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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

  1. Without sharing a written copy of the lyrics, have students listen to Sudden Rush's official "'Ea"video on YouTube or download the song from iTunes. If you use the YouTube video, be prepared to witness a powerful sovereignty movement in action. (Disclaimer: "'Ea" uses the word "damn" twice. It certainly contributes to the tone, but may be offensive to some audiences.)
  2. Ask students, "What is the tone or mood of this song?" Then ask, "How does the song make you feel?"
  3. Next, have students read a hard copy of the lyric while listening to the song for a second time (I usually provide one handout for each pair of students).
  4. Have students highlight words that are unfamiliar and then locate the definitions of the words. Many terms are in Hawaiian (or Ōlelo Hawai'i) and can easily be found with a Google search.
  5. Then facilitate a discussion of the following prompts in order:

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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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Arts Integration
  • Arts
  • Social Studies/History

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