Youth Empowerment Through Language and Lyrics

Youth month is a time to think about generations – we were all young once, yet some did not share our privilege in aging, dying young for a cause that they believed in. In South Africa our youth were killed, traumatised and injured in the Soweto protests of 1976. Yet, no matter what our generation or age, we can all pause and listen to one another, to learn from each other and even start a journey to learn more formally and gain a Wits certificate that is globally recognised.

If you have actually opened this newsletter, let me congratulate you, because after a few months of seeing CampusConnect in your inbox, you’d be excused for overlooking it and not opening it, not just because you’re too busy to open it, but possibly because of a concept known as semantic satiation. Over the years, the mental barrier has gone by many names: work decrement, extinction, reminiscence, verbal transformation, but the term “semantic satiation” is most often used. Well, not by me, we might say, but then we open these newsletters to learn something new. Semantic satiation is when the repetition of a word or phrase reduces its meaning for you. Instead of getting excited when we repeat a word like exams, we get turned off. Oh right, we point out: exams, aren’t exciting. But music is. When a much-liked song comes up in a playlist, we turn the volume up or join the dance-floor. We recognise it and feel good about it. It seems that in music and poetry we can move beyond semantic barriers and enjoy the effect of repetition, such as in the figures of speech of alliteration and assonance.


Let me bridge the generation gap and illustrate alliteration with a rap excerpt from Nicki Minaj’s song, “Fly”:

They got they guns out aimin’ at me
But I become Neo when they aimin’ at me, me, me
Me against themme against enemies, me against friends
Somehow they both seem to become one
A sea full of sharks and they all smell blood

The reference to Neo from the classic movie, The Matrix, is reinforced by the repetition of the M-sound and gives it a rhythm and motion that is catchy. This M-sound is heard in a song which peaked at #9 on the Rap/Hip Hop charts when it was released in 1988 and is one of Eric B. & Rakim’s most recognized singles “Follow the Leader”:

Music mix, mellow maintains to make

Melodies for emcees, motivates the breaks

Words like microphone, motivate and magnificent carry the alliteration of the M-sound through the lyrics of this song, with the consonance of words ending in the M-sound following in later verses: alarm, calm, self-esteem, supreme, warm. Other songs with successful alliteration include Blackalicious with “Alphabet Aerobics” and The Roots “Mellow My Man”, “manic mad musicians … makers of noise erupt abruptly”. And the masterfully, Lowkey & Faith SFX with “Alphabet Assassin” have Lowkey working through the entire alphabet alliteratively from A through Yearning for Yesterday, ending with, “How many letters are left? Zero…”  with over 1.5 million views on YouTube and praise for his word-skills including, “Originality over oscar ovations” and, “Who said learning English ain’t good, like this video is the longest alliteration I’ve ever heard.”

Step back a decade and almost 60 million views celebrate the classic rock, AC/DC performing Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Yet if views are any indication of what will resonate with our readers, then 230 726 411 views of Bon Jovi’s “You give love a bad name” with the fatalistic refrain reinforcing my notion of the force of alliteration, “The damage is done”, which when performed live has audiences screaming the lyrics together. I’m sure that you’re hearing some favourite songs playing in your mind as I through these thoughts out.

The other day I was pondering why it is that I enjoy alliteration so much – when we use the same letter or sound at the beginning of words that run along together, such as, “we are polishing professional presentation skills in PowerPoint,” where the P-sound is repeated. This is the consonant used in the tongue-twister, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” In an earlier article I’ve mentioned the mere exposure effect or familiarity principle, which is a term given to that wonderful reaction we get to something or someone that we keep bumping into or coming across – the more we recognise that person, the more we might like them – the more we hear those lyrics, the more we like them. A classic Beatles song, “Let it Be,” uses this technique of alliteration in the memorable lyrics,  “Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” Here, the W-sound is repeated. What about the pop-song, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, better known for its chorus, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Wits Digital Campus is a wonderful virtual classroom; yet the physical counterpart, the Wits University campus, has over the past two-decades paved over many sports fields to provide parking for the ever-increasing number of student cars on campus. As I have watched the encroaching tarring and paving, the refrain, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” runs through my mind like an old song on rewind and replay.

The more we see or hear something, the more we like it, because the familiarity that we have feels comfortable. The more we read, the more we want to read – and when we discover ourselves transported by a good book we share it with our friends and family, urging them to read it too. Why is it that we have series binges where we can spend a weekend watching back-to-back series? Where a group of friends will use their free trial of Showmax or Netflix to watch a series together, with Game of Thrones topping the list as its final episode fades into history. So, here I am writing about the mere exposure effect again, and this time, if you’re reading it, you’re feeling more comfortable with the terminology because it is becoming familiar. Just so, we have the amazing chance to develop our familiarity with subjects that we need in order to grow our careers, to see the promise of promotion (hear the P-alliteration) through choosing to study on our WitsDigitalCampus. The more we read and the more we study, the more comfortable we are with using the terms and phrases that are taken seriously in our respective industries.

We might consider the digital trends of viral music videos with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Maroon Five topping the charts in the billions: so many more than the millions of views of the older songs, with our millennial generation sharing and viewing online; it’s intriguing to read that in YouTube video history, Psy’s Gangnam Style was the very first YouTube video to be viewed more than a billion times and then become the first video to reach two billion views in May 2014. Read: These are the 10 most viewed YouTube videos of all time. Significantly, there are many more videoclips going viral of kids emulating this Gangnam style, because they are so cute and catchy. So, whether it is the “jingle jangle morning” of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine man or a less magical trip that we take in virtual learning, we can follow these trends and own our own studies and shape our own careers.

As we celebrate Youth Day and Youth month, in South Africa, many of us are dedicating our weekend time to youth development projects, believing in the transformational possibilities of youth in Africa. Let us take time to hear the voice of young South Africans, like Sisonke Msimang at TEDxSoweto, Published on Apr 30, 2015) challenging us with a controversial talk, “Mad at Mandela”. And while we listen to the words, let us ensure that we don’t let her over-used voiced fillers, like, “Yeah?”, “Yuh?” and “Right?” have the effect of semantic satiation, numbing us to the meaning of not only this small word, but the words in-between. Let us pay attention to the voices of our Youth and through really listening realise that there is hope. Viva Youth Month viva!

In closing, whether our learning journey opens up the meaning of terms like semantic satiation, alliteration or the mere exposure effect, the learning of specialist language has the benefit of learning a new language and with it opening doors of possibility, making promotion more probable and the workplace more profitable.