Black Music Ambassador Falls Short on Hip-Hop

Wynton Marsalis: 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy from Americans for the Arts on Vimeo. *UPDATE – see details at the end of the post*

Greetings, Blackademics readers. My name is Eric Hirsh and I’m honored to be engaging in a discussion with you in this guest post. I am a jazz pianist and composer living in Durham, NC as well as a member of The Beast with Pierce Freelon. I am writing from Washington, DC where I am an artist-in-residence at The Kennedy Center as a part of their Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program which gathers talented young jazz musicians from around the world for two weeks of workshops, masterclasses, and performances. The artistic experience has been amazing, but the insight into the business and politics of arts administration has been somewhat troubling.

As it so happens, tomorrow (Tuesday, March 31st, 2009) is National Arts Advocacy day. This means that celebrities and lobbyists from Americans for the Arts are going to storm Capitol Hill and talk to their Congressmen about the importance of funding for arts and arts education. As part of our residency, we were required to attend what was effectively a pre-game rally but was actually called “The 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy.” This lecture was given by none other than the legendary jazz trumpeter, composer, educator, and spokesperson, Wynton Marsalis. We where whisked into the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center, normally reserved for symphony orchestras, amongst a sea of hundreds of well-dressed arts supporters, politicians, businessmen, and celebrities of all ages. Mr. Marsalis was introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and received with a standing ovation. I was proud to see that a large, national organization could easily select and respect a jazz musician for their keynote speaker: Marsalis has certainly worked, played, and researched hard to bring himself and his music to the stage of understanding and acceptance that it is at.

Marsalis, backed by a band of top-notch Lincoln Center jazz musicians, proceeded to recite an hour-long poem entitled “The Ballad of Arts in America” and it was a piece that would make us all cry. With impassioned delivery, Marsalis effortlessly weaved together images of the artistic process as the full realization of the kind of democracy that our founding fathers sought: “how do I be me while letting you be you?” From Jefferson to Monk, Emerson to Gillespie, it was amazing how many parallel sayings Marsalis could find in writers, artists, and politicians separated by centuries. Most important, he firmly reminded us that the history of “purely” American music is the history of African-American music (and I was proud that he “dared” do so in front of this audience), from spirituals all the way through The Beatles re-introducing us to our own heritage after we lost the blues through white-dominated rock n’ roll.

Wynton was speaking truth. Time and time again, he reminded us that American innovators in art were always met with critics of three varieties: the intellectual establishment, the European cultural superiority, and the finicky opinions of the public. He wanted us to affirm our own music, our own culture, pointing out that when famous jazz drummer Elvin Jones was told “What do you say to the fact that many people do not like your music?” he responded, “That’s too bad, because we’re going to keep on playing it.” Another important recurring theme was that, at the same time that American music is a story of racial [mis]appropriation, it is also a story of racial integration. He noted that minstrel shows, blues, jazz, rock n’ roll all borrowed back and forth between black and white interpretations of each other’s culture that it just ends up being kind of silly to separate it out, and also that American bands integrated long before American sports teams.

But here is the problem: for all of Marsalis’ beautiful insights into art as a source of unification and celebration, especially in hard times, he completely left out hip hop, and even went so far as to condemn it. When vamping on themes of adversity he vaguely stated “and then they cut all arts programs in schools and a machine came in to replace the drums” (referring to sampled beats). Later he compared the lyrics of a 19th century minstrel song to the lyrics of “something from 1993, ‘Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang’” but only in passing. Later still, he basically said that we need a kind of music that teaches our children social values, not how to be hip (and here he alluded to rapping) to the tune of “an amateurish drum beat” (direct quote).

On their own, these statements are small, subtle, and dwarfed by 55 other minutes of beautiful truth. The reason I am furious is more about what Marsalis didn’t say. He offered only romantic images and words of praise for the genres of spirituals, gospel, blues, and jazz. What he said about hip hop (he never ever used the words ‘hip hop’ or ‘rap’ but rather only made allusions) was 100% negative and were the only negative words he had for art through the entire speech. On the one hand, the point he made was valid. It wasn’t necessarily about the genre, but rather about the content. We can agree that minstrelsy is still an issue in hip hop, I know Pierce has written multiple posts on the subject. But of course, of course, of course, it is only one small piece of a vast tapestry of cultural and sociopolitical expression. And Wynton Marsalis absolutely failed to offer even one word that points to the artistry and heritage of hip hop and its lineage back to spirituals and work songs.

If you are already angry, let me offer you a bit of context. Wynton Marsalis is a known jazz iconoclast; he supports a very traditional interpretation of what jazz is and is not and has been intellectually fierce on the subject for years. He is also a known public critic of hip hop; he sees it as minstrelsy and nothing else. I appreciate his concern for African-American cultural representation, and I can even tolerate his opinion (which I wildly disagree with). I can even handle the fact that he has formed his opinion without trying to truly understand the music. I can even handle the bitter irony that he has fought so hard for people to understand and appreciate jazz but he can’t turn around and accept the next big movement.

What is completely unacceptable to me is that he has used his position as a public figure with political influence to promote his personal agenda. It was inappropriate for him to bring up those points at this specific (and highly politically manufactured) event. Marsalis’ job tonight was to inspire the audience of lobbyists and senators to remember the spiritual and cultural importance of the arts in our nation in order that it might continue to be a factor in our political and financial decisions. He did that, but he also planted a seed of misunderstanding where he had an opportunity to usher in a new era. We all know (and we know Marsalis knows too) that he was referring specifically to content questions of gangsta rap, that 1993 was part of an era with Rodney King race riots and Boyz N the Hood, which is only one part of the history and artistry of hip hop. But the audience did not know that, and it was Marsalis’ job as cultural ambassador to make that clear to them. I am afraid that this mostly white (and potentially culturally ignorant) audience is going to think “Oh, here is a respected black cultural leader and even he admitted that hip hop is bad. He must be right.” Now lobbyists could be approaching Capitol Hill with the message “Keep arts in the schools, help these children connected to their roots, but not hip hop, we’ve been told it isn’t a part of that story.” And that makes me profoundly sad. This was the day of arts advocacy, Wynton gave the official send off.

I know that a large part of a social and cultural revolution is fought underground and in the communities. But it is also fought in the mainstream media and in Washington. Marsalis has the crossover credentials to be a national spokesperson for jazz. Who will rise to the challenge of being the eloquent-but-authentic political spokesperson for hip hop? Is that even the appropriate thing to wish for?

Thank you so much for your time in reading this post; I look forward to the discussion. If you are interested, you can read more of my musical and cultural thoughts over at my own blog,

As you can see, at the top of the post we’ve added video from Wynton’s lecture. You can also check it out at: Vimeo (dot) com.

*some discussion posts imported from facebook

8 Comments to ‘Black Music Ambassador Falls Short on Hip-Hop’:

  1. Pierce on 31 Mar 2009 at 12:13 pm: 1

    Thanks Eric, I wish I could have been there myself. It’s so bizarre to me, that Wynton does not appreciate what Hip-Hop means to American Music. Jazz was SO unappreciated, SO dismissed and he’s perpetuating the same close-minded legacy that devalued Jazz by leaving Hip-Hop on the fringe without even an honorable mention.

    And what does he mean by “a machine came in to replace the drums”. Does a keyboard have less value than a piano? Is a DJ scratch solo, less complex than a horn solo. Is a completely synthesized electronica song less beautiful than a jazz standard? Absolutely not. When art was taken out of the schools, it was (and is) a tragedy. But in the tradition of our ancestors, young Hip-Hop artists dug within their creative wellsprings and developed new ways to make music, despite the failings of the school systems.

    But I’ll tell Wynton Marsallis like Elvin Jones told me – If you don’t like our “amateurish drum beats,” or “social values” – too bad, because we’re going to keep on playing it. We don’t need his validation nor the validation Washington’s cultural elite, to continue to be progressive, inspired and groundbreaking.


  2. Z on 1 Apr 2009 at 6:58 pm: 2

    Well said Eric and Pierce. Could not agree more.

  3. Ian on 3 Apr 2009 at 4:20 pm: 3

    Well said, Eric. You kinda have to feel sorry for Wynton given that, although yes, he is a very talented musician, he is unable to see the contradiction he makes every time he says that “this is good, that isn’t.” As Pierce mentions, jazz was always downed by the majority, to say nothing of the elite who opposed the newest innovations throughout american musical history.

    For Wynton to pigeon-hole himself into his established niche as “the protector of classic jazz and whatever else qualifies as acceptable negro music,” is continually disappointing. As Peter Schickaly has stated aptly, “if it sounds good, it is good.”

    I only wish that the establishment in New York and Washington were able to grasp the importance of arts development–apart from that which is prescribed by those who through isolationism and personal interest negate the very existence of groundbreaking cultural phenomena such as hip-hop.

  4. Andre on 4 Apr 2009 at 12:20 am: 4

    Hi Eric-
    I enjoyed your piece and appreciate and agree with you 100%. Its a shame that Wynton is not able to see past his own personal tastes and acknowledge the truth of the matter, which is that Hip hop is a branch from the same tree as the other forms of popular music and expresion that you named. Even his brother Branford had a hip hop/jazz fusion band in the early 90’s called Buckshot Lafunk. It is sad that a golden opportunity was missed. But that is ok. Keep fighting the fight and hip hop will get its due recognition in time.

  5. Pierce on 4 Apr 2009 at 12:24 am: 5

    Here, Here Coolest Dre.

  6. Olokun Shangol Olugbala (better known as D. Noble) on 18 Apr 2009 at 8:16 pm: 6

    Brother Eric, I appreciate your article and all the comments posted thus far. While I agree that Wynton Marsalis’ comments (and lack of comments) are disturbing, I don’t think that we should find this surprising. Wynton is a bourgeoisie elitist and is tortured by a retrograde, assimilationist sensibility. What more could be expected of a man that shares the political and cultural attitudes of a neo-conservative uncle tom like Stanley Crouch?

    What we as serious Hip Hop ambassadors have to do is distinguish authentic Hip Hop and Hip Hop praxis from the corporate death and disease marketed as Hip Hop. Until we can accurately discern between the two, we will continue to engage in meaningless dialogue trying to defend what doesn’t need to be defended and trying to fit Hip Hop (the culture and the music, and the people subscribing to both because of a shared condition) into spaces that we have historically resisted against. That said, why should Hip Hop care if aristocratic elitists and political crooks malign them? This is what should be expected, even if the aristocratic/political perspective in question is operating in blackface.

    To echo Brother Pierce here, “We don’t need his {Wynton’s} validation, nor the validation of Washington’s cultural elite.” To be fair and honest, there are problematic issues warranting our attention in Hip Hop, but that critical process and commentary must begin with us (Hip Hop). Outside influences (and their accompanying agendas) such as the marketplace, Don Imus, Al Sharpton, Bill O’Reilly or even National Arts Advocacy Day (just to name a selective few) cannot be the catalyst for us discussing ourselves and probing ourselves for richer meaning, transformative healing and more spiritual expressiveness. To do so would be disingenuous and counterintuitive (not to mention incredibly futile).

    If nothing else, Hip Hop is cultural dissent. So we should have no expectation for the powerbrokers and tastemakers of mainstream majority culture to embrace our cultural practices and performances that openly defy and resist the rigid and oppressive aesthetics that govern their cultural sensibilities and outputs.

    We have our own spaces and we need to seek validation from ourselves within the borders of those safe spaces that have been established through our grassroots, protest vision and work. We need to protect those borders that have offered us refuge to be ourselves, borders that have allowed us to be as beautiful and ugly as we need to be as we respond and adapt to our peculiar oppression and condition.

    In closing, fuck Wynton Marsalis, fuck Washington politicians and fuck their institutions that mandate that we explain ourselves and our existence as if we’re nothing but pathology. We are Bluespeople: great griots and keepers of historic rhythms and truths. We are a polyrhythmic improv that they wish to regulate and kill, but can’t. We are Hip Hop.

  7. bryon d turman on 20 Apr 2009 at 10:46 am: 7

    Peace, Eric and the blackademics fam!
    I too was disappointed in Brotha Marsalis’ comments. However, I was not surprised. For years, Marsalis has represented a very limited and narrow view of jazz and Black popular music. I wonder if he’s read Baraka’s BLUES PEOPLE or BLACK MUSIC? Brotha Baraka laid down the gauntlet on cats like him in the early ’60’s. It’s unfortunately that ideas espoused over 40 years ago are still salient and relevant today when it pertains to criticisms of OUR arts. It is also unfortunate that Marsalis appears to forget the realization that his beloved jazz was once criticed by White and Black cultural elitists with the same voracity that he now critiques Hip Hop.
    I am also concerned that we–Black intellectuals(whatever the Hell that means)–continue to fall for the same ploy. LISTEN, we cannot and should not be too concerned with what elitists have to say about us. Brotha Marsalis does not and has never spoken for the masses of Black folk. He is a musician/artist and as such, his opinions should be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt”. However, we should challenge these elitists by raising dissenting voices. Often times, our reactions are just that–reactive. We need to be proactive. For example, who knew that “National Arts Advocacy Day” was coming? We should have had a counterbalance to Brotha Marsalis’ point of view–even if it came as catcalls from the gallery. America was built on dissent; we have to be proactive in telling our story. As Baraka so eloquently said it in “Jazz and the White Critic” “there still may be time to do it.”

    bryon d turman
    lecturer of humanities and hip hop
    dpt of english
    greensboro, nc

  8. jasmine on 21 Apr 2009 at 10:06 am: 8

    Good morning. I am Jasmine, and I thank Olokun for inviting me to such a wonderful discussion.
    One must keep in mind that Wynton Marsalis’ heart is in the right place but his views are not as compassionate as they need to be in order to understand the relevance of Hip Hop music. He is not able to see that Hip Hop music is our youth’s voice which is pleading for us to lead a generation out of the self hatred they are bound by but are yet to understand. His concern (I would assume) is aimed at our youth who worship the seemingly superficial disastrous tongues which flood our air waves. But he is no different than the parent who simply does not understand his/her rebellious child. He doesn’t understand the child is acting out because it needs attention. He doesn’t understand that the child has no self-esteem and since the child doesn’t understand where true self-esteem comes from, the child searches for it in drugs, in broken curfews, in promiscuous sex and further juvenile behavior. I’m sure Wynton feels that Hip Hop is embarrassing his people but he is no different than the mother in Wal-mart who looses patience with her screaming child because she assumes everyone around her is thinking she is a bad mother, when all she really should be concerned with is consoling the child and not the on lookers. Marsalis’ timing is an example of this. Instead of using his soap box to provide insight to a misunderstood group, he used it to tear them down once again. Hip Hop is a child that needs to be scolded with the same respect that is expected of it. I feel it is necessary for us to go back to our roots, where elders and youth are not divided but are individually respected for the roles they play in their society: the youth builds and the elders instruct how to build. People like Marsalis should be expressing hope and encouragement. This is where the gap lies: instruction. Jay-Z should be instructing. Russell Simmons is instructing. Why doesn’t Mr. Marsalis instruct? This generation needs know what it is to love themselves and each other. Self respecting brothers don’t publicly coax their women to “bust it” and “bend over so I can…” Self respecting sisters don’t publicly refer to their dynasty as a “milkshake”. People who love themselves don’t act this way. But we have a generation of people who think labels promote self love. They think money means you are somebody. I think the keys to our liberation will become available when we have the ability to say, “Fuck Wynton Marsalis, fuck the music industry and the radio stations and the MTV’s/BET’s who aren’t concerned with our well being, but with their pocket. And fuck a society who can’t comprehend that our addiction to self hatred is a direct reflection of the conditioning that has manifested itself in our blood stream from one generation to another.” We would have to be willing to say, “Fuck anybody who doesn’t want to help the cause.” And then we would have to be willing to teach and instruct and believe that we are God and God is love and love respects.

    In the words of Mos Def:

    People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant living in the hillside
    coming down to visit the townspeople
    We (are) Hip-Hop
    Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
    So Hip-Hop is going where we going
    So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is going
    ask yourself.. Where am I going? How am I doing?
    Til you get a clear idea
    So.. if Hip-Hop is about the people
    and Hip-Hop won’t get better until the people get better
    then how do people get better?
    Well, from my understanding people get better
    when they start to understand that, they are valuable
    And they are not valuable because they got a whole lot of money
    or cause somebody, think they sexy
    but they valuable cause they been created by God
    And God, makes you valuable
    And whether or not you, recognize that value is one thing.

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Published on March 30, 2009 at 11:59 pm. 8 Comments.
Filed under academia,black culture,music,popular culture.