Dr. Cornel West: The Mind Meets Music

Listen to Dr. Cornel West at HiddenBeach, on MySpace or Rhapsody...

By: Kayceman

Dr. Cornel West
JamBase has featured a wide array of artists in our time. From jam heroes to hip-hop heavyweights to jazzbos to rock gods and more, we've covered a wide spectrum. But we've never had anyone like Dr. Cornel West grace our virtual pages before.

Dr. West is without question one of America's most important, gifted, interesting and, at times, controversial intellectuals. He is a philosopher, historian, sociologist, theologian and a true genius. The former Harvard instructor and current professor of religion at Princeton University has authored 17 books including 1993's essential Race Matters and 2004's Democracy Matters. This past August West released his second album, Never Forget: A Journey Of Revelations (Hidden Beach). This cerebral sound slab features black music luminaries such as Prince, Andre 3000 of Outkast, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez's M-1, Jill Scott, KRS-One and more. Without further praise and build-up, we're proud to bring you this insightful conversation with one of the most influential minds in America.

JamBase: Thinking about the power of spoken word, do you recall who first introduced you to the power of words and language?

Cornel West: Words and language in general has to do with church and Reverend Willie P. Cook, one of the great ministers, preachers and pastors in California. He was my preacher and pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, and he exemplified the ways in which one can use words in order to inspire and illuminate people and their situation.

JamBase: Taking it from there to music, do you recall where your first musical inspirations came from?

Cornel West: No doubt about that, that has to do with church and rhythm & blues. It has to do with Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Gene Chandler, Billy Stuart and Aretha Franklin. So, on the one hand I've got church every Sunday, where you have beautiful, powerful music, and then, of course, you've got the music on the block, the music on the streets.

JamBase: Moving that towards today, what artists do you find inspiration in?

Dr. Cornel West
Cornel West: It goes across the board. On the one hand you got Wynton Marsalis in jazz, Kenny Garret in jazz, McCoy Tyner in jazz and then in rhythm & blues Luther Vandross, Curtis Mayfield and Glen Jones. And then, of course, the groups The Dramatics, The Whispers, The Enchantments – I'm old school in that sense – [and] Teddy Pendergrass. I should mention The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. When it comes to spoken word with music and political thrust it was really Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets who had the biggest impact on me until brother Chuck D [Public Enemy] came along.

The line from Heron to you, do you draw a lot of inspiration from him?

He's just such a towering figure, so I've been inspired by him. But I never wanted to imitate.

Beyond the subject matter, how do you feel your musical work intersects with your academic life?

It's continuous. It's all about Paideia. When I talk about a singing Paideia, a danceable education, Paideia has to do with three things. It has to do with the formation of attention so you move from focusing on frivolous things to serious things, from superficial things to substantial things. Secondly, it has to do with the cultivation of the self that comes to term with reality [and] history, as well as mortality. And third, it has to do with the maturation of a soul, which means learning how to be compassionate, loving, empathetic. That's what manifests in my writing. That's what manifests in my speeches. That's what manifests in my music. It's continuous in that way.

Looking over the list of people and listening to this album, the track with Prince is fabulous. That may be the shining star on the album in my opinion.

As you know he has never-ever-ever-ever done anything outside of his own stable. He's never allowed any of his music to be sampled. When I first met him he told me he was never gonna have his music sampled in hip-hop, and this is the only time he's done that.

How did you go about getting him to do this?

He was just so kind. I met Prince about four years ago, he invited me to Paisley Park and I gave a lecture during his xenophobia conference he has every summer. He brings people from all around the world. I spent four days with him and we had a good time and then he also was kind enough [to ask] me to introduce him at the NAACP image awards. I did a big introduction with him then, so we got a chance to talk again and so forth. So, we just approached him. Mike Dailey, who did most of context [on Never Forget A Journey of Revelations], he's the third brother along with my blood brother Cliff West. And [Prince] did it right away, we couldn't believe it. He told his executive assistant, "Yeah anything brother West wants to do, just let him do it."

Thinking in a general context, obviously hip-hop is a major movement in America, but for black youth do you feel that it fills the void left by religion and community, both of which seem to have withered in recent years?

I think that's true. Chuck D said hip-hop is a black CNN. It's not just an information network but it does constitute a community. It's very important to keep in mind that you have a lot of young folks growing up with a certain distance from their elders, and therefore they tend to look to each other as to how to live, how to love, how to get through the move from womb to tomb. Therefore, hip-hop actually becomes a kind of parent as well as a community, in terms of a source of wisdom. Now, a lot of times there aren't too many good examples that generate good judgment, so you end up with bad examples and bad judgment in terms of the hedonism, narcissism, misogyny, homophobia and so on. But, there is no doubt that hip-hop is the main form of transcendence and community for young people who are trying to both get distance from their pain as well as learn to be human. That's one of the reasons why I tried to intervene in this way, to let them know that some elders do care about them and are concerned about providing some insight. And to learn from them, because it's mutual, it's not paternalistic.

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