At an ARCO Forum lecture on Oct. 10, Fletcher University Professor Cornel West ’74, arguably one of the most electrifying figures in academia, illuminated the connections between recent events and hip-hop culture. As one of the most influential forms of black art, hip-hop can be surprisingly relevant to the sentiments of many Americans in light of current events. “A blues people [African-Americans] can teach Americans now that everybody has the blues,” said West, who argued that America is now experiencing what it feels like to be displaced and “niggerized,” referring to the recent attacks on the World Trade Center.
West posed the question, “Can America grow up?” Can America grow out of its childlike innocence and cease the constant denial of the reality of death that African-Americans already have embedded in their conciousness? African-Americans have been so fascinated and acquainted with death in all of its forms, “physical, social, spiritual and civic,” and West’s lecture, which was originally supposed to feature his new hip-hop album Sketches of My Culture, used excerpts from the album in an attempt to answer those questions.
Not surprisingly, the house was full, nearly beyond capacity. The eager audience fell quiet as West began to unfold his elusive definition of hip-hop, enthralling the audience with his powerful and moving dialectic and, as the hip-hop heads say, dropping science on the folks present. He is known for his signature style of speech, which creates a hospitable and communal atmosphere. In listening, we were brothers and sisters, regardless of race, nationality, political affiliation, religion or any social construct. The lecture was refreshing in that it was not, by any measure, didactic. At the same time, West was not there merely to provide an entertaining song and dance for those in attendance. Although West’s demeanor was jovial, his comedy was deeply rooted in a powerful message. West urged audience members to, like the title of a song from Sketches, “Elevate your view”; to question their trains of thought.
West first honored his introducer, Charles J. Ogletree, Climenko Professor of Law, who asserted that West was one of the few men he knew who could illuminate the connection between Socrates, Shakespeare and James Brown. West and Olgetree hugged each other, which, as West noted, was unusual of two black men. This action and that statement set the tone and clarified the goal of the lecture. West then identified himself as a figure and not an artist, stating, “Hip-hop is a rich moment in a long tradition [of] struggle.” West emphasized hip-hop’s historical and intellectual context, instead of a pop-cultural one. Many tend to inaccurately see hip-hop and its followers as markedly unintellectual. However, as West argued, hip-hop articulates the pressures of living an unstable, uncertain life. West connected the genre to “tragicomic” aspects of the musical movements which preceded it. Both spirituals and the blues were rooted in rootlessness—songs such as “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” illuminated the feelings of slaves and former slaves in a strange new America. West cited jazz great Louis Armstrong and rapper Tupac Shakur as examples of this feeling of displacement in modern times. Armstrong wore a smile onstage, but he was racked with the knowledge that he could never be a fully-integrated part of society. This “double-consciousness”—the struggle of identifying oneself as both American and black and leading a paradoxial existence as “human, modern, American and New World African”—was a commonly recapitulated theme in the lecture.
On “Frontline,” one of the tracks on Sketches, West exclaims, “Don’t sell your soul for a mess of pottage!” Is West entreating the new wave of hip-hop artists to refrain from the commercialism and degradation of an introspective art form? Is he asking them to familiarize themselves with the works of great jazz, R&B, and blues artists as well as the foundation of Negro spirituals and apply that rich history to their music? Although he did not fully treat these issues, West ended his lecture with an assertion that music provides a description of history “for those who may not read a book,” thus challenging hip-hop artists to convey the hardships inherent in their past.
The crowd the lecture attracted was invigorating. During the question-and-answer portion of the forum, West addressed the fact that he spent a great deal of the lecture making references to and hypothesizing about the tragic events of Sept. 11. He said that it would be “irresponsible” had the events been ignored and evaded completely. Other questions invoked his opinions on how to prevent hip-hop from becoming an irrelevant art form, or from letting it degenerate so as to cease being an art form altogether. Another gentleman posed a similar question on the age-old issue of the commercialization of hip-hop. The answers to these questions were not simple, but West essentially said that it is impossible to “judge the worst of the present by the best of the past.” Like most people, however, he is not optimistic that many hip-hop fans will ever fully embrace innovative artists such as Mos Def, Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli. Neither is he optimistic that there will be many more artists like them.
Although West made many pertinent observations on hip-hop culture and its changing American context, one wonders if his message will reach a younger generation of hip-hop fans. Will they be able to appreciate hip-hop for its intrinsic beauty as a historical snapshot? Will they ever feel a link to those whom West refers to as the “3 M’s: Brother Martin [Luther King, Jr.], Brother Medgar [Evers], Brother Malcolm [X]?” Despite his assertion that the lecture could not end on an “optimistic note,” West was still reassuring. In response to a question adressing the decline of hip-hop, he asserted that hip-hop musicians and their art can deliver hope and empathy in a time where all of America faces fears of displacement in their own homes. West’s argument about the similarity of hip-hop to all other genres illuminated the idea that music carries with it a humanizing element which forces listeners to self-reflect.