyrics brings me back to Kendrick, whose song Auntie Diaries begins “My auntie is a man now” and wrestles with the experience of a family member who has come out as trans. The narrator talks of his reaction and his family’s reaction, and the community’s reaction, the church’s reaction and then reflects on the way that he has used the f-slur (being Kendrick, of course, he uses it many times in the song). He says “See, I was taught words was nothing more than a sound if everything was pronounced without any intentions. You reminded me about a show I did out the city, that time I brung a fan on stage to rap but disapproved the word that she couldn’t say with me.” He’s reflecting on the contradictions of policing the n-slur whilst using the f-word himself – a problem we get round by saying that nobody here should use either – and I want to leave you with the thought of Kendrick’s confidence. He’s making himself vulnerable by sharing a time he was called out, a subject that he’s changed his thinking on. Sometimes making the world better requires not just confidence in yourself, but the confidence to change yourself, to rethink how you behave, how you approach challenge, how you approach other people. The confidence to get out of the mood, the feeling, the way you have been and to be and do better. You can call that Samara Joy confidence or you can call it Kendrick confidence, but you should try to find it either way.