The famed jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis, had some choice words for hip hop in a recent podcast.
Last week, multi-Grammy Award winner and famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis issued a provocative statement that rap and hip hop are “more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.” The rather reductive headline equates to a philosophy that Marsalis has been publicly championing since the mid to late 1980s. “You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position, and it’s free,” he said during the Washington Post’s latest episode of “Cape Up.” “Now, the nation is entertained by that. It’s not free. Just like the toll the minstrel show took on black folks and on white folks. Now all this ‘nigga’ this, ‘bitch’ that, ‘ho’ that, it’s just a fact at this point.”
On the surface level, one might be inclined to agree with the sentiment of Marsalis’ statement. Hip hop has long upheld certain stereotypes that degrade the African American community, particularly women. In addition, crude, violent, and sexually-explicit content continues to be a major selling point for labels, something that Marsalis noted. To outsiders, the messages being conveyed through hip hop culture could be conceived a certain way, and thus perpetuate the aforementioned stereotypes. Does hip hop warp the way that certain people view the African American community? Yes, without a sliver of a doubt. If hip hop serves as one’s only exposure to the African American community, then one is likely to have a deeply distorted view of the black experience. At a recent Kendrick Lamar concert as part of Top Dawg Entertainment’s “Championship Tour,” a white woman came on stage for a performance of “M.A.A.D. city” and used the n-word. Following the immediate reaction from the stunned performer, she responded indignantly, asking Lamar if she was “not cool enough” for him. The Compton rapper quickly retorted: “You gotta bleep one single word, though.”
As a whole, Marsalis’ inflammatory response is the opinion of someone who doesn’t listen to the genre a great deal because they have been off put by certain commercial releases. His statements more accurately apply to dumbed down, mainstream music, which unfortunately stands to represent the genre as a whole. And while the longtime jazz and classical musician later clarified his statements via a lengthy Facebook post, in which he explained that he wasn’t trying to paint the entire genre with a broad brush ("Those who wish to talk about 'ALL' of any form are discussing another subject that I didn’t cover, seeing as how I have not heard ALL of any form of music nor do I expect to."), it’s difficult to take him at his word. He’s judging hip hop, both the tradition and in the modern sense, from a distance. If you pull from a group of commercial examples and judge the entire genre based strictly on what you hear in that small sample size, then you would probably be distressed too. Marsalis’ forthcoming work, “the ever-funky lowdown,” focuses on the negative perceptions of black culture that have been commercialized through mass appeal for a white audience and parroted by black artists. Label executives pushing black artists to engage with certain themes has some truth to it, because that’s what sells. Consumers like the subject matter and production, and executives like the money that consumers use to pay for it. To a certain extent, hip hop, which has historically been heralded as a symbol of rebellion, has taken on contemporary corporate interests. The originally intended role has been butchered through the lens of commercial value; like most genres, hip hop now largely panders to the lowest common denominator in the hopes of scraping every last dollar off the bottom of the barrel.
Regardless of the fact that Marsalis is a gifted and highly respected musician, he has a right to an opinion under the First Amendment. He’s been voicing his displeasure with hip hop for nigh on 30 years, so of course he’s going to dismiss something that he hates. Marsalis comes from a generation that rightfully despises any use of the n-word, a word that has been trivialized by the hip hop community. The Civil Rights movement was a reality for him, not just a history lesson. But what he’s essentially saying is that his musical expertise grants him the power to pass judgement on hip hop’s damaging effects. Had he used “mainstream” or “commercial” as his initial qualifier, then perhaps his statements would have more weight to them. But he didn’t. Instead, what he presented was an elitist view that in no way captures the value of hip hop as an artform. Marsalis is of the mindset that if so many people love hip hop, how can it be good? Furthermore, if anyone can make rap music, how can it be good? By that logic, opera music must be good because so few people like it, and because so few people are capable of creating it.
In blindly generalizing hip hop as a valueless, and in fact deleterious, artform, Marsalis comes off as remarkably short sighted. Hip hop gives marginalized people a voice, and is a valuable tool when used to uplift and empower. Part of the beauty of hip hop is that it is without structure or guidelines. Yes, there’s a formula when it comes to making mainstream hits, and artists, particularly female artists, have to check certain boxes in order to be deemed commercially viable. But as a whole, hip hop has always been free of the restrictions reserved for more traditional forms of music. It presents individuals with the opportunity to create whatever they want and express themselves fully. It is multifaceted in it’s purpose, and can educate, provide a window into a life experience, or vocalize problems in a community. Marsalis said it himself while talking about Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”: “From a social standpoint, it’s hard to decry a thing that you depict. That’s difficult.” Not all rap music is harmful, just as not all pop music is shallow, or all country music is unoriginal. There has always been “bad” music, or music that is perceived to be different and potentially dangerous. People booed when Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was performed for the first time in Paris in 1913. And Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which is widely considered to be one of his greatest musical works, initially received a lukewarm response due to "inadequate performance conditions." Hip hop is now under fire because it’s pushing musical boundaries and becoming increasingly popular, similar to how rock-and-roll was highly criticized when it dominated the airwaves.
Marsalis sees hip hop as contemporaneous, harmful in the here and now. But one can’t place the ills of the black community solely on hip hop. The problem isn’t hip hop; it’s systemic. Hip hop exists because of the issues that are plaguing America. It’s the antidote to what a statue of Robert E. Lee represents. To question whether the black community should regulate their behavior for fear of continuing to be perceived a certain way is preposterous. The responsibility lies on the consumer, who is making the unqualified denunciations and broad assumptions regarding an entire group of people based on the actions of a select few. People should have the right to express their individuality and opinions; it is those who buy into stereotypes that are at fault. As far as a statue of Robert E. Lee is concerned, it serves as a representation of a bygone era, a modern marker of systematic oppression that was erected after slavery had been abolished. It’s public propaganda that is meant to be controlling and oppressive, one that offers a reminder of the stranglehold that local politicians and public officials continue to have on the southern states. Statues of Confederates like Robert E. Lee have been used to terrorize black people into silence. Are these statues as harmful as the most disgraceful hip hop music? No; they’re harmful in a different way. Hip hop and a statue of Robert E. Lee are two disparate ideas that can’t be compared. One is an artform that can be tastelessly tailored to fit the agenda of labels, while the other is a representation of one of the darkest times in American history, tainted by a hateful legacy of slavery and treason that continues to persist.