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Wynton Marsalis, Hip Hop and Robert E. Lee

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My friend and former colleague, Grammy Award and Pulitzer prize winning artist Wynton Marsalis made a statement during an appearance on Jonathan Capehart’s podcast Cape Up that has set the internet ablaze. 

During an interview promoting his new work The Ever Funky Lowdown, a piece for jazz orchestra, voice with narration that critiques the tribal game that is used to exploit us all, Capehart was commending Marsalis for the role that he played in convincing former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee that once stood in Lee Circle in New Orleans.  Marsalis downplayed his influence on the decision which spurred Capehart to say “surely you recognize and see the power of your words…,” to which Marsalis replied,

“My words are not that powerful. I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about [the n-word] 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.”

I couldn’t agree more with his assessment, but let’s be careful to understand exactly what he said and what he meant.

The negative aspects of the subsection of hip hop that glorifies violence, objectifies women, recklessly and unapologetically sprays and dispenses racial epitaphs into the common popular cultural space while painting an overly bleak picture of black life in America is indeed much more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.

On his Facebook page, Marsalis clarified his comments with the following statement. 

“The Robert E. Lee Statue is a symbol of a bygone era whose ideology still resonates with a segment of the population. That ideology has been rightly decried by many (me chief amongst them) as a hurtful reminder of the past that many believe has no place in the country today.

Today, Robert E. Lee is not widely or openly celebrated in the country and does not hold a position of prestige or power in the cultural marketplace. The irony of the situation is mind boggling because, I’m sure that many people who have called for the removal of Lee (and other Confederate monuments as racist symbols that have helped to perpetuate age old stereotypes) are also defending some of the most popular and most promoted products (THOUGH CLEARLY NOT ALL OF ) an art form that is doing the exact same thing-except now, the perpetuation of negative imagery and stereotypes are self-inflicted for a paycheck.

There are a finite number of Confederate statues in the country that could be physically removed tomorrow, political ramifications notwithstanding. While this will not remove the ideology that the statues represent, it would at least remove them from public spaces and end their reign of public celebration.

Those who believe these symbols represent their view of an imperfect America today are fighting to keep those symbols alive – blemishes and all – the same way that many are standing in line to defend the free speech of some of the most popular aspects of hip hop products (NOT ALL) with all of it’s warts.

The big difference is that the Civil War was waged and definitively decided. The cultural war is ongoing and fortunately or unfortunately depending on your vantage point some of the most popular aspects of hip hop (THOUGH DEFINITELY NOT ALL) is providing much needed capital via the marketplace to both sides of that war and as such will continue it’s reign as the soundtrack for American popular culture. Until it doesn’t.”

Of course it is unfair to paint an entire genre with a broad brush and most assuredly not all hip hop is as represented above. However, a disproportionate amount of the negative aspects of the music and culture as characterized above is ubiquitous in popular culture and as such is a really big problem.  It not only shapes the way we represent and see ourselves, but it also shapes the way that non-blacks in the country see us, but also the way that the rest of the world views us.

I travel extensively and last month I was in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.  I had to take an Uber and when the driver picked me up I noticed that he was listening to hip hop on the stereo. I couldn’t quite make out what song he was listening to as he turned the volume down once I got settled in the backseat.  The driver was a young 20 something light-skinned brother who was born in Amsterdam but whose parents were from Morocco.  He was muslim.

I asked him if he liked hip hop.  He said yes.  I asked him if he had ever been to America. He said no.  I asked him what his impression of America was especially as viewed through the lens of hip hop.  He said that he felt like if he were to visit Chicago that he would be in danger of being shot.  I asked him where he got that impression and in essence he explained that the images and the narrative that comes from hip hop from the States led him to that conclusion.  I went on to ask him what his impression of black Americans were as viewed through the lens of hip hop.  His answer was chilling and sobering. “They are like, how would you say, like savages,” he said.

I told the young brother that it’s ironic that he feels that way because some Americans are afraid of him and thinks that he is a savage because he is Muslim and lives abroad. I explained that neither characterization is true but somehow our opinions of each other are somewhat shape by that narrative that emanates from the media and popular culture.

I believe the chickens are beginning to come home to roost for the negative aspects of hip hop in popular culture.  The recent situation with Kendrick Lamar stopping his concert to berate a white audience member who was invited on stage, because she recited his lyrics as written, n-words and all, brings us to an interesting conundrum as a people and a culture.

We can’t have it both ways. If we don’t want those other than us to say the word that has been most hurtful to us then maybe we shouldn’t say it in public or better yet we shouldn’t sell it to them as a product for public consumption. I know if I pay good money for something I feel like I own it.  Isn’t that the American way!

As Marsalis mentioned in his Facebook post, the irony of the juxtaposition is almost comical. In essence, Kendrick and a significant part of the hip hop community are saying that we reserve the right to own an ugly part of our history for ourselves and we reserve the right to say it as loud and as proud as we want and even sell it as a commodity that we encourage all to buy, but YOU can’t say that same word publicly. It’s off limits.

How is that any different or any less damaging than a white supremacist who wants to keep the ugly part of his history alive?  It’s actually more damaging because Robert E. Lee lost the civil war.  He’s dead.  The overly negative aspects of hip hop are alive and well and are disproportionately wreaking havoc on the culture and the collective psyche of our people everyday.

About the author

Andre Kimo Stone Guess
Andre Kimo Stone Guess

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He now runs GuessWorks, Inc. with his wife Cheryl.

Educated Guesses A Blog Full of Guesses