Does our bias on musical teaching gets in the way of young people learning?

Producer, project manager and music consultant Sam's understanding of authenticity was challenged and changed during an experience with a group of young people who wanted to create drill music. Now, for Sam, authenticity is about allowing a young person to express their views through music, whatever they may be, and then allowing that opportunity to create a pathway for progression, change and development.

In November 2019, people working across music education gathered for the Unheard Voices conference.

Organised by Brighter Sound and More Music as part of the Reaching Out Network, the day asked ‘whose voices aren’t being heard?’

Key speakers responded to Youth Music's HEARD model which summarises how to create musical experiences with inclusivity at the heart. Watch or read Sam's take on 'Authentic' - the work is designed in collaboration with the people it's for.


Authenticity. What does it mean when it comes to musical inclusion? After delivering almost 30 Youth Music funded projects and being involved as either a workshop facilitator, project manager, bid writer, evaluator, or even an observer, my understanding of authenticity got challenged and almost changed when I came across a group of young people that wanted to do a project that included making drill music. 

If you don’t know what drill music is, according to Wikipedia ‘it is known by its dark and violent lyrics’. But for me, it came in the picture of 36 young people on a project that all wanted to do drill music. 

Now, because I knew a little bit about drill music I thought right, ok, let’s see what we’ve got here. We had a jamming session, and every single one of their lyrics was absolutely that. It was dark, violent, misogynistic. It was promoting the stabbing of each other. It was promoting gang culture. And then after listening to their lyrics from a jam session, the perfect project manager in me challenged them straight away, and told them that we can’t have this kind of profanity in a music project that is funded. And almost immediately, when that was challenged, young people were ready to leave the project and not even engage with it. Because they weren’t allowed to express their own creativity, how they wanted to. 

So, whilst there’s me there, telling them that this kind of music is not good for a funded project, it’s not good for things like radio play, or giving them any opportunities on stage etc, one young person came back with that one liner that I still remember today. Which is ‘our lyrics are the illustration of our lives’. So, straight away I started thinking right, ok, when it comes to authenticity for these young people, what does it mean? How will these young people be authentic when it comes to expressing their lives, their opinions, or whatever they’re expressing through their music? After a series of conversations that I had with my team, we thought right, we’re gonna allow these young people to make these kinds of songs, allowing them to express themselves freely, and then we'll pick up the conversation later on. 

And once they recorded a series of songs, that’s exactly what happened. We started talking about the business of drill music. We started talking about radio play. Which resulted in us talking about gang and knife crime, which wouldn’t have happened if we'd shut down this project. Their views on drill music didn’t necessarily change, or the motivation towards doing drill music didn't necessarily change. What did change was their wordplay, their lyricism and how they approached the songs, and how they approached this violence in these lyrics. Those were more polished and they were getting more professional. For me, it became quite clear that the first thing that I needed to do when it came to authenticity, is give them access first, and then allow the development to happen later. 

Now this is obviously a different approach to many other projects that I’ve delivered in the past, and like I said, it was the first time my views on allowing violence for a young peoples’ project that is funded by an organisation was challenged. And it was challenged to its most extreme sense. But it was great to know that it allowed the young people to express themselves freely. Then use that opportunity to develop them, where even one young person got the opportunity to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. 

So my view on authenticity is to allow a young person to express their views through their music, whatever they may be. And then allow that opportunity to create a pathway for progression, for change, for development. 

So, I’d like to end this with a series of questions, for myself first, and then for other practitioners out there:

Does our bias on musical teaching get in the way of young people learning? 

Do we teach young people the music that we think they should learn, or do we actually know what the young people want to learn in the first place? 

How often do we consider a young person's perspective when it comes to planning music projects? Does that reflect on the session content? 

Are our music projects demand-led or supply-led? 

Do we design our project activities that are relevant to the young person or do we find young people that are relevant to our project activities? 

And the last one, which has been circulating in my head for a few years now, is how long will this project last in the life of the young person after the project’s over? What is the project’s legacy?

"My view on authenticity is to allow a young person to express their views through their music, whatever they may be. And then allow that opportunity to create a pathway for progression, for change, for development."

About Reaching Out

Reaching Out is a training, development and future-thinking network hosted by music organisations More Music and Brighter Sound.

The network is aimed at project managers, programme managers and anyone else planning and managing inclusive music activity across the North West for children and young people.

To find out more, email Molly.

Sam Malik dressed in a black coat and a khaki t-shirt looking into the background on a faded background of a city skyline.

About Sam

Sam Malik is a recording producer, projects manager and music consultant with 15 years experience of delivering and managing projects that has included music, creative arts, digital media, management and leadership, sports and youth development. Currently at Contact Theatre heading up their learning and participation across 9 projects which includes 5 different music workshops, a series of music events and the building and running of their new recording studio and music learning space. Sam is also the owner of, a blog allowing workshop leaders to become more engaging, efficient and effective in their work.

Visit his website