Ebony and Imus

Cornel West hangs with Prince and challenges—not denounces—hip-hop

"There's a white brother named Paul Woodruff singing—he sounds better than Robin Thicke!" Princeton University professor Cornel West says excitedly, referring to "Still Here," a single on his new spoken-word CD, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations. West, the public intellectual and widely cited authority on American race relations now famous for playing himself, "Councillor West of Zion," in the last two Matrixmovies, calls everybody "brother" or "sister." It's so very '60s and Christian and gentlemanly of him. He and "Brother Prince," Mr. 3121 Jehovah's Witness Brother Prince himself, wrote Never Forget's first single, "Dear Mr. Man," and have become good friends. Prince surprised a few people with last month's protest LP Planet Earth, and now this. "The question is" (one of Professor West's favorite phrases), since when has he been down for the cause?

"I went to Paisley Park some years ago," says West. "You know, [Prince] has those xenophobia conferences every year. He brings in people from all around the world. He pays for it, actually. They're there for three days. There's dialogue during the day on all the various forms of xenophobia. I gave a lecture. And then that night, I remember seeing Norah Jones before she was big. Of course, Sheila [E.] was there. Maceo [Parker] was there. Chaka Khan was there . . . "

"Dear Mr. Man," an organ-goosed open letter to the U.S. government in which most of West's contributions consist of ad-libs like "Break it down, Brother Prince!", finds the Purple One railing against environmental abuses, constitutional abuses, Geneva Conventions abuses, and institutional racism. We tired of y'all, he says. We tired of y'all spyin' on fellow citizens, adds West. We tired of y'all lyin' to justify war. We tired of y'all torturing innocent people. And though other Never Forget tracks like "America" (featuring Black Thought and Rah Digga), "Mr. President" (featuring KRS-One and M1), and "Bushonomics" (featuring Talib Kweli) tout similar sentiments, not all of the fire and brimstone here is directed at the White House. West also calls out his rap-artist brothers and sisters for "degradin' other folk."

"50 Cent, Snoop, Game, Nelly," West says, as if he's writing their names on the board. "On one level, I love those brothers, because their artistic and aesthetic work is a part of who I am . . . . On the other hand, I challenge those brothers because I'm just against misogyny. I'm against homophobia. So somebody can be in my house and in my community and I still have to present a moral critique, because I'm just against those things. I just think they're wrong. "So the question is," West continues, "how do I deal with the love and embrace of them as artists and at the same time respectfully challenge them? So in that sense, I'm not really with the crowd that trashes hip-hop. I can't stand that. That's ridiculous. And I'm not with the crowd that somehow tries to give some justification for misogyny or homophobia. I just think the critique of homophobia has to be more explicit on hip-hop records—that's why I've addressed it on my album. Including the domestic violence and the misogyny and the sexism and so forth—it goes hand in hand with that. That's true with anything—anti-Semitism, it could be racism, any form of bigotry. I just have to take a stand against that. It's just who I am. Now that's a little different from this post-Imus trashing of Snoop. Because I'm not part of that crowd. At all."

West bridges the generation gap on Never Forget by including guests from Lenny Williams and Gerald Levert (before his death late last year) to Andre 3000 and Rhymefest. Though the opus is hip-hop-heavy, West doesn't consider himself a part of the hip-hop generation. He calls himself a "Motown–Philly Sound–Curtis Mayfield–generation brother" who "intervenes in the culture of young people."

"It's a matter of trying to present to young people a danceable education," he says. "Or what I call a 'singing paideia.' [Paideia means "a deep education" in Greek.] You have to get people's attention and focus on serious issues. Then you try to cultivate their self and put a premium on critical reflection, and then you try and engage in the maturation of the soul, which has to do with courage, compassion, and just love, basically."

That's what's happening on "The N Word," the Never Forget dialogue with Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. It's a sequel to a song of the same name on West's 2001 CD, Sketches of My Culture, in which he calls on black folk and rap artists to stop using the word "nigga." In April of this year, Russell Simmons and other record-industry leaders officially called for a moratorium on the word in hip-hop records. Many argue that in the last half-century, the term has been appropriated by blacks as a term of endearment among themselves. The 2007 version of "The N Word" continues the debate as a flautist ("an Italian brother, Brother Dino") darts in and out of West and Dyson's statements over a James Brown–ish vamp, just as Brian Jackson would with Gil Scott-Heron.

Dyson: We have to use the n-word, even if we agree ultimately in it being retired. There is not yet the point in our culture when we can afford to surrender that word. One of the reasons I deploy that term is because I wanna remind white folk and other bourgeoisie negroes who have looked upon me . . . as "that nigger," but refuse to say it to my face: "I know [what] you're saying about me, so I'm gonna put it on front street." We may be using the same term, but we're not using it the same way. We're not giving it the same meaning.

West's response: Take a text likeHuckleberry Finn. The word "nigger" is used over 100 times. It's a work of art. The work wouldn't be the same without that word. You could make the same case for Tupac's art and the use of that word . . .

West believes that the pejorative "nigger" can't ever be completely separated from the hip-hop-friendly "nigga." But if he can't get people to stop using it, he hopes they at least become more aware of how, even with the best intentions, the word can become dangerous or grossly misunderstood.

"There is a rhythmic seduction with the word," West says. "If you want to say 'cat' or 'companion' or 'comrade,' that doesn't have the same rhythmic resonance as the word 'nigga' . . . The rhythmic seduction goes hand in hand with how black people use language . . . you're just not going to get folks to stop using words like that. It just ain't gon' happen. The question is, when these young people use 'nigga' with an 'a,' are there elements of self-hatred—dishonoring each other, disrespecting, distrusting each other, which is part of the history of the word with an '-er'? It's really about, "Show me the love and the respect and the honor and the dignity, and you can basically use any word you want." But if I see these young folk using nigga with an 'a,' and they still disrespecting one another, dishonoring one another, mistreating one another, and player-hating one another—then I know the effect of the 'er' word is still operating in the 'a' word."

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