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Scott Robertson: Ph.D. Student Co-Edits Book on Education and Rebellion Through Music

Punk rock and hip-hop might seem like completely dissimilar genres to the untrained ear, but a new book co-edited by Scott Robertson, a Ph.D. student in UCLA’s Social Sciences and Comparative Education (SSCE) program delineates a clear unifier: both are expressions of youthful resistance. The book, “Rebel Music: Resistance Through Hip-Hop and Punk” (Eds P. Parmar and A. J. Nocella. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2015. Print.), sets out to illustrate how these two musical movements address social concerns and provide a means of confronting oppression.

A native of Cerritos, Calif., Robertson graduated from California State University, Fullerton in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and received his master’s degree from UCLA’s SSCE in 2009. He currently teaches English as a Second Language at Cypress Community College.

As a long-time punk enthusiast and former member of two punk bands himself, Robertson recently took the time to answer some questions about “Rebel Music,” which is his first book.

Ampersand: What’s your personal experience with music? How did you become interested in the subject?

Scott Robertson: I guess I have always been musical. I used to annoy my mother by grabbing a pair of spoons and drumming along to the radio. To keep her silverware safe, she got me a little Casio keyboard to play with. I soon started making up my own cheesy songs and would perform them for any family member brave enough to have a listen. But I never really thought I could be a musician. I quit junior high band and never bothered to play anything in high school. I just never thought I could create anything that sounded like the songs I was hearing on the radio or MTV.

Toward the end of high school I was becoming exposed to punk. There’s something empowering about sharing cassettes and CDs with friends rather than waiting for a radio DJ to show you new music. The sounds were unlike mainstream music: instead of synthesizers and electric drums, scratchy electric guitars and fast live drums pummeled my senses. With this music, it was clear that human beings were playing it. In those days, mistakes were left on the recording adding a lot of character to the songs. Something clicked that said, “I can do this, too.” So, my best friend and I bought some cheap introductory guitars and started copying our favorite songs. We soon were good enough to start our own band. From that we eventually went on to play live shows, record five studio albums, and even [had] a good fan base growing. At that point, we were immersed in the scene.

&: “Rebel Music” seems like a pretty collaborative project, how did the idea for the book come about and how did you become involved with it?

Robertson: I picked up a book co-edited by Peter McLaren and Anthony Nocella called “Academic Repression.” This is a must-have for anyone working in higher ed. Inspired, I got in touch with Anthony. We came to learn we had a very similar interest in punk music. I suggested we collaborate on a book for punk rock and education. We had a blast going over songs from our past but after a while, we realized we were falling into the old punk rock trap, a predominantly white boys’ club. Realizing music/art and scenes aren’t created in a vacuum, [and] that a media ecology exists, we asked Priya Parmar and Martha Diaz to join the project in order to bridge the punk and hip-hop communities.

&: The chapter you wrote for the book is about “Hero of War” by Rise Against, which isn’t really a hip-hop or punk song. Can you talk a bit about this song and why you chose it?

Robertson: My co-editors and I created a list of artists from our generation as well as from the youth we work with. Then it became a process of narrowing down the list. After reaching out to contributors, we were able to finalize the songs based on their input.

“Hero of War” has a powerful message yet has its limitations. To me, that’s a perfect song to analyze. In regard to the style of the song, I still felt it was punk even though it is an acoustic arrangement. Further, “Hero of War” is usually heard in the context of the entire album, therefore, an acoustic song sandwiched between fast beats and loud guitars is still punk.

The chapter on “Hero of War” is actually quite timely. The film “American Sniper” has been creating a lot of buzz. There seems to be a split among people who feel the movie depicted the film’s protagonist as a war hero and those who see the movie as propaganda for the state. Michael Moore received some social media backlash for saying Chris Kyle wasn’t a hero. Noam Chomsky has also been recently interviewed, and challenges the language used by the film and Kyle, [who] often calls those he is killing “savages.” On his show, “Real Time,” Bill Maher discussed Moore receiving backlash, [pointing] out that if people really cared about the soldiers, they wouldn’t send them off to wars.

The song “Hero of War” basically reverberates this message. The soldiers are treated as heroes when they return, yet they don’t always feel like heroes. They’ve endured trauma, and they’ve also inflicted it. So the song can plug right into the “American Sniper” debate. However, after acknowledging what the song does so well [by documenting] the torment of a soldier, I take a page out of Edward Said, and ask about “the other.”

So often, American movies and songs center on the American experience of war. Even progressive films like “Apocalypse Now” that challenge the horrors of war are still shown from the perspective of the invaders. This also gets lost in the “American Sniper” debate. Pundits are debating Chris Kyle’s worth as a hero, rather than challenging the reasons why the movie connects the war on Iraq with the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and the cost this has had on innocent Iraqi lives. Perhaps it would serve humanity more if we focused on the victims rather than the oppressors. “Hero of War” does nothing to change the American opinion of the Iraqi people. I wish it had.


Robertson: We originally had parts divided into categories more fitting for a sociological analysis of punk and hip-hop. The eight sections do not address the two genres separately, but rather bring the two similar youth cultures together.

So, we tried to empower the songs by recognizing their subversive lyrical powers rather than how the genres influence identity, culture, and politics. On one hand, we asked, “What do these songs challenge?” On the other hand, we asked, “What do these songs create?” It was this beautiful dichotomy of tearing things down and rebuilding that we wanted to highlight. These eight parts capture that process very well.

&: On the Facebook page for the book, there is a photo that says, “Hip-Hop is Punk Rock.” While there is clearly a difference in style between the genres, what are the similarities that this book wants readers to consider?

Robertson: I think we just stumbled upon that picture when trying to see what else had been done to connect the two communities. I would definitely want to change the wording around to say, “Punk Rock is Hip-Hop.” There’s a lot to be said of the influence hip-hop had on punk, from the DIY ethic, to the underground concert scene. However, instead of playing the “who did it first game,” it is important to recognize the similarities.

Both genres have the power of self-expression. These artists are creators of music. And as a listener you realize, “Hey, I can do this too!” It’s absolutely empowering. Scenes start to form of artists, promoters, fans, and fanzine creators. A community is formed. Artists have an audience to receive a message.

Generally speaking, both genres confront reality. Whereas hip-hop can get to the heart of racism with topics from police brutality, education, employment, and housing (amongst many other institutional forms of racism), punk from white youth can challenge white culture and especially white privilege. Propagandhi is a punk group that does this well. Often their lyrics confront white hetero-male culture. So both genres together help create a complete picture.

&: What is this book’s role in a country that has become divided, often along generational and racial lines, on issues like police brutality?

Robertson: Here is a book set out to counter this division. Punk rockers have a history of run-ins with police and many punk groups have songs targeting the police. Dead Kennedys have “Police Truck” and Propagandhi have “Pigs Will Pay.” Propagandhi have a line that I was able to use while an undergraduate political science student. I was taking a crime and punishment course when the issue of police brutality was being discussed. The general theme was not to allow one bad apple to ruin the bunch. I countered with, “It’s not just isolated incidents of cop jocks kicking ass. It’s a (expletive) war machine protecting the wealth of the employing class.” These Propagandhi lyrics, among many others, were very valuable to me as an undergrad.

Hip-hop and punk work great at pointing out social injustice. As stated earlier, both genres work in harmony to expose oppression in its many forms.

&: The book is described as being “intellectual but not too intellectualized.” Do you foresee “Rebel Music” being incorporated into curriculum for aspiring teachers?

Robertson: I certainly hope so. I hope the articles can work as a model for students to create their own analyses of songs to which they listen. Like a good hip-hop or punk song that can open up one’s mind, or help validate the sinking feeling youth have about life, I hope the book will inspire youth to say, “Hey, I can do this, too!”

&: If you could pick one group of people to read this book, what group would it be? Why?

Robertson: This book is for students who don’t think they fit in at school; who know that teachers can be wrong; who feel they have to leave their personal lives behind them as they enter the classroom door; and simply for students who want to be inspired.

So often, formal education fails to recognize the knowledge youth have gained from their homes, communities, and friends. This book helps in validating other forms of learning. There’s an amazing graphic novel that captures this so well. “Liberator,” a graphic novel by Matt Miner from Black Mask Studios, has this panel of a girl looking at a Propagandhi record in her bedroom, “I learned more about life from punk and hardcore records than I ever did at school.” The same can be said for hip-hop. “Rebel Music” says, “Yes, you’re on to something here – let’s look at it further.”

Further questions about the book may be directed to