May 24, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 41
Send this page to a friend!


Click below:

Cornel West takes ‘Journey’ to hip-hop’s roots

Gail Mitchell

LOS ANGELES — Talk about timing. Dr. Cornel West’s upcoming album, “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations,” touches down at a time when renewed debate over hip-hop lyrics and video images is still swirling post-Don Imus. Add to that mix Verizon’s recent termination of its ties with Akon over the singer’s sexually suggestive dance onstage with a female minor during a recent concert.

Due in stores June 19, West’s “Never Forget” will be the first release on Hidden Beach Forum, the new offshoot of independent label Hidden Beach Recordings. Tapping into the historical role of R&B and hip-hop as social forces, the recording is the brainchild of Black Men Who Mean Business, an organization established by West, his brother Clifton and songwriter/producer Mike Dailey.

Prince, Talib Kweli, Outkast’s Andre 3000, KRS-One, Rhymefest, the late Gerald Levert and Killer Mike are among the artists featured on the disc, which tackles such subjects as the events of September 11, 2001, racial profiling, the Bush administration and the n-word.

West’s discography includes 2001’s “Sketches of My Culture.” The author of “Race Matters” and other books, West also has taught American and African American studies at Harvard and Yale and helped develop the storyline for the “Matrix” movie trilogy. He is professor of religion at Princeton University.

What is your take on the Don Imus-sparked hip-hop debate?

He was willing to say some very ugly things in order to be successful. But, as a Christian, I don’t believe in hating anyone. I’m more concerned about being great in terms of serving others than being successful in terms of being on the top of some financial hierarchy.

Is that hip-hop’s dilemma: Its original message has become overridden by its financial gains?

The white brothers and sisters in the vanilla suburbs became the major consumers of this [commercial] hip-hop. And to sell well, you need a kind of vicarious living through black rebellion.

I’m not putting white brothers and sisters down. I just recognize it’s going to be very hard for empathetic hip-hop artists to really sell because [consumers] tend to be more interested in some of the stereotypes — for example, male conquest of women and posturing at being bad. I think the industry pushed it to the margins, and some of these artists simply haven’t been courageous enough to engage in truth-telling.

Do you agree with the movement to clean up rap lyrics?

Some of these brothers deserve some serious criticism because misogyny is real. A woman’s dignity, integrity and humanity need to be affirmed. But this just can’t be a displacement of Don Imus for Snoop Dogg.

If you really want to reach Snoop Dogg and other rappers, you’ve got to make them understand that you are part of a community that they’re a part of. You can criticize the ugliness and vulgarity of the Imus situation. But from there you say, “Brother, you know your mother has dignity, so when you’re talking about these other sisters you can’t be including all black women. Recognize that those sisters are somebody’s mother, too.”

That kind of criticism ends up being more effective. The only way you are going to be successful is if you engage these rappers from the inside. You don’t throw rocks from the outside.

What was the impetus behind your new album?

It isn’t a commentary on hip-hop. And I’m not coming in as a hip-hop scholar or critic. This is an attempt to go back to hip-hop’s prophetic roots, which are about truth-telling, exposing lies and having fun. It’s what I call a danceable education or a singing paideia, the Greek word for deep education. If there is one person whose spirit I try to embody on this CD, it’s Curtis Mayfield. His music is about love and freedom and really informs.

This is a very political album that doesn’t pull any punches. There are critiques of the Bush administration as well as of unaccountable corporate power, unaccountable police power and homophobia. We’re trying to get young people to wake up and recognize they’re part of a great tradition of struggle, to become organized and fight for freedom and justice.

Do you listen to contemporary R&B and hip-hop?

I am unabashedly of the Motown, Philly Sound, [Curtis] Mayfield generation, so I am not fooling myself. I just love young people enough to be a part of their artistic process and try to bring in some of the older generation’s insights. But I’m also open to young folks’ insights because I’ve got to learn, too.

I’ve never met Lupe Fiasco, but I like that brother. Oh, Lord, he’s a free, young brother who honestly speaks his mind. That brother hits American terrorism, the American empire and still talks about his skateboard. I love that kind of freedom because, in the end, we’ve all got to be ourselves and that takes courage.

Do you think the downturn in hip-hop sales reflects consumer dissatisfaction?

It’s important to keep in mind that a decline in sales doesn’t mean a decline in popularity. Hip-hop is here to stay. The question is: What kind? What we’re trying to say with this album is we need a rebirth of hip-hop. When it becomes hip to be in hip-hop connected to the struggle for freedom and justice, then that popularity will have a positive impact on the larger society.

In fact, myself and community activist Jeffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone [who was interviewed on the recent “Don’t Snitch” segment on “60 Minutes”] met with Jay-Z about 18 months ago and talked about these issues. We had a wonderful dialogue with Jay-Z, and he was very receptive.

So what’s next for hip-hop?

50 Cent may be another Malcolm X and turn out to be a serious progressive. You just don’t know. That’s why I’m not giving up on him, the Game and other rappers. I’m just trying to respectfully challenge them and make them accountable.


Dr. Cornel West, professor of religion at Princeton University, recently produced a new hip-hop album entitled “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations.” The album features such artists as Prince, Talib Kweli, Outkast’s Andre 3000, KRS-One, Rhymefest, the late Gerald Levert and Killer Mike. (File photo)

Click here to send a letter to the editor

Back to Top