You may have read, in these pages and elsewhere [see Danny Goldberg, "Harvard Raps West," February 4], about the flap that Harvard University's president, Lawrence Summers, kicked off in a meeting with Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy. Among other things, Summers implied that hip-hop had little street cred at the university--West had made a rap CD--and suggested that some serious scholarship was in order instead. West, miffed, mused about leaving for Princeton, and other prominent scholars in his department--Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair, and Anthony Appiah--seemed ready to follow suit. While subsequent meetings have apparently tempered tempers, we thought a look at the CD itself might prove illuminating.
Whatever Cornel West's Sketches of My Culture (Artemis Records) is (or isn't), this experiment in hip-hop and homily doesn't warrant a stuffy fusillade of rabbit punches and groin kicks to West's academic standing. Harvard University is still in America, where an educator, at whatever position in relation to her nation's cultural elite, has the right to throw down, shout out, make a joyful noise and/or public display (if she does no serious psychic or physical harm to others) without being hassled about it by her boss.
Well, wait a moment. Let's try to step into this mess with, you know, a "positive" attitude, as the uplift posses like to put it.
"The Journey," the opening track on Sketches of My Culture, is also the only one whose words aren't conspicuously flattened against a throbbing beat. And thus it's the only track that foregrounds what Cornel West does best: Preach. As anyone who's heard him speak can attest, West can bring the raucous intimacy of a storefront church into the toniest lecture hall. The slashing cadences, rolling timbres and freewheeling alliteration that are standard equipment for the fiercest pulpit orators cleave to West's rhetorical style as crisply as his three-piece suits cling to his frame. He is never more a rhythm master than when he sermonizes with the abandon of a cocktail-lounge organist playing blues-funk variations after midnight.
But there's nothing in the content of "The Journey" that's original or provocative--unless it's news to you that people of African descent have managed to create a profound musical tradition against tremendous odds. The information conveyed on this track and those that follow is intended to comfort, to reinforce, to (you know) be positive and bring uplift to African-American listeners.
West and his collaborators have fashioned a serviceable black product, the digitally mastered equivalent of one of those needlepoint samplers that grandmothers kept--still keep?--on their kitchen walls. If this be insurrection, then I want an extra marshmallow in my hot chocolate before I take a nap.
Public Enemy's Chuck D once proclaimed that rap music is the black community's CNN. Riding this analogy, you could say that Sketches of My Culture transmits its news along frequencies that are practically threadbare from overuse. Once the overdubs, beat machines and vocal riffs settle in for the disc's duration, the obsolescence of thought, the repetitiveness of sentimentality become more pronounced, skating the edges of embarrassment.
Take (or leave) "3Ms" as an example. Now it's possible, though unlikely, that the memories of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X have become wispy and frail more than thirty years after their murders, especially to 20-something-and-under citizens of Hip-Hop Nation. But if "Martin, Medgar and Malcolm/Keep on keeping on/Keep on staying strong" is the best that these martyrs can expect as a chorus on a tribute presided over by one of the leading African-American public intellectuals of the present day (and the rest of the track is barely less banal), then consider yourself challenged to make yourself a better T-shirt.