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A Fine Line - Challenging Lyrical Content

Self-expression is a fundamental component of music-making. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is also one of the most commonly reported outcomes for Youth Music-funded projects operating within youth justice settings. Where young people are supported to write and compose, lyrics often reflect issues and difficult emotions that they deal with. For some, music presents an outlet they can use to express themselves – something they might otherwise struggle with – as in the case of the 17-year-old participant in a Youth Music funded project quoted above.

It is a reoccurring observation that I’ve come across during several project visits to Youth Offending Institutions, and music leaders have reported instances in which songwriting has given participants an opportunity to explore their behaviour and its consequences in a constructive and meaningful way. One such example can be found in the lyrics and recordings produced by young people who took part in a musinc project, available in this insightful blogpost. Another project reports how a group of participants wrote a song to their mums apologising for their past behaviour, saying these were “things they had always wanted to say but didn’t know how to express” – for a lot of projects, it’s not just about facilitating self-expression, but also promoting positive communication.

While this is the goal, getting there is often not straightforward. If music is used as a vehicle for self-expression, it is bound to reflect the context in which it is being created – that is to say the life, circumstances, experiences and, of course, musical influences of the young musicians.

Lyrical content

“With the popularity of grime with our young musicians, lyrical content is always problematic. We reach out to engage the most disadvantaged young people, we empower them to find a voice, to express their thoughts and emotions lyrically and vocally… to then disapprove of what comes out?” Dan Axon, Door 84

A key challenge faced by many projects operating within youth justice settings relates to the lyrical content of the songs young people write, which can sometimes be abusive, demeaning to others or glorify negative behaviours.

I wanted to find out more about the ways in which projects within and beyond youth justice settings deal with lyrical content. To do so, I have spoken to a number of music leaders and project managers who have been keen to share their views on the subject and provide insights into their practice. Here, I’d like to explore some of these discussions and hopefully provide examples of best practice that will be useful to others working in the sector. And while each project has come up with an approach that works for their specific context, there are also many common features, which I’ve tried to sum up below.

A fine line

“Bearing in mind the extreme difficulties our young musicians are dealing with, it’s not surprising that some of their lyrics are very challenging and often much stronger than those of successful artists, but they are, after all, real.” Dan Axon, Door 84

Most music leaders I spoke to agreed that negative lyrical content (in its broadest sense) is not a problem by default. It should be viewed within the context of young people’s lives – they may be writing about personal experiences and a blanket ban on any offensive language would risk alienating participants and taking away that key element of self-expression which, as outlined above, can be one of the most positive outcomes of such interventions.

The bottom line for many music leaders is to distinguish between lyrics that tell a story, express feelings and experiences and those that glorify certain behaviours or, often, simply emulate what the young musicians have heard elsewhere. But most also recognise that there is a fine balance between the two.

Examples of best practice

Relationship building

One thing everyone I spoke to agrees on is that open and honest dialogue about lyrical content is fundamental. Tackling the subject of offensive or abusive lyrics is important and, if approached in a constructive way, can have benefits that go beyond songwriting – examples abound of improved communication skills, increased self-awareness and, ultimately, shifting attitudes and behaviour. But challenging certain lyrics, exploring their meaning and encouraging alternatives often requires a degree of familiarity and trust between the young people and music leader. While not all projects will have the luxury to work with young people over months or even years, there is a recognition that relationship-building is key.

“What we try to do is to not tackle the issue of lyrical content right away because it stops them from engaging in the project”

This view was echoed by most music leaders I spoke to, all highlighting the importance of keeping young people engaged while allowing the time to build mutual respect and trust. Some will purposefully structure their projects so that songwriting isn’t covered immediately at the start: “songwriting happened half-way through the project, we built up to it, starting with instrumental or music technology sessions and through that time we built relationships both individually and with the group, creating a safe environment where young people could be themselves. Once I build a relationship of trust I can start challenging their lyrics more openly and constructively.”

Highlighting the risks

Highlighting the risks young people may be exposing themselves to as a result of their lyrics can be a useful way to begin encouraging a different approach to lyrical content. One music leader working with young people involved with a Youth Offending Service who are serving court orders told me that “it’s useful to make it clear that police keep an eye on these things, they watch the channels where this music is shared and released, and that can have  very negative consequences.” But even in instances where young people aren’t offenders, abusive or violent lyrics can invite trouble which may not have been there in the first place: “you can have young people who live in a council estate but have not had much experience of crime and violence in their life but they’ll still write about that and it risks becoming a self-enhancing thing”.

Another music leader has written about the risks of young people espousing the ‘Grime lifestyle’ and sharing their music online: “Young people who are anything but grimey are drawn towards the lamp of criminality and the grittiness of the culture, seeking validation. […] The Youtube platform has mobilised an army of would-be grime children missing the context and learning a talk they can’t walk.” Adding to the risk is the ease with which comments can be shared on the platform: “when the subject matter [of the music] is violent already and young people feel empowered to get involved and say their […] inflammatory piece to a complete stranger who may live two streets away and may be very real… what happens when they meet outside Costcutter on the wrong night?”

Music leaders and youth workers know of instances in which these risks have materialised – making young people aware of them by telling these stories may be a way to raise awareness about the weight of their lyrics and encourage reflection on the potential consequences their content may have.

Defining the audience

The reasons why young people decide to engage in music projects and create their own music are numerous. While not everyone will have ambitions to establish a career in music, most will inevitably have an audience – be it their families, friends, online followers, etc. According to music leaders, defining the audience may prompt increased awareness about lyrical content.

One music leader found it helpful to ask one young person whether they would mind if their nine-year-old sister would listen to their lyrics, while another told me about one young person who for the first time wrote a track that they felt comfortable sharing with their parents: “the feedback has been really positive and helped their self-confidence and being accepted within their family.”

For those who are genuinely interested in taking on music as a career (or at least making some money out of it), it may help to highlight the revenue streams and how lyrical content can limit or open up those streams. “We point out that success outside of Youtube would mean conforming to radio guidelines – this is a solid argument to encourage safer material.” Offensive language, abusive or violent lyrics are less likely to get radio play.

There may be instances in which young people write certain music in order to increase their reputation among peers. One music leader often asks the young person if they or their peers buy music. More often than not, the answer is no, to which the music leader asks how they intend to make any money out of their own music. It may seem obvious but, in this music leader’s experience, it can be an effective argument.

Negative vs. positive brainstorming

Encouraging positive themes to emerge in young people’s lyrics may not be easy and some may view it as unwanted interference in the process of self-expression. Nonetheless, exploring positive narratives can act as a prompt for young people to write about things that go beyond their current feelings or circumstances: “We constantly encourage upbeat, positive themes of ambition, overcoming, triumphing which can also be expressed with anger and drive and are ultimately going to have a larger audience.”

One music leader working with children with mental ill health suggested it’s important to recognise and accept the negative themes that may naturally emerge when these young people start writing songs – a brainstorming exercise with one of the groups she has worked with brought up words like depression, loneliness, bullying and suicide. A prompt to split the brainstorming into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ words encouraged the children to also think about what makes them happy. The result was songs that sounded more upbeat: “they wanted it to be upbeat because it had those positive elements around it.”

The extent to which this is possible may vary according to the challenges the young musicians face and, indeed, the genre they’re working in.

Telling a story

“It is a fact of life that the grime aesthetic is grim, and to a young person struggling in life it’s comforting to hear their issues echoed by successful artists. I think much of the negativity is a fair barometer for the state of society as viewed by a young person with few, and decreasing opportunities.” Dan Axon, Door 84

Many music leaders I’ve spoken to, agreed on the importance of encouraging self-expression to take the form of story-telling as the best medium for recounting about the young musician’s lives, experiences, and struggles. It encourages reflection, perhaps even recognition of the impact of certain behaviours as opposed to glamorising them.

One music leader told me he’s been working with a few young people whose lyrical content presented a real challenge: “they’ve already been making music and it’s been hard for them to let go of that ‘tough guy’ image. But really, it’s about recognising that they don’t need to let go of that – instead, it’s about channelling that in a way that it’s about telling their story – including the negative aspects of it, just from a different perspective.”

Being creative

“The best MCs can blow your mind without using swearwords.” Charly Richardson, Essex Music Education Hub

While the use of swearwords is not necessarily viewed as a no-go by many music projects, encouraging a more ‘creative’ use of language can be a positive challenge that some music leaders will put to their young musicians. In this case, it is not about imposing a ban on swearwords. Instead, music leaders will say “I challenge you to find a way of expressing yourself without using that kind of language. Anyone can swear and use clichéd lines.” It may be more difficult and require a greater creative effort but, ultimately, can lead to more original and creative content. Leading by example may be the best way to encourage this.

Positive role models

All music leaders working with young people in challenging circumstances are aware that part of their responsibility is to be a positive role model. But examples can be set by other musicians as well. In July 2017, Essex Music Service debuted Grown: A Grime Opera, a combination of electronics and live instrumentation featuring the Essex Youth Orchestra, the Burnt Mill Academy choir, along with local young singers and rappers. The project intended to explore the synergies between these different musical cultures and to inspire young people to engage with music education in new ways. A lot of the lyrical content for the opera was written by grime artist Eyez. As Charly Richardson, Lead Officer at the Music Service told me, “it sounds like grime, uses the language you’d expect but at the same time there’s no swearing or offensive language – it’s telling a story, his story, in a reflective way. Eyez was very inspirational, changing perceptions about grime and sending the message: be inspired by the music, not the lifestyle.”



Rules, guidelines and values

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of each project and music worker to outline the things that they won’t accept in the music young people write. Often, these ‘ground rules’ will be debated and set at an organisational level.

Examples abound. One organisation working with young people to create radio programmes abides by Ofcom regulation – “part of the training with young radio presenters is explaining why that legislation exists. They’ll often think it’s censorship but actually it’s usually about protecting minors.”

In a similar spirit, another project manages offensive material by managing the backgrounds and age ranges of their groups – “that way we know that younger people are not influenced by association to older MCs and also that people who might be more sensitive to such content are not made uncomfortable.”

For organisations working with young people in youth justice settings and beyond, considering these aspects can spark fruitful internal debates. For example, some may decide that they will make fewer songs but spend more time on discussing and exploring the narrative: “we can only attempt to differentiate between description and glorification if we have those conversations, understand those lyrics.” Organisations may also decide that they want to prioritise formalising a set of values, rather than a set of rules, which they would incorporate in their day-to-day work with young people, challenging attitudes that appear to be inconsistent with the values of the organisation.

For many, this will ultimately be about using the songwriting process to bring about a positive change for young people and society more broadly.

Positive change

A key feature of music projects working with young people in challenging circumstances is a clear vision of the personal and social outcomes they strive to achieve for, and with, their participants. As one music leader put it, “music must be the medium to raise their aspirations – you have to take their lyrical content and break it down with them and find out why they’ve written what they’ve written.”

As several music leaders told me, part of the responsibility of the role, is to “delicately (even invisibly) intervene and direct when it feels there is a risk of someone’s musical and self-development being off-course.” Lyrics can be an indication of what’s going on in someone’s life and it is part of pastoral care to try to identify instances when additional support is needed.

As one youth worker put it: “For music that exists as part of youth intervention – here you have to work with young people in a ‘parental fashion’, acting as a positive role model and challenging their lyrical content, otherwise you risk ending up being part of the problem and you may be indirectly reaffirming that the lifestyle they are portraying is fine. As a music leader and youth worker you have to put the young person before the music. If you were to allow certain things to be written about and shared, you would be letting the young person down.”