Wynton Marsalis is a trumpeter, composer, and Pulitzer Prizewinner. He’s also built himself a longtime reputation as a jazz purist, one who refuses to integrate music like avant-garde jazz or fusion into his work, which is otherwise immersed in the genre’s history. But Marsalis’ view of rap music is a whole lot darker than his ideas about whatever forms of jazz he doesn’t like, as The Washington Post reports.
Talking to Marsalis on his Post podcast, Jonathan Capehart asked about playing jazz during a time of massive racial unrest like what we’re seeing today. Marsalis responded that racism has less to do with the Charlottesville attack or even with Donald Trump’s election and more to do with “how we’ve lost our grip on our morality in the black community… using pornography and profanity and addressing ourselves in the lowest, most disrespectful form.”
Marsalis is, of course, talking broadly about rap music:
You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position, and it’s free. 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.
For me, it was not a default position in the ’80s. Now that it is the default position, how you like me now? You like what it’s yielding? Something is wrong with you, you need your head examined if you like this. It’s almost like adults left the room or something…
I do not like [rap]. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t like it. And I recognize that. But I’m from the Civil Rights movement. I was called a nigger. And I’m not talking about in my neighborhood, which of course that went on. I’m talking about, for me, I don’t like the fact of drums going away. I don’t mind the computers. They’re fine. But they can’t replace the people… There’s a movement now to drag public music education down into that? Pssh! It’s almost comical to me…
My words are not that powerful. I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about niggas and bitches and hoes. It had no impact. I’ve said it. I’ve repeated it. I still repeat it. To me, that’s more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee…
I feel that that’s much more of a racial issue than taking Robert E. Lee’s statue down. There’s more niggas in that than there is in Robert E. Lee’s statue.
Here’s the podcast:
Marsalis does, when asked, praise Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” He also downplays Kanye West’s embrace of Trump.
UPDATE: On 5/23, Marsalis posted a long Facebook statement about his comments. Here’s the full text:
To all who were generous to post their comments about a tweet from my interview with Jonathan Capehart
1. When someone makes a general comment and does not say ALL, it is assumed that they mean some.
2. I am not an expert on any form of music, including my own, but have a considered opinion and have the right to express it.
3. I stand by what I say about those products that express the things I take exception to. The vast majority of works, which don’t present the type of material I was referring to, are not included in observations about mainstream vulgarity and pornography. I have been public with these concerns since the mid to late 1980’s (when I was in my twenties) and have not and did not say ALL at any time in recent memory.
4. A number of (NOT ALL) hip hop musicians have gone on record saying that the marketplace and the industry encourages them to make their material more commercial by adding violent and profanity laced, materialistic and over-the-top stereotypical images and concepts to their work. They too know that this mythology reinforces destructive behavior at home and influences the world’s view of the Afro American in a decidedly negative direction. If you love black people how can you love this? Hmmmm…..Because someone will pay to go on a safari (and watch you) doesn’t mean they admire the hippos.
5. When we lose the right to critique (especially inside of groups we belong to) and have to accept mob rule, it is a step back towards slavery. George Bush said it best in quieting dissenters after 9/11 during the push to launch the ill advised but lucrative (for some) Iraq War, ”You’re either with us or against us.” Meaning if you disagree, you are our enemy. In our country, the Constitution is designed to help us negotiate these types of ultimatums. It’s imperative that we refer to it, debate over it and ultimately accept what is decided when it is consulted, OR amend it and accept the amendment.
6. Those who disagree with my assessment (of those pieces that I am talking about which were not identified by name but by content) are entitled to their disagreement and are entitled to express it, and I welcome their comments. I was not disparaging to any individual person and will not be, because these are general observations not specific ones.
7. 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.
8. Human beings are creative in everything we do regardless of form (be it hip hop or any other form of art). There are, by the nature of how we are endowed, many many creative people in the world. To dismiss an entire form would indicate ignorance and refusal to accept fact. To question the mainstreaming of explicit adult content should not be considered irrational, prejudiced, close minded or high minded. It is a normal question that anyone with kids or who is just concerned about the general cultural atmosphere is forced to ask.
9. So far as the pornographic products and the minstrel show ghetto routines that are very popular, I can only say: THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN. We want to consume these products and want them for our kids. It is people’s right to choose this, as it is mine to express my thoughts and perhaps dissuade some from the specific products to which I refer. I accept the will of the people as what it is, but don’t change my opinion of the products I’m talking about.
10. So far as Robert E Lee and his statue goes:
The Robert E. Lee Statue is a symbol of a bygone era whose ideology still resonates with a segment of the population. That ideology has been rightly decried by many (me chief amongst them) as a hurtful reminder of the past that many believe has no place in the country today.
Today, Robert E. Lee is not widely or openly celebrated in the country and does not hold a position of prestige or power in the cultural marketplace. The irony of the situation is mind boggling because, I’m sure that many people who have called for the removal of Lee (and other Confederate monuments as racist symbols that have helped to perpetuate age old stereotypes) are also defending some of the most popular and most promoted products (THOUGH CLEARLY NOT ALL OF ) an art form that is doing the exact same thing-except now, the perpetuation of negative imagery and stereotypes are self-inflicted for a paycheck.
There are a finite number of Confederate statues in the country that could be physically removed tomorrow, political ramifications notwithstanding. While this will not remove the ideology that the statues represent, it would at least remove them from public spaces and end their reign of public celebration.
Those who believe these symbols represent their view of an imperfect America today are fighting to keep those symbols alive – blemishes and all – the same way that many are standing in line to defend the free speech of some of the most popular aspects of hip hop products (NOT ALL) with all of it’s warts.
The big difference is that the Civil War was waged and definitively decided. The cultural war is ongoing and fortunately or unfortunately depending on your vantage point some of the most popular aspects of hip hop (THOUGH DEFINITELY NOT ALL) is providing much needed capital via the marketplace to both sides of that war and as such will continue it’s reign as the soundtrack for American popular culture. Until it doesn’t.
At 56, I’m pretty sure I will not be alive when our country and the world (of all races and persuasions) no longer accepts being entertained by the pathology of Black Americans and others who choose to publicly humiliate themselves for the appetites of those who don’t share the same ongoing history and challenges. Over the years, I have come to accept this, but that doesn’t mean I have to like and endorse it. So I don’t.
I know this is all too long and involved in the sound bite era. So here’s the tweet:
I did not say ALL of anything was anything. And that goes for a lot more than hip hop, jazz or anything else that may be trending in the next few hours.