Hip-hop is part of the same tradition that brought the world some of its greatest musical artists, according to Dr. Cornel West.
“It’s the greatest tradition in the modern world, which is the Black musical tradition that came in a number of different forms, all the way to gospel and blues and jazz and rhythm and blues,” West said Tuesday. “Hip-hop for me is a moment within the very rich and very profound tradition of artistic creativity and spiritual fortitude.”
West made his remarks online as one of the keynote speakers for California University of Pennsylvania’s 15th Hip-Hop Conference, which explores hip-hop from an academic and cultural perspective. A public intellectual, critic, political activist and no stranger to controversy, the 67-year-old West is an emeritus professor at Princeton University, has also held positions at Harvard and Yale and is known outside academia for books like “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters,” and appearances on television programs like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Colbert Report.”
No stranger to headlines, West has drawn public attention for his unapologetically left-wing politics, his denunciations of Barack Obama when Obama was in the White House, and his feuds with other authors and university administrators. Most recently, West has suggested that he was denied a tenured position at Harvard because of his support for Palestinians in their ongoing conflict with Israel.
West and Jeff Chang, the author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” examined issues surrounding hip-hop, politics, social justice and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in a discussion moderated by Dr. Kelton Edminds, who directs the African American Studies program at Cal U and created the hip-hop conference.
Hip-hop, with its rapping, DJing and breakdancing, is part of the lineage that includes Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, The Temptations and other Black American musical luminaries, West explained, and added that “it is inseparable from the Black freedom struggle in the way it reflects a spiritual freedom and an artistic freedom and a moral freedom.”
West was in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 when a white supremacist rally left one counterprotester dead. He observed that some of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were, ironically, listening to Motown amid the protest.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is a complicated situation,’” West explained. “I must be in America. You have sick elements, you have pathological elements, and Motown is as American as the Klan. It’s just that the music is the best of America and the Klan is the worst.”
Other presenters scheduled for the hip-hop conference include the recording artist MyFavoriteColor, who also attended Cal U., and Bryon Turman, professor of hip-hop studies at North Carolina AT&T. On Thursday, a panel of experts will consider “What’s Next for Hip-Hop – Artistically and Academically” in another online presentation.