It’s the middle of the school week for King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL), and Thai rapper NLHz is on standby, in front of his computer, waiting for his students to jump on a Zoom call. The 25-year-old musician is not just an alumnus, but a guest lecturer for the university’s newest subject — Rap Appreciation. For the last two months, NLHz, whose real name is Noppa Hoisung, has been teaching students how to rap and write rhymes in these COVID-era online classes.
All his lessons begin in a similar fashion. NLHz first invites students to get comfortable, then to get creative. Sometimes he starts by playing a rap song for the class to analyze, other times they have a rap battle that students participate in and comment on. Every session has a theme students write their bars about and NLHz plans lessons based on three S’s — “skills, sanook (fun), and style.”
“I’d like to keep the class fun, while secretly also teaching valuable skills about making rap music,” NLHz told VICE. “But more importantly, I would like the students to discover their own style through this class. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about music, but whatever they do in the future.”
As homework, students record videos of themselves rapping and post them on YouTube.
It’s an unconventional university class, especially considering rap’s reputation in Thailand. Most associate the genre with crime and drugs — aggressive music for troubled kids. This, even though it’s very similar to the Thai tradition Lhae, a form of rhythmic poetry akin to freestyle rap. Lhae was popular in rural parts of the country, where people performed it at temple fairs, and was usually a commentary on elements of daily life like rice farming, the countryside, and Buddhist teachings.
“Rap is just another form of self-expression that represents the social situation of a certain time,” NLHz said. “Some people may say that rap music is aggressive, but at the end of the day, music is still a reflection of our emotions.”
“Some people may say that rap music is aggressive, but at the end of the day, music is still a reflection of our emotions.”
The rap appreciation class is part of a university program meant to teach students soft skills they can use in the “real world.” This includes subjects like Dorm Chef, where students learn about food science and how to cook using limited equipment; Happiness Skills, which teaches how to be happy; and Fail-able, a class about dealing with disappointments. Though non-academic, students still take exams and are graded on these classes.
Rap Appreciation teaches students critical thinking skills through creativity. They’re encouraged to explore ideas without a teacher hovering over them, telling them what to do. The hope is for students to discover their potential, not just with rapping, but in other fields as well.
“On top of teaching academic skills to the students, universities should also be a place to prepare kids for the real world, by teaching them skills that would be useful for living with other people in society,” Assistant Professor Prasan Choomjaihan, vice director of the Office of General Education at KMITL and one of the founders of the program, told VICE. “It’s not really about learning to rap. All of this is to encourage the students to discover their core values and to respect themselves.”
The idea of adding non-academic subjects came from Prof. Suchatvee Suwansawat, PhD, the school’s rector, who wanted to modernize the curriculum. Suchatvee even went viral for rapping in an orientation for new students, wearing a baseball cap and a jacket with a dragon print.
Using music — in this case rap — makes for more engaging classroom discussions. NLHz assigns students words for the week — like “bitter,” “plain,” and “COVID” — and has them incorporate the terms into their rhymes.
“The teacher doesn’t only teach us how to make music, the subject challenges our critical thinking skills, too,” university student Pitchaporn Funsuk, 22, told VICE. “He doesn’t tell us what is right or wrong; he would let us explore our creativity freely.”
Thailand is in the midst of a rap renaissance. In 2018 the group Rap Against Dictatorship released the track “Prathet Ku Mee” (My Country Has), that criticized injustices in Thai society.
“My country has corruption that cannot be checked. My country has a constitution that allows the military to erase everything with their feet. My country has people that can kill other people as long as they have money,” the song goes. The lyrics reflect the calls of Thailand’s young pro-democracy activists. The group continues to release songs that comment on Thai politics, and one of its members was arrested for joining last year’s protests.
There are also artists like Thaitanium, Gancore Club, and Dajim, who have been part of the Thai rap scene since the early 2000s, and the Rap Is Now collective, which promotes young Thai rappers through its record label YUPP! Entertainment.
“Rap is a culture that represents the most current situation of our time,” Sakkapit Makun (aka Artistryx), a creative producer at Rap Is Now, told VICE.
“Rap is a culture that represents the most current situation of our time.”
And it’s not just KMITL turning to the power of rap. Sati Foundation, a non-profit organization for the education and healthcare of at-risk and underserved youths, also has rap as part of its program.
Many of the Sati Foundation’s students are not in formal schools; according to Director and Founder Sakson Rouypirom, rap is a way to introduce these young people to poetry. It teaches them to write and improves their self-confidence through performances.
“Our goal is to provide options for the youth, as well as to empower them and build self-confidence,” Sakson told VICE.
Sati Foundation’s rap class is taught by Natee Ekwijit (aka Oui Buddha Bless) from the popular Thai rap group Buddha Bless. Apart from being a rapper, he also studied meditation with monks and incorporates this in his lessons.
“On top of learning how to rap and gaining new skills, it’s also a Thai language class, but in a not boring way,” Tik, a 16-year-old student, said.
The classes have also helped students process difficulties in life. Tik, for example, used it to grieve his father who died in a motorbike accident. He now considers Oui a mentor and has signed with a hip-hop label in Thailand.
“Our goal with him and our other kids is not for them to be rich and famous,” said Sakson. “But for them to understand that they can make a living outside what traditional society has taught them, for them to build self-confidence through their skills and talent.”