Diversity and Speech No. 35: Rockin’ Diversity – by Carlos E. Cortés and Teri Gerent

Carlos:  Tell me, Teri.  How did you come up with the idea of teaching history through rock and roll music?

Teri: I’ve always loved music.  From the time I became a history teacher in 1998, I thought of music whenever we reached the twentieth century.  Then it hit me.  Why not help students reconsider U.S. history by structuring a course around music?  It worked.  

Carlos:  Well, if music works for teaching high school students, why not for diversity workshops, too?    

Teri: It certainly can.  Lyrics are a great way to generate discussions about tricky topics involving diversity.

Carlos:  Could you be specific about how you use music to explore diversity?

Teri: Sure.  I call one of my strategies “implicit vs. explicit.”  Explicit lyrics are usually straight forward.   For example, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” explicitly critiques politicians who spend taxpayer dollars on the space race rather than helping poor communities that are struggling to stay afloat. 

Carlos: How about implicit lyrics?

Teri: Because implicit lyrics use metaphors, they foster differing interpretations and spur intense discussions.   Take the Rolling Stones’ 1966  “Under My Thumb.”  I ask students to identify lyrics that might be considered implicitly misogynistic and indicate why they came to that conclusion.  Then I ask them to compare that song’s treatment of gender with the Statement of Purpose of the National Organization of Women, which was formed the same year.

Carlos: How ironic, Teri.  But did your teaching approach encounter any criticism?     

Teri: When I tried to get my course into the District catalogue, my title, “A Socio-Political History of Rock ‘n Roll: the Blues through Hip Hop,” caused some resistance.  But I documented how the course met statewide curriculum standards and, over time, demonstrated that my use of music sparked students to explore historical dynamics in greater depth.  My students regularly scored higher on Advanced Placement national history examinations than students who had not taken my course.  When the California Council for the Social Studies gave me its 2011 Senior High Outstanding Teacher Award, most skepticism seemed to disappear.  

Carlos: Why did you focus on rock and roll? 

Teri: I was born in 1957 and grew up on rock and roll.  It commented on the world in which I lived and helped me think differently about such things as the many struggles for social justice.  So I decided to use rock music as social documents to explore the second half of the twentieth century, from Eisenhower through Clinton.

Carlos: So let’s talk about how your use of musical documents could be adapted for diversity workshops.  

Teri: There are lots of songs that deal with diversity, like TuPac’s “Changes” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”   Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” advocates for the LGBTQ+ community.  Rage Against the Machine’s “Freedom” challenges the incarceration of the American Indian Movement’s Leonard Peltier.

Carlos:  What are some of the approaches that lyricists use to address diversity?

Teri: Take the theme of equity.   Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” poses questions like “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?”   In “Talking Birmingham Jam,” Phil Ochs employs satire to tell the story of the 1963 Children’s March that challenged Alabama Governor George Wallace, who called for the maintenance of racial segregation in his inaugural speech.  War’s “The World Is a Ghetto” tugs at the heart strings by invoking a sense of hopelessness in black and brown communities.  People can examine the theme of equity by comparing these different approaches.  

Carlos: How about using music to consider how thinking about diversity has changed over time?   

Teri: Well, you could listen to Sam Cooke’s 1964 “Change is Gonna Come” about the treatment of African Americans and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ 2012 “Same Love,” which deals with the LGBTQ+ community.  Different groups.  Songs nearly half a century apart.  These two songs can be used to spur reflection on continuities and changes in thinking about social justice.  

Carlos: What was your most fundamental framework for using music as social documents?

Teri: That’s easy.  Multiple perspectives.  To understand diversity, you need to recognize that human experience is comprised of multiple stories.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s video, “The Danger of the Single Story,”  reveals how uniquely each person experiences, interprets, and communicates about the world.  Rock music is social storytelling replete with different, sometimes conflicting, points of view.  

Carlos: You’re so right, Teri.  Could you give an example?  

Teri: Let’s go back to the Rolling Stones’ 1966 “Under My Thumb.”  Just six years later Helen Reddy came out with “I Am Woman.”  Consider the change of perspective from the misogynistic lyrics of “Under My Thumb” to the roaring words of “I Am Woman,” which became a sort of 1970’s anthem for the women’s movement.  

 Carlos: Terrific idea, Teri.  So do you have any final thoughts?

Teri: One in particular.  I’ve found that using music to explore social phenomena reduces defensiveness and sparks meaningful conversations about difficult issues.  It could work in diversity workshops as well as classrooms.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Carlos Cortés, Teri Gerent
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