Outside

In 1997, Norwegian hip hop sensation N-Light-N released his eponymous debut, “Deep Green”. I was, and still am, a metalhead through and through, so I was mercilessly ribbed for my deviation from form when I wholeheartedly embraced the hip hop on offer from Tee Productions, a Norwegian and international sensation on the scene.

The year after that, Tee Prod issued “Bonds Beats & Beliefs”, a tour de force of epic proportions, showcasing the finest talent on the Norwegian rap scene at the time. I was thoroughly hooked, and both records received so heavy rotation on my system that one of them broke and the other got lost.

For a long time, I wondered what it was that drew me in to a cultural phenomenon I had little to no connection to. I identified with the beats, the bass tracks, the lyrical hooks, the use of rhyme and alliteration, and since I was a student of literature, I definitely caught the references. The Warlocks, a Norwegian trio of seemingly angry young men, issued a single called “V.O.T. Click“, which I instantly recognized as a reference to the linguistic term ‘Voice onset time’, or the measurement of time between a word-initial consonant and the following voiced sound in the same word.

This was unusual, I thought. Hip hop was meant to be about inner-city disillusionment, urban despair and street identity, and here a major group wrote a song seemingly about a concept in linguistics. The same held for N-Light-N, a wordsmith dealing in questions of identity, ethics, spirituality and ecology. How could white kids with little to no first-hand exposure to Afro-American urban culture make a convincing rap song?

It just didn’t occur to me that their angle on an alien phenomenon became my angle into a genre I had previously shown little interest in. I thought Cypress Hill sounded like fun music, but I just couldn’t relate to smoking weed all day and shooting at the police. Eventually, the shoe dropped, and I realized that Norwegian hip hop had evolved into this strange new animal I wanted to follow around to watch what it did.

So was this new thing just a geek thing? Did I latch onto the geeky references and think the rest was just filler? No. I bought the entire package, hook, line and sinker. It caught me. I always felt like a bit of a poser for enjoying it, but I did, and I sort of expected someone to call me out on it; expose my lack of hip hop fan credentials and ban me from listening to it.

But N-Light-N dropped off the radar. I felt cheated. He had been *my* performer. He rapped about ideas I could relate to, entertained notions I could dive into and think about for months and years on end. He questioned, ruminated, dwelled on tricky topics and did so with a flair and respect for his chosen material that made him like a priest to me.

Then, a couple of years back, N-Light-N came back onto the scene. Just a six-track EP called “Homecoming (A return to family values)”, and I thought: “This is it. He’s back.” And it was good. It didn’t really follow up, but it tided me over.

But once again, the mic was seemingly dropped and hip hop once again turned into radio-friendly tracks I felt nothing but deep loathing for. I couldn’t help it; hip hop had turned into something that provided dance beats and self-deprecating humour for the public to laugh at and enjoy. I craved the profundity I had learned to love in the Warlocks-era Tee Productions range of albums.

And yet again, years later, I went to a school concert with my pupils, having curiously managed to not only obtain degrees in literature and languages, but also a teaching certificate, a job, a wife, children and a mortgage.

And there he was, large as life. The Light. He called himself Son of Light now, and he toured schools where he lectured on the concept of hip hop as a key identity builder. He talked about how he had grown up without any of the traditional traits one would identify with hip hop, only a yearning towards the culture, the music and the sense of community. He had forged on internationally, and performed all across the globe. His credentials were well-established, and his performance skills had only improved.

That year, “War of the Words” came out. I bought it on Spotify, iTunes AND Google Play. I was yet again hooked. I played it to my kids, my pupils and everyone and anyone I could convince to stand still long enough to listen to the first bars of any of the tracks.

It was pure hip hop gold.

And there I was, nearly forty years old, a teacher, a father, a husband, a politician and a metalhead, trying to convince friends and acquaintances to listen to hip hop. “I don’t like rap”, they would say. “And I don’t like Jane Austen”, I would reply, “but that didn’t stop me from getting a Master’s degree in literature. This is high literature. These rhymes, these lines; they are art in every sense of the word.”

Sometimes I convinced someone, and often I struck out. I understood that people weren’t sold on the idea. I would sit around listening to how the Light syncopated lines where he would connect incongruous ideas with an ease rivalling that of “Canterbury Tales”, and people would loftily dismiss it with “I don’t like rap.”

Needless to say, I was a little offended, but I was also aware that people had their misgivings.

Yesterday, the Light performed at my school yet again, and I went to listen. I talked to him for a bit, and was struck by what a forthright person he was, talking freely and comfortably about a range of subjects he was interested in. He listened, and understood.

We talked about the concept of genre-crossing, whereby different schools of thought or categories blended to form a synergistic new whole. We were both keen on the concept, since it turned out to be such a keystone element in his career, what with blending his own experiences with that of the hip hop culture and producing something new and unique.

A good friend of mine introduced me to the idea of how we make “echo chambers”, where we, when unchecked, choose to distance ourselves from those whose opinions or styles do not match our own. We seek the security homogeneity offers.

“If we are to be a multiculture and build great new things, we must expose ourselves to new and radical ideas”, I said. And that’s the whole point: any multiculture that is going to be worth its salt must consist of different people, different influences.

We talked about different mixes of musical genres and people straddling divides, of people living outside accepted boundaries and norms, and just like the Light had said he stayed true to his dream and followed it wherever it took him, it dawned on me that it is often the outsiders that have the capacity to take it all a bit further. To go that extra mile, since they acknowledge borders exist, but don’t feel constrained to recognize them or respect them.

So here’s to those of you who know what I’m talking about. You mad scientists, benders of rules and mavericks. Heretics and kooks, loners and hermits. Do your own thing and be your own Frankenstein’s monster. You are the builders of a multicultural democracy where tolerance and respect for your fellow man is the key tenet.

At this point, I’ll simply pass the mic to the Light and Talib Kweli.

Just Be Yourself

 
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Those who can…

Today, OECD released the results of the PISA examination, a periodical review of the skill levels in core subjects like reading, writing, mathematics and science. Since I’m a teacher by trade, I guess my opinion on this should matter. Even if it doesn’t, I’ll volunteer it anyway. Here goes.

The idea of unified testing standards is a means to establish which school systems are the best, so that everyone involved can pick the brains of the highest-achieving systems. Pretty neat idea, huh? It’s like a think tank with real-time data retrieval, optimized to pool resources and harvest the benefits of a grand total of millions of years worth of teaching experience.

If reading the above made you a little sick, you are still sane. We put kids through between twelve and fourteen years of mandatory education to bring them up to a certain minimum standard, enabling them to hold the simplest of jobs and participate in society on par with everyone else. The basics of an education. However, this is a theory-heavy education and as such, it is not suited to everyone. In fact, the one thing our current educational system does really well is create losers. To add insult to injury, the losers we create become self-loathing dropouts. I can’t say whether we create winners on a proportional scale, but I kind of doubt it.

First of all, school politics has become an easy score for politicians of all colours and flavours, and everyone has an idea to improve and revolutionize national schools so as to improve test scores. Right now, a popular fix is sending teachers off to school to raise their competence levels, ostensibly. Being a politician myself, I can only say that I know politicians from several political parties who know perfectly well what plagues our educational systems, and it isn’t our teachers.

Over the past fifty years, the Norwegian educational system has undergone a swathe of educational reforms, each vowing to finally remedy the weakness in the system by addressing the core concepts of didactics and pedagogics. All these changes have been at the hands of politicians. The one great change for the teachers over these fifty years is…

Bureaucracy.

While I appreciate the need for improvement in teaching practices, and in helping teachers, schools and administrations reflect upon these practices, what we are talking about is a top-heavy micro-managing system of politicized schools, where every year sees a ridiculous number of revisions to everyday routines.

We are at a stage where more than fifty per cent of the average school teacher’s working day is devoted to documenting his own practice in detail, and to treading water in an ocean of forms and documents. What’s left goes towards preparing classes, providing guidance, giving feedback… You know, teaching.

And the current government’s suggested solution is to strengthen teacher competence by sending them off to classes and courses, which in reality are little more than downscaled university courses intended to enable teachers to actually teach their classes. While this sounds like a really great idea, few schools actually employ teachers without a university degree in the core subjects mentioned above, so this is a perfect example of the Marx Brothers’ dictum:

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere and prescribing the wrong remedies.”

Like I said, I have a pretty good idea what it takes to make a good school, and so do many of my fellow politicians, but nobody wants to hear it:

Let schools deal with teaching. Leave the bureaucracy for the bureaucrats. If you keep picking at schools, they will become infected. You will produce kids that are not only lower-achieving, but actually so messed up they can document their own failings to within three decimal places.

Schools are meant to enable kids to interact with society, not deprive them of meaningful social environments and positive learning experiences. If the current trope of trying to create super-teachers by shackling them hand and foot with bureaucratic practices continues, it will kill the entire educational system.

Godi Keller has the right idea. Google him. Wonderful man, wonderful teacher.

Glenn Danzig – misunderstood genius?

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Just look at that self-important rock star.

He couldn’t possibly be a nice guy. Or a good musician. Or possess any degree of self-irony. His history speaks for itself: self-absorbed iconic rock star starts out with a couple of nice bands, and then goes on to alienate himself from every band that doesn’t have his name in its title. Likes to present himself as a tough guy, and puts out artistic material that many find disturbingly offensive. Acts the primadonna onstage, and has been recorded on camera getting cold-cocked by the lead singer of a warm-up band that wouldn’t take his shit.

And yet.

And yet, Glenn Danzig has consistently put out noteworthy albums. Glenn Danzig has consistently written lyrics and music that are evocative, haunting and nothing short of genius. Glenn Danzig has consistently stayed in character on stage and in the public eye, never apologizing for being self-absorbed, pretentious or arrogant.

Is this, in itself, sufficient to earn your respect? In a public climate where celebrities are forgiven for their transgressions by crying on TV, maybe not. Let’s reserve judgement for a bit. Let’s consider his product. His product is a package consisting of his body of work and his stage persona. His stage persona is a product that should be copyrighted in itself, and for all I know, it is. People don’t root for stage personas like that, but oh, they would like to be like that. Isn’t it funny how he has kept up that persona for decades? Uncompromisingly? Unapologetically?

The music. It sounds like a Satanic Elvis with a sore throat, doesn’t it? Maybe, if Elvis had the self-confidence and the artistic courage to push his particular envelope as far as it went. Danzig has stuck to his guns, and yet never let his product become stale. If you knew some people might find your sound a little bit funny, and make parodies of it to disseminate online, wouldn’t it make you a little sensitive? Wouldn’t you take steps to avoid those pitfalls?

Glenn Danzig has never changed the things people have ridiculed. He has welcomed the free publicity and laughed all the way to the bank. Because it didn’t need to be fixed.

He has been picked on for not being in shape anymore. For not singing the way he could. For not being as badass as he has claimed. For not crying live on TV. For not apologizing for being a primadonna. For staying in persona for decades. For being arrogant. Because being “real” is such a fucking boon to your career in a world of reality TV porn voyeurism.

Respect.

I don’t care if it’s an act, or if he really is that way. I don’t care if it’s conceited or artificial to the point of parody. Either way, he has done what he set out to do, and done it well. In fact, his body of work speaks for itself, and for his audience to focus this hard on his image is an offense to the quality of said work. Art is artifice. You use all means at your disposal to evoke a response from your audience, and Glenn Danzig has evoked exactly what he wanted to evoke.

Check out this video for a taste of his work, and feel free to browse his other videos too.

If you still think it matters whether Glenn Danzig is an act or not, I urge you to reconsider your priorities.

Glenn Danzig is a genius. I, for one, can’t wait for his next album.

My Favourite Time of the Year

Yes, it’s time again.

In this delightful clip from the underrated “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”, we hear a quite embellished and dramatized version of the festive occasion’s origins.

Of course, there’s the obvious Catholic saint celebration, giving it the name of All Hallows’ Eve, being the eve before the saints’ day.

However, these days it has become a completely commercial enterprise, celebrating candy, spooky costumes, scary decorations and horror stories. Parents lament having to fall in step with those who observe the holiday and send their kids trick or treating, because they are forced to buy candy and are threatened at eggpoint to hand it over.

These are, of course, lamentable aspects of this relative newcomer to our calendar, but I, for one, LOVE Halloween.

It is completely fake and made up. It generates revenue for retail stores in the shape of novelty items. TV shows weird horror films. Pundits complain of the Americanization of society.

None of which outweighs the rush of eating shitloads of candy, listening to thematic music, watching scary movies, putting on monster costumes and entertaining the kids with ghost stories.

Kids are smarter than we think. They get that the horror of Halloween is fake, but they also get the hidden messages in it.

Be nice, because one day you will be dead. Enjoy it while it lasts. Eat candy, be on the lookout for things that remind you you’re alive and scream with laughter when you’re scared.

This is the one holiday that celebrates life honestly.

You can disagree. It’s a free country. But come October 31, this house will look like Dracula’s castle, and I will look… well, pretty much the same as always, and there will be music and jack o’lanterns everywhere.

Happy Samhain!

Politics, part II

I was raised by good people. Good socialists, to be precise.

They taught me the importance of equality before the law, of social justice and of being the change you want to see in the world. They are very good parents, but better role models. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Because I became a class traitor three years ago.

I rejected the tenets of socialism, especially as pertained to communal ownership, state annexation of all private property, expansive statism, knee-jerk idealism trumping real-world challenges and some really unpleasant bedfellows in the war against “evil”.

Because the people I knew on this particular side of the fence never struck me as evil, or even judgmental. On the contrary, they were very keen to discuss points of view without resorting to name-calling or slogans.

Let me elucidate. I read both Marx and Mao at a tender, young age. My parents were (and are) firm believers in getting behind your convictions. They never kept me from exploring anything. And so, because I found my political home in social liberalism, I had to stand by it, even while it put me at odds with the ideologies my parents imparted to me.

I hope I will have the balls to do the same for my kids. Because my parents understood something crucial: it is not about the ideology you subscribe to, but the content of your character. All ideologies want you to strive for the better, both for yourself and others. It is a rare person who can see through the espoused conviction to the person who lies beneath.

All we have is each other. My parents understood this. I hope you will too.

Radical atheism

I used to be a radical atheist.

By this I mean I was aggressively antagonistic to any and all religious expressions, and that religious people offended me by talking about their faith.

I don’t feel that way anymore, but I feel I need to speak up on behalf of radical atheists who are being labelled as extremists and fundamentalists by the likes of… well, people like me.

You see, we weren’t just converted by the church of Dawkins et al. We didn’t sign up to preach the gospel of hating and condemning any and all gods. We weren’t envious or resentful towards religious communities for their great strides in the betterment of the human condition.

Religious people made us this way. With forced attendance in churches, school-sanctioned proselytizing, the tacit assumption that we all carried some religious “gene” that made us silent partners in the church and with the condemnation espoused by devoutly religious leaders when we failed to heed their advice.

Of course we were angry. Of course we were furious. Of course we needed to object vehemently. We needed to establish our resistance to what we perceived as a tyranny of religious consent. We thought of people who, like us, needed to be free, but who didn’t dare, and who needed the support of others.

Today, I like to think I am more tolerant. Religion is a matter between you and your god. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe tolerance isn’t the way to go. Maybe aggressive, radical atheism has a place in human affairs. If you think so, please ensure the following:

1) force everyone to believe in the same god.

2) enforce state religions.

3) claim your particular faith deserves special recognition by the state, and this should be reflected in legislation.

If, however, you believe faith is a matter between you and god, I can assure you the age of radical atheism is rapidly coming to an end.

This has been a public service announcement.

Politics

In nine days, there’s a general election in Norway.

I’m a social liberal politician.

I believe that government can play a part in providing services for those who need it, without interfering with the rights of the individual. Hence, taxes, schools, hospitals, law enforcement, roads and railroads, legal systems, health care, etc, ad infinitum.

Because people are intrinsically dualistic in the sense that we are both violently different from one another, and yet we need each other desperately.

I believe that all political directions are products of a need to create positive change, so I should probably be better at recognizing the good in all other political directions. But that is my own cross to bear.

What my political conviction boils down to is this:

The individual has the sovereign right to decide over his or her own life as they see fit, but we need to agree on a common level of involvement in civic responsibility. Because my freedom ends where yours begins. People are to be judged by their own merit. The society we build is meant to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves until they become able, and to safeguard the rights of the individual against the tyranny of would-be oppressors.

So is this something other parties oppose? Not outright, of course, but the only ideology that says freedom and civic responsinbility are a tradeoff that must be struck with the sanctity of the individual in mind is social liberalism.

Which is why I can only encourage everyone to vote what they believe in. Because running a campaign on bloated promises is worth less than nothing. I believe in those who vote for what they believe in, rather than what they vote for out of habit.

Good luck.