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Hip-Hop Heals

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Hip-Hop Heals

Why a college professor grooves.
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
Oct 24, 2010 at 10:00 AM

“The blues is the elegant coping with catastrophe that yields a grace and dignity so that the spirit of resistance is never completely snuffed out.”

– Cornel West

The college professor as bluesman isn’t a concept easily embraced by the college president. The academic intellectual as bluesman is another notion that doesn’t go down easy with the powers that be. How about the teacher making a hip-hop record? Few university administrations would applaud such a move. As a rule, university administrations like their teachers contained. They’re comfortable with strict definitions and tight boundaries when it comes to faculty members and their public posture.

I’ve always seen it another way. I believe in specialized studies. I believe in dedicating oneself to a focused field of scholarship. I’ve done my fair share of scholarly writing. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, a book I wrote in 1989, was such a work. Keeping Faith, from 1993, was another. But that’s never been enough for me. If I’m to address what’s wrong with the world in which I live, if I’m going to sing the blues that stirs the deepest part of my soul, I need to follow the bluesman’s lead. I have to get out there. I have to sing in front of groups of people—at schools and churches, in prisons and on the streets, on TV, on records, on iTunes and iPods—because the blues message is universal—universally true and universally healing.

The blues message is real, the blues message is pain, and the pain is real as rain. When the blues led to rhythm-and-blues and rhythm-and-blues to hip-hop, I was not put off by the changes. I saw them all as branches of the same tree. That tree has roots deep in the soil of history. I liked the idea of hanging out on those branches. Together with Mike Dailey, Derek Allen, and my brother Cliff, I wrote a hip-hop/spoken word record that, in many ways, was a teaching device. The songs were serious. They addressed our past, our future, and our present condition. The beats were as strong as the message. I loved being in the studio and working with the grooves. I saw the operation as part of the radical democratic impulse and tragicomic truth-telling that comes directly out of the blues root.

I see my role as an educator, as someone who feels both a Socratic and prophetic calling, to implement what Nietzsche called a singing paideia. (Paideia is the deep education that informs and transforms us so we shift from bling bling to a quest for wisdom.) I am always compelled to remember that paideia represents an unfathomable education in which self-examination and service to others produces a mature, compassionate person willing to speak, live, and sacrifice for truth.

I see hip-hop as part of a movement linked to a danceable education, teaching that can both delight and instruct. I know that I am not a rapper like KRS-One, who has been lecturing in my classes for years. I am surely not a singer any more than I am a preacher. But, in some small way, if I can help bring the social consciousness of a Curtis Mayfield or a Nina Simone to hip-hop, if I can reach one young person with a message embedded in a sound that stirs his or her soul, then I have not labored in vain. My point of reference as an educator is tied to a mighty mission: unsettling minds and motivating hearts to be forces for good.

Hip-hop is a young game. Some might ask, “Why is this old fool turning out hip-hop CDs?” My answer is that the generation of the Dramatics and the O’Jays can—and must—offer their insights to the ongoing culture. I believe it’s a continuum, not a conflict or a contradiction, but, in the language of rap, a continuous flow between one generation and another. The ’60s and ’70s of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder are more pertinent and compelling than ever. Hook them up with what’s happening today and you have a fusion, a kind of hybrid, that looks backward and forward at the same time. It’s a beautiful thing.

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading