“This is why I say that Hip Hop has made more damage to young African American then racism in recent years.” Geraldo Rivera, Fox News, 2015
“Rap and hip-hop are more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee”. Wynton Marsalis, The Washington Post, 2018
It’s hard to process what Wynton Marsalis said last week about hip hop.
Marsalis is an institution, a jazz ambassador and a giant of education. He is one of the greatest, a respected and influential figure. His opinion matters and has a great impact in the music community. And yet, he decided to use his platform to dismiss the relevance of the music, its educational value and to reinforce a negative narrative that has been undermining its dignity for years.
This is why his statements need to be addressed, discussed, and even criticized when it comes to evaluating the collateral damage they caused.
To be fair, the incendiary headline is just an excerpt of what Marsalis said in this episode of the podcast Cape Up, which deserves to be listened in its entirety. There are several more points to be taken into consideration in the 54-minutes-long interview, so let’s try to sum it up.
Marsalis is invited to talk about his latest project “The ever-funky lowdown”, which explores the link between Jazz and race and -at the moment- is still a work in progress.
This sounds like a treat. It is always enlightening to listen to a master like Wynton, sharing his vast knowledge about this topic.
He starts talking about how racial integration first happened on the Jazz bandstand, inspiring and anticipating the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.
When asked about the current state of music though, he has a different opinion.
According to Marsalis the necessity to make a product out of a statement is jeopardizing the integrity of the whole message. But what exactly prevents the message from reaching its full potential?
Apparently is the fact that artists are forced to show the opposite side of their message first: “If you say don’t kill people you have to kill people. If you say I don’t like pornography you have to show pornography”. Here is when things get interesting.
Marsalis has a problem with “a pipeline of filth being the default position”, describing the situation as a cultural problem.
It’s undeniable that sex and violence play a large role in the whole entertainment industry, but is it really the default position? And what kind of entertainment is providing this pipeline of filth? Wynton has no doubt about it: Rap and Hip Hop.
To use the words of the interviewer, Marsalis “really, really, really” doesn’t like rap and hip-hop. Without any further clarification, Wynton decides to drop the bomb “I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about niggers and bitches and hoes. It had no impact. I’ve said it. I’ve repeated it. I still repeat it. To me, that’s more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.” Which is slightly different from the click-bait headline, but not less problematic.
When we talk about something we don’t like, the risk of saying something inaccurate is proportional to our bias on the subject.
In response to criticism, Marsalis argued that he never said ALL Hip Hop is bad, and the main problem here seems to be mainstream vulgarity and pornography.
Nevertheless, there are some observations about the music (this time all of it) that I have found troubling coming from an eminent maestro as Marsalis.
“I don’t mind the computer but I can’t stand the drums going away”
“I am ok with the autopilot, but let’s have a pilot”
It doesn’t take an expert to point out how much these two statements are far from the reality of this music. Describing beat making or other aspects of music production as some sort of futuristic version of the piano roll is reductive at best.
Saying that “computers they’re fine but they can’t replace the people” sounds too much like the 80s. In 2018 we already know that and it’s widely agreed upon. This doesn’t stop artists from experimenting with old and new tools to take human creativity to another level, and today our rhythm sections are -more than ever- technologically integrated. Drummers are inspired by beatmakers as much as beat makers by drummers.
There is no such thing as the “disappearance of the drums”. Real drums are not going anywhere.
From this perspective, what Marsalis doesn’t like about hip-hop reveals a wide generation gap that he doesn’t seem interested in filling.
With my great surprise, one of the most indefensible positions in this interview is his concern about the efforts to integrate hip-hop into public education:
“Now there’s a movement to drag public music education down into that? -scoffs- Man, it’s almost comical to me”
Although rhyming and writing are recognized as a creative endeavor, this is a bold dismissal of the educational value of Hip Hop was the last thing I expected from someone of his stature. Improvising on the Changes is proudly part of this movement and we believe hip-hop is the most effective vehicle for students to discover Jazz, from both musical and historical standpoints.
Fighting the integration of the hip-hop curriculum in schools is absurd, just like thinking that Jazz doesn’t belong in conservatories.
Hip-hop is today what electric guitars were in the 60s. why would anybody want to invalidate the experience of all those kids that, through hip-hop, moved their first steps toward music, and learned to play an instrument?
Why would an experienced teacher feel threatened by that? Jazz and classical education are not going anywhere. And again, the number of universities and high schools throughout the world pioneering their version of a Hip Hop curriculum proves that this ship has sailed. It’s a reality, it already happened. You can’t resist change.
Marsalis is rightfully bothered by the use of the N-word: “I’m from a civil rights movement, he was called N*” But at the same time he acknowledges that in his neighborhood “of course that went on” and laughs about it.
If the N – B – H words are the only parameter to measure the validity of music, we are diminishing the efforts of tons of conscious artists.
The lyrics “I’m allergic to a b* n* act, an imaginary rich n* act“ won the Pulitzer and showed how Kendrick Lamar is against minstrelsy as much as he is.
Wynton insists: “Don’t keep it real, give me something less real.”
Sorry, but isn’t it the whole point? Wasn’t every jazz musician keep it real, even with the risk of making people uncomfortable? “Strange Fruit” was keeping it real.
Are we really protecting our kids by not showing violence and acting like it doesn’t exist, or we are just turning a blind eye to reality?
And what exactly is this mainstream pornography he is referring to? Is it Cardi B singing “Look myself in the mirror I said we gon’ win, knocked me down 9 times but I get up 10” winning emancipation from her stripping days? Is it Janelle Monae wearing vagina pants and celebrating sexual liberation?
Not all that glitters is minstrelsy, and sometimes “music talking about N* and B* and H* has a profound impact, describing and exposing reality without necessarily giving up morality. Jazz used to tell people’s stories. Hip-hop does it too, and jazz should keep doing the same thing.
Acknowledging how subversive Jazz musicians were in the 50s is just the first step.
It doesn’t mean anything if we are not able to transfer this revolutionary spirit into our present time and identify not only the modern actors but also the modern tools to express the same dissent.
The biggest limitation of Marsalis’ interview seems to be represented by the divisive nature of his statements. We have lost a great opportunity to reaffirm that Jazz and Hip Hop are two sides of the same medal and to remind musicians and students that music is inclusive, not exclusive.
I’m sure “The ever funky lowdown” will be a beautiful suite, with impeccable orchestration and masterful arrangements, but it won’t be so easy for its ambitious message to come through.
Ultimately I find Marsalis’ own words the best way to reflect on the irony of this situation:
“Who is we? Us is you when you give it the opportunity to be.
That’s the ever-funky lowdown.
[It’s] when you’re acting against your best interest. Because It’s a distraction, like a fight in a store when you are robbing the cash register.
You don’t see it coming. You don’t see it because you fixated on who is your enemy is.
That’s the ever-funky lowdown. “