Rapping with Cornel West


December 02, 2007|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

Cornel West sits on a bare stage at the Baltimore Museum of Art, bobbing his trademark Afro hard to the voice of Prince.

Talk-show host and political commentator Tavis Smiley is beside his scholarly friend, nodding his head with equal exuberance.

During a recent listening party in Baltimore, West has put aside his Princeton University classroom for the world of hip-hop music. He is promoting his second album, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, at a fundraiser for the Baltimore nonprofit Civic Frame, which uses media arts and intellectual work to encourage civic dialogue and critical thinking about social issues.

West, a professor of religion at Princeton, is a board member of the organization, which was started by a former student of his, April Yvonne Garrett.

His brand of hip-hop is different from the booty-shaking, gang-banging lyrics that make up so much of today's music.

He calls his music "danceable education."

He raps, in very much the same voice that he lectures, about injustice, Hurricane Katrina, poverty, racial profiling and the use of the n-word. There is little focus on street life on his tracks.

He enlists some of the genre's heavyweights, such as Jill Scott, KRS One and Talib Kweli, to accompany him.

His is the kind of music that the major record labels snub as too political and say might make today's young generation of cynical hip-hop fans yawn.

But West says he isn't concerned with record sales or dollar signs. He wants to show that hip-hop can be done without misogynistic lyrics and stories of drug dealing and shooting.

"I want to communicate in different ways and affect all those brothers and sisters of color who may not read a book," West says.

But he faces his own hurdles in getting his message across. He endures the criticism of scholarly colleagues who say making music is not an intellectual's job.

Distribution of his album, which came out this past summer, is limited. And he gets virtually no airplay on radio stations.

Howard Mazer, the general manager for Radio One stations WERQ-FM (92.3) and Magic 95.9, Baltimore's top urban stations, says neither station has played the album. Magic 95.9 doesn't play hip-hop, he adds.

The radio personalities at WERQ have interviewed West, but say they've never been given his music.

Even at the fundraiser at the BMA, West is preaching to the choir - his audience is filled with mostly middle-aged, educated adults. Many readily admit they're not fans of mainstream hip-hop.

During a question-and-answer period between songs, Smiley presses West on how he can really make a difference when the masses might never hear his raps.

How will his album do more than just bring attention to problems?

"The important thing is to create a space for substantive music," West says. "The important thing is to get the message out. If I affect one brother or one sister, I haven't acted in vain."

He gives credit to those rappers and hip-hop artists who he says are already pushing conscientious lyrics - people such as Jill Scott and Nas.

In regard to his own music, he says he wants his CD to be a source of good.

Lyn Farrow Collins, 43, an Annapolis public-affairs consultant, left the listening party feeling inspired, even though she's not a hip-hop fan.

"It was a wonderful way to bring attention to the issues," she says.

Patricia Turner, a 39-year-old surgeon from Washington, isn't a hip-hop fan because she says the lyrics are often offensive.

"It's good that he can work to produce a form of hip-hop that's not so objectionable," she says.


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