Story Time with Jay Z

Posted on: Thursday, October 3, 2013

I played Jay Z's song December 4th for my class this week. I wanted to explain that I didn't just play it to be a badass, though I did feel I had earned some cosmic cool points in addition, and like, two people in class would probably think I was cool, right? Each member of our class is supposed to lead "centering time" one week of this semester. That is really just sharing anything you want at the start of Tuesday morning 8 am class. Students have shared TED talks, you tube videos of  Dr. Seuss stories and Jesus healing the sick, shared prayers and overall inspiration and wisdom. I've enjoyed this time and getting to know what motivates my classmates. How do I get centered in the morning? I listen to Jay Z really loud on my 35 minute drive to Waco. So, sharing that was my first thought. My second thought was a genuine questioning of how people might react if I blast Jay Z in a class at Baylor. I briefly thought about playing an edited version with the "bad words" cut out, but I have heard edited radio versions and they are nothing like the original, and I don't believe in censoring someone else's art or their story. Next came humor and excitement, oh man, that would be something to see. I ended up coming full circle, back to the fact that if I'm leading centering time and I'm told I can do whatever I want for it, I'm going to share with you what centering time looks like for me. I haven't yet changed who I am to fit any Baylor mold, so why start now.

But there had to be more than that to it. Apparently my number one strength is Maximizer- I make things that are good, great. I am far from a perfectionist in many aspects, but I'm not just going to accept mindless work or do something without meaning behind it, and I hold myself to that standard as well. So I actually thought a lot about Jay Z and sharing this story in class. I didn't just want to play any song, not at all. It did have to have a good beat, though. I did a lot of listening and settled on playing December 4th. I picked it because Jay Z really shares a recognizable story in that song; there's a beginning, a middle, and an end (be it open ended). I think all of his music is storytelling, but that song is one particular story that I think social work students can tune in to more so than some other songs, if they gave it a chance and listened to the words (yes, even the "bad" ones).

So in introducing it to the class I said "I'm going to share a story with you today. It's by Jay Z and it's called December 4th."

Afterwards, I explained a little more. As social workers, it is our job, at the very least, to listen to stories. That is the very least we can do. But I think we put too many limits on what that looks like. A labeled, hurting individual coming into a therapy session (in my experience there is usually not a couch, but you can picture one there if it helps). A group of disgruntled citizens participating in a focus group (the promise of free food did 75% of the work in getting them there). It should be in a language we are familiar with, and words we are comfortable using and hearing. And if we're uncomfortable, we don't let it show, we sit in that discomfort and reflect on it later, letting our judgments fill up the rest of the space in the room. Sometimes, more often than not in some contexts, we are shocked by what we hear (at least as a novice social work student).  Did they really just say that? Is that really this persons life? Damn.

But storytelling isn't always going to look like that, it shouldn't always look like that. If that's all we think storytelling is, we are missing out on a lot of interesting people. A lot of wisdom. A lot of pain, strength, and creativity. Because don't we do this for ourselves, as well? If you think I'm doing any of this solely out of the pure goodness of my heart, you must have heard the wrong story somewhere along the way, and I am not that good a person. I believe the way someone tells their story is just as important as what the story is. If we restrict that to one or two options, how can we get an accurate picture of a person? Of a family? Of a community?

I did not have a great understanding of or appreciation for (one naturally follows the other) Jay Z and his music until I heard his story in one of these two options we tend to give people. I read his book Decoded this past summer. And then I got it. Because it was a book, and I learned to read a long time ago. Books tell us stories, educate us, impart knowledge and entertain. Music does too, but I didn't grow up listening to rap the way I grew up reading books. So it took a book for me to get the music. Not just to get it, but to appreciate it, and to crave it. And only then did I start to "get" Jay Z, the person.

It took a while and I took a longer route, but I finally started to hear his story. It took me too long, and it took me hearing it first in a format I was comfortable with. But now I have learned a valuable lesson, and now I listen to Jay Z loud on my 35 minute drive to Waco.

So all of this to say, simply, that people tell their stories in many different ways. At the very least, we can give them a listen.

- Sarah


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