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Teaching Strategies

Use “Rile ‘Em Up” Music to Develop Cultural Empathy

By listening to and reading the lyrics of songs from unfamiliar cultures, students can connect on a personal level with historical and social justice issues.

October 15, 2014

Caution: This song is going to make you feel uncomfortable. You will experience a modern-day sovereignty movement by listening. Also, "'Ea" (pronounced ay-AH) will enable you to recognize at least one alternative perspective about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom not present in your high school history textbook.

Promise: This song will hone your students' sense of empathy and rile 'em up in the process. As a history teacher, I don't feel as though I am successful unless learners' emotions are activated. They should become incensed about slavery, suffrage, and imperialism, just like the movers and shakers of history, who were infuriated enough at societal injustice to change the rules.

"'Ea", the title of a passionate indigenous rap by Sudden Rush, translates to "Sovereignty." I have shared this song with students in Hawaii, Micronesia, and the Continental United States during lessons on imperialism, sovereignty, perspective, and indigenousness. Invariably the song arouses emotion in my high school and college students, because "'Ea" describes historical and contemporary Hawaiian issues, including the loss of culture and the 50 percent blood quantum required to gain the very few Hawaiian rights that are offered by the government.

Song Analysis: A 21st-Century Skill

Using music in the classroom does not require a room full of iPads or other technologies. Song analysis is often overlooked despite its relevance to 21st-century learning skills: providing learners with the opportunity to explore perspectives and take a peek into the mind of the artist.

To further explore multiple perspectives and integrate student voice and choice, ask students to locate, analyze, and share songs that introduce related themes. And to extend this exercise even farther and develop learners' capacity for empathy, ask students to write and perform their own songs after researching a relevant perspective. With individual students and groups making diverse contributions, the class has the opportunity to experience and discuss multiple perspectives throughout their performances.

Performers Need an Audience

Want to take this even farther? Conjure up an authentic audience with your students by encouraging them to create a concert for school and community members. Or have students create videos to post on your school's website or share via social media. The artist with the most views and/or the most likes can receive special recognition in the school bulletin or perhaps on the morning news.

If you anticipate that some of your students may be reluctant to sing in front of peers, provide an option for your kids to perform poetry, choreograph a dance, create art, or play an instrument that captures the sought-after tone. This is student voice and choice, right?

Not sure how to get started? I use steps described in the next section to model song analysis with my students. Note that once momentum is generated, my students often create rich questions that delve deeply into a song's perspectives.

"'Ea" Song Analysis Steps

    • Do the definitions give you a clearer understanding of the song's message? Do they impact the tone?
    • In your opinion, what is the purpose of the song?
    • From whose perspective do you think this song was written? How does this impact the tone and the content of the song?
    • What did you learn about the history of Hawaii through this song?
    • What other perspectives should we consider when learning about the history of Hawaii?

I would be happy to share ideas if you are interested in songs about Hawaii for younger students or for different audiences. Your educational community would also appreciate knowing what songs you use in your lessons. Please take the opportunity to share your experiences in the comments section.

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  • Arts Integration
  • Arts
  • Social Studies/History

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