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A Hip Hop Head’s Response to Wynton Marsalis

By Langston Collin Wilkins

Jazz musician, critic, and educator Wynton Marsalis recently sent shockwaves around the music world by making some inflammatory comments about hip hop music. In a conversation with Washington Post columnist Johnathan Capehart for the Cape Up podcast, Marsalis not only took hip hop music to task for its use of the words “nigga” and “bitch” and depictions of misogyny and violence, but ultimately suggested that hip hop music is “more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee” and said that fans of the genre should get their “heads examined.”

He has since walked back some of his comments. In a lengthy Facebook post, Marsalis noted his limited engagement with the genre and said that his earlier comments were not in reference to the entire genre, but rather the subset of hip hop that he feels are “pornographic products and minstrel show ghetto routines.” Marsalis’ disdain for hip hop is not new, however. He has been one of hip hop’s most prominent detractors for many years and his criticisms go beyond problematic lyrics. In a 2007 interview, he said that hip hop music “has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically.”

I would like Mr. Marsalis to know that my head’s been examined quite often. It has been thoroughly scrutinized through grade school, high school, undergrad, my master’s programs, and my doctoral program in ethnomusicology. I’ve been a hip hop head throughout all of these educational endeavors. In fact, listening to hip hop has helped shape my worldview which, in turn, has informed my educational and professional moves. As I have gotten older, my connection and understanding of the music has waned a bit. Hip hop is, at its core, a youth culture. The current trending sounds and styles are not meant for a relatively older hip hop head like myself. However, I continue to see it as an important social medium for Black youth and young adults.

As a longtime hip hop fan and scholar, I certainly understand the issues that Marsalis touches on. Hip hop music has long included subject matter that is violent, sexist, misogynist, and homophobic. Any attempts to downplay that would be disingenuous. The criticisms of hip hop music first emerged at the very genesis of the genre and have been a steady presence over the last thirty years. The social merits of hip hop have been debated in literature, on television, in classrooms and even in courtrooms. African American activists such as C. Dolores Tucker and Reverend Calvin Butts led aggressive and demonstrative campaigns against gangsta rap in the 1990s. In 2007, Congressman Bobby Rush spearheaded a congressional hearing on the influence of hip hop on youth violence at which Rappers Master P and David Banner, along with scholar Michael Eric Dyson, testified on the merits of the genre.

I have always understood that hip hop records contained some problematic language and ideas. The was even true when I first began listening to the genre as a very immature adolescent back in the 1990s. I was particularly attracted to the gangsta rap that dominated hip hop. Houston, Texas native Scarface was my first favorite MC, and I was especially enamored by his more violent material like “Jesse James” and “White Sheet” from The Diary (1994). I also enjoyed 2pac, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and others who made music wrought with graphic depictions of inter-personal violence and hypersexual activity. Despite my relative youth and immaturity, I recognized that the music I enjoyed contained very questionable lyrical content.

But these same records presented the social conditions that formed the foundation for destructive behaviors. Contrary to popular narrative, these rap artists were politically astute and understood the social forces that were acting upon the Black working class spaces depicted in their art. The aforementioned Scarface album is a creative exposition on the effects of gun violence on Black men’s mental health. Death Certificate (1991) is Ice Cube’s lyrical critique of anti-Black systemic racism. Hip hop had me, at a very early age, engaging with concepts like economic exploitation, poverty, Black unemployment and drug dealing, structural racism, gun violence, mental health, incarceration, sexism, sexual violence and misogyny. Ultimately, the music has taught me that imperfect people functioning in imperfect and violent systems do some good and do some wrong – and some of them make art about it all.

Wynton Marsalis may never view hip hop as a legitimate form of music. However, I would urge him to reconsider his ideas about the music’s effect on our society. Hip hop is both entertainment and a communicative tool for communities facing a myriad of social problems. The art can reflect social problems, but it is not the cause of said problems.  I want to work towards changing the horrible social conditions that inform certain elements of the music. But I’ll never absolutely dismiss the art form nor the complex humans that make it.

Langston Collin Wilkins is Traditional Arts Specialist with the Tennessee Arts Commission. He is currently writing an ethnographic manuscript on the cultivation of local identity within Houston’s screwed and chopped hip hop music scene.

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