How Remix Culture Informs Student Writing & Creativity

Artistic remix influences kids’ creativity on almost every level. Here's how, and why you need to understand it.

Let’s get something out of the way: pretty much anything you or your students are making is a remix. Most often remixing is associated with music (usually hip hop and electronica). However, popular rappers and producers are far from the only people who get to take an existing work and transform it into something wholly new. As the title of a popular web series suggests, Everything Is a Remix.

Writing is also an important, accessible way that young people are remixing today: from fan fiction based on their favorite author’s worlds to retelling of a popular story from a new perspective—on a vlog, podcast, or on paper—remixing is, intentionally or not, part of the process. While this opens an abundance of creative avenues for students, it also allows educators and librarians to study and challenge what changes through remix—and how identities are re-shaped.

For simplicity, I’m using the word remix here to describe the process of making something new from preexisting materials. Be it a novelist’s creative worlds and characters spun anew, a track of music that’s altered, or a work of art changed physically or digitally, remix is the foundation for much of what we read, watch, play, and listen to today. There are a few fundamental questions we should be asking alongside youth: What kinds of power implications tie into remixing? How it is changing our relationships with media and each other? We are overdue for a dialogue about why understanding remix culture is so important for teachers, librarians, and communities.


A culture of remix, starting with music

In the halcyon days of social networking—the late 1990s and early 2000s—remix was something of a fringe culture: individuals with the savvy and time to utilize digital technologies could share in UseNet groups. Theirs were remixes and compositions spliced from others’ work that highlighted technical expertise. To be clear, remixing was popular in music and film production long before the Internet, and musicians often release unofficial “mixtapes” today, even if they are never offered on physical media (let alone a cassette). A hip-hop mixtape often finds a rapper sharing rhymes over popular beats already on commercial airwaves. Building on this culture of passing around songs that blended preexisting music with new rhymes, mixtapes allow musicians to share new music that may not be sold commercially.

R&B musician Erykah Badu, for example, released a mixtape in 2015 called But You Caint Use My Phone. In addition to playful allusions to her own previous work, the tape included a remix of Drake’s massive summer hit “Hotline Bling.” Badu’s version, “Cel U Lar Device,” changes the timing and rhythm of the original chorus and moves the song into a fresh category. The success of “Hotline Bling” could arguably be found, partly at least, in its playful sampling of Timmy Thomas’s 1973 track “Why Can’t We Live Together”: Badu’s is a remix of a remix. Likewise, Chance the Rapper’s first mixtape, 10 Day, has him spewing verbal gymnastics over the Balkan-inspired harmonies of indie band Beirut, in his song “Long Time II.” Such musical choices, while creating something new, is part of the power of remix culture.

When the tools for composition aren’t simply instruments, lexicons, and paints, but creative works, the entire premise of what counts as composition is upended. The soul classics I grew up with, the furry-footed denizens of Middle Earth that I read about as an adolescent, the politically charged artwork I studied in school: all of these are now building blocks for my own thinking. Like nesting matryoshka dolls, remixing offers brain-twistingly complex means of understanding the world around us. It’s everywhere.

If remix is such a ubiquitous part of youth culture, why bother talking about it? Because we must think critically about who’s implicated in the remixed messages our students consume and create. We have to understand what youth are doing in these powerful forms of learning, production, and communication, and offer context for the remix tributaries flowing through social media, the radio, books, and marketing. Sarah Schmelling’s book Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don’t Float (Plume, 2009), for instance, profits from playful remix by imagining classic authors on Facebook. In a corporate example, during a rap-focused feud between Drake and Meek Mill in 2015, the brands Hamburger Helper and White Castle chimed in on Twitter, with White Castle tweeting to Meek Mill, “Maybe beef isn’t your thing.” Hamburger Helper’s own hip-hop mixtape, Watch the Stove, has garnered more than four million plays since April 1.

With the abundance of tools for creating remixes in genres from written word to digital games, the practices of remix are here to stay. It has upset how students interpret media and learn about culture and history. We’re overdue to unpack three fundamental questions about what it means to be a remixer now.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries vlog is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries vlog is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

What’s being remixed?

I know, I know, everything. A remix—by a kid, celebrity, or corporation—can draw further attention to things that are already popular, or use that popularity to gain audience. As a literary example, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice told in the form of a teen vlog. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and similar vlog remix projects such as Green Gables Fables modernize classic literature, making it accessible for a new audience and offering opportunities for contrasting viewpoints and ideas. Musically, Badu’s “Cel U Lar Device” added a feminist perspective to Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Likewise, cover songs on YouTube, fan fiction, and digital art that incorporates photos and iconic images all build off cultural meaning of past work, providing commentary and attracting new audiences.

Critical educators like to view remix as a means of transgressing mainstream media, but I’m not convinced. Sure, anybody with a few simple digital tools can remix and publish their work (and potentially develop a substantive audience). While one refrain of remix culture is that it is allows underdog success stories (anybody can attract an audience), large media conglomerates, from Sony to DreamWorks to Random House, are also extraordinarily savvy at remixing media. That ear worm song that you can’t get out of your head? Perhaps that’s due to a sampled hook and a slick producer paid lavishly to ensure that youth consume.

Remixing is a two-way street. As part of the business-as-usual approach to marketing, it can reinforce traditional, problematic portrayals of women, people of color, and LGBTQI individuals.

There is a bit of a light at the end of this tunnel. Remixing also means that traditional messages and stereotypes can, and should, be inverted. DJ Spooky’s ongoing multimedia project Rebirth of a Nation, for example, is a feature-length remix of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Widely regarded as a landmark film in terms of cinematography and filmmaking, Griffith’s film also celebrates America’s racism. DJ Spooky’s digital remix forces viewers to confront a legacy of racism that persists today and contextualizes Griffith’s work through hip hop, video, and digital culture. Remix can turn troubling messages to offer analysis and reinterpretation. It can also involve primary sources that may be offensive and triggering for some audiences—a fraught process in terms of the images, sounds, language, and ideas conveyed.

How do we remix?

The conversation around fair use and appropriation is complex. Copyright laws are increasingly restrictive in ways that suppress an open culture. Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer, author, and proponent of looser copyright restrictions, offers an important insight into how new production is being suppressed by large companies and their lobbyists.

Mozilla’s Webmaker and media tools are a great place for youth and educators alike to practice remix skills and better understand production, ownership, and sharing practices. As educators, we must foster understanding of fair use and how copyright laws prevent the public from engaging in democratizing remix. One easy way to guide such practices with youth could be to have them retell a fairy tale such as “Cinderella” or “Goldilocks” from a new point of view (see “Strategize: Great Ideas for Library Writing Programs”) to see that the characters and ideas of the story are ripe for remix—and that utilizing passages of published versions of these stories could cause copyright concerns.

Why remix?

Though artistic expression is often the initial impulse for remix—we are a culture that likes to make things, after all—we make deliberate choices about what we remix, be those grounded in what is familiar (“Hotline Bling”) or troubling (Birth of a Nation).

We must encourage students to consider remixing more than surface-level content. Race, gender, sexuality–the texture of our individual identities–should be a focus for why we remix. It can be a critical consciousness-raising activity, but we need to offer support. Looking at the Tumblr community’s remixes of Hermione from the “Harry Potter” series as a black character (long before a black actress was cast in the forthcoming Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) illustrates how individuals are allowed to see themselves in remixes. Likewise, online fan fiction and video remixes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens casting rebel pilot Poe and reformed storm trooper Finn in a romantic relationship offer a counter-narrative to the heteronormative assumptions most viewers make of the film. Remixing can be a liberatory act.

Case in point: crossing the boundaries of music, theater, history, and literature, the smash hit musical Hamilton (see “Teaching with Hamilton”) is a hip hop-influenced musical that retells and remixes the story of an American founding father. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton and its nearly all-black and Latino cast illustrates contemporary messages that ours is a nation built by (and for) immigrants. Meanwhile, the music makes numerous nods to hip-hop history and its own founding fathers. A memorable moment in the play is the song “The Ten Duel Commandments,” a playful nod to Notorious B.I.G.’s famous “Ten Crack Commandments.” The show has resonated with educators—as well as teens and kids posting covers and adaptions on YouTube. Related remixes also abound online, including annotations of the lyrics on (some by Miranda).

Cycles of remix

“You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop, My pops used to say, It reminded him of be-bop I said, ‘Well daddy don't you know that things go in cycles.’ ”

      —“Excursions,” Tribe Called Quest, 1991

Over a propulsive bass line remixed from 1973’s “A Chant for Bu” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the hip-hop group Tribe Called Quest rapped one of the most definitive statements about remix culture and artistic lineage. In my discussions with teachers, I’ve looked at how the statement reflects that of poet T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”

      —“Little Gidding,” 1943

Remix is about participating in a dialogue linking creators and producers and challenging these binary roles. It’s been going on long before the first MP3 was chopped up in Garage Band—and before a tape was dubbed on a cassette deck. It is how we challenge the status quo and forge new pathways for critical expression as we move further into a society enmeshed in the remixing of the past.

Antero Garcia is an assistant professor at Colorado State University.

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