Sunday, November 18, 2001
Boston Cornel West isn't the typical rapper, as the audience who gathered at Harvard University to hear his hip-hop debut knows well.
A prominent professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Harvard, West recently released his first album, "Sketches of My Culture," a mixture of rap and spoken word. He sees it as a way to deliver a message of pride in oneself and black history to people who may not get into Harvard or pick up his books.
"I don't fool myself and think I'm a hip-hopper or nothing," said West, whose influences run more to Aretha Franklin than Jay-Z. "The black musical tradition is the most precious tradition, and just to be a small part of it is a great honor."
The disc was released in September on Artemis Records. West's label mates include hardcore gangsta rapper Kurupt, and the Baha Men.
West's album is more of a valentine than a critique of the music that he believes is the raw reflection of black life in America. He admits he's only a beginner, and most of the album's tracks are typical hip-hop fare ï¿½ strong base lines coupled with obscure samples, with the occasional comedy skit thrown in.
It's the disc's Afrocentric content, though, that makes it unusual. One song chastises blacks for the overuse of the n-word; another song, "Stolen King," talks about the degradation of black people. Its lyrics: "From the heights of rich African humanity, to the depths of sick American barbarity, in the whirlwinds of white supremacy, black people preserved their sanity and dignity."
The sight of West snapping his fingers and bobbing his trademark afro to the beat wasn't so surprising to those who know his lecture style ï¿½ part poet, preacher and comedian.
West was one of the first black scholars to be named a University Professor, Harvard's highest faculty post and a designation held by only 14 of the 2,200 faculty members. He has written 15 books on race and culture, including the best-selling "Race Matters."
Unlike many hip-hop albums, "Sketches of My Culture" doesn't have a gaggle of cameo appearances from today's chart toppers ï¿½ just the music of jazz and rap artists and producers from West's hometown of Sacramento, Calif.
West hopes his CD will inject some meaningful themes into a genre often dominated by songs glorifying money, drugs and sex.
"We can raise these questions to the artist. Don't you have some other things on your mind?" he said. "Because any serious artist will think about life ï¿½ sometimes that dimension of life might be something that we disagree with, other times it will be something we agree with. We want the artist to grow."