by Author Max Wheeler

Published on

You are here:

Stormzy vs Mozart vs Music Education

Stormzy vs Mozart vs Music Education


Ok so it’s a clash. It’s on. In one corner, the crushing weight of the dead male white canon. In the other corner, the rebellious countercultural, often controversial sounds of rap. Who will win?

This kind of clickbait set-up is almost always used to frame curriculum design – a binary conflict between A and B; mutually exclusive and antithetical on every level.

The reality is that the curriculum offers more flexibility than a lot of people give it credit for, and also that a LOT of teachers have been teaching hip hop for years. They’re no stranger to Stormzy and still teach classical music happily alongside it. That said, this is not the case everywhere and I think the reason Stormzy can’t sit alongside Mozart in every students’ experience is largely because of an argument that has been raging for a long time and which shows no signs of abating.

I’m writing this because I’ve been reading a similar argument unfold on Twitter between a classroom teacher, who I have a lot of respect for, and a young ambassador of classical music for a major UK organisation.

The advocate for classical music very quickly levelled the claim that rap music (and specifically Stormzy) was ‘chavvy’ in its use of language and should therefore be discouraged. They defended classical music on the basis that it was available cheaply to see for young people and therefore not exclusive.

In this conversation I saw the full scale of the problem in music education outlined neatly. If I had to sum it up in one word it would be “prestige”.

Rap music = Chavvy = Working class culture & therefore not serious. It’s not prestigious

Classical music = Upper class culture & therefore serious and worthy of study. It’s prestigious.

In this worldview, the problem is just one of exposing students to the ‘correct’ culture until they see its true worth. This is a missionary, almost colonial argument.

Apart from disappointment that the word ‘Chav’ is still used by people who consider themselves ambassadors for the arts, what this fails to recognise is the significance of ‘covert prestige’ a linguistic term referring to the fact that whilst unrecognised in a traditional power structure, prestige can come in other potentially more significant forms. Rappers have known this since hip hop started in the Bronx some 40 years ago. Stormzy’s use of real-life language connects with his (massive) audience. This is his genius. This hierarchic view of the worth of different music is what prevents music in schools from achieving its potential. We won’t fix the education system until we acknowledge that rap is just as worthy of study as classical music. Not more. Just the same.

When I started as a hip hop producer, plenty of people told me what I was doing was just noise & was ‘not really music’. Luckily record labels don’t care about that and my belief in non-traditional forms of prestige is what ultimately got me my record deal. I was lucky to have friends who taught me the ropes as a producer. Most students don’t have that, and ironically those that do are often held back from learning the lessons that classical music might teach them because their own art is dismissed in the classroom. They too get dragged into the false binary.

I believe a generation of young bedroom producers need to know the tools of theory in order to become professional producers for artists like Stormzy. All too often self-taught producers lose out to industry pros when money gets involved because they can’t work with session musicians, can’t write chord progressions for singers, and have to rely on samples and loops. These producers would benefit from learning an instrument, and from learning music theory. As long as we tell them what they are doing is for ‘chavs’, they will continue to do it in isolation without the support networks, conservatoires and theoretical knowledge their more classically-minded peers will receive.

Similarly, many young classical musicians I have had the pleasure of working with have benefited massively from interacting with modern sounds like grime. It may come as no surprise to orchestral leaders that some grade 8 talents struggle to improvise or play in time to a beat – key studio skills which they will need as freelance professionals, which hip hop, grime and other unwisely written-off ‘unworthy’ music can teach them.

Education needs to make the leap and accept that all forms of music are valuable, regardless of our own personal taste. Mozart may have more harmonic complexity than a Stormzy track (arguably in some cases), but Stormzy wins on complex syncopated rap flows and using language to interact with an international hip hop & grime fanbase. These are both important. One does not exclude the other.

In fact, this false binary does a massive disservice to both forms of music. It also prevents the natural fusion which takes place between all styles of music when these barriers are removed. While classical music is on a pedestal and rap is for ‘chavs’, the two are kept apart in the classroom. They’re seen as enemies.

My quote “For every grime project, a string ensemble doesn’t have to die” seems to resonate with a lot of people because this dug in, defensive position has been become so widespread as to be a cliché. The reason for this is that the arts in school are under threat. Both sides of the argument feel diminished by policy which views music as a luxury. Youth clubs are closed; orchestras struggle too. The more pressure we are under, the more conservative and reactionary our decisions tend to be. Of course that grime project threatens our funding, of course the posh kids spend all the money on their bloody oboes. It continues.

Classical music informs jazz. Jazz is the spine of hip hop. Hip hop is the older US uncle of grime. These things are not separate; they are a continuum. While we pigeonhole and separate them, we fail to tell the real story. The echoes of Asian classical music can be heard in the refracted melodies of Stormzy’s biggest hit ‘Shut Up’, itself produced ten years earlier by an East London bedroom producer and never officially released. There is a conversation we can have in the classroom here that can talk about a wide range of music, and still engage those who are not being reached at present.

It’s also clearly foolish to ignore the numbers. In the region of 93% of students at Key Stage 3 don’t choose music as an option. Modern styles like grime, hip hop and electronic music dominate the streaming charts of those very same students.

We are staring at an open goal in terms of engagement. It’s time to ditch the labels and accept that all music has value.  

Max Wheeler

Charanga VIP Studio Sessions: Author & Programme Director


Max will be speaking at:

YGN X Youth Music: Build a portfolio music career

Tileyard Studios, London - 25 June 2019, 6:30 Networking, 7:30 Panel

Balancing your creative work with a side hustle, freelancing or music education projects.