Cornel West Debates Michael Eric Dyson Over Use of the N-Word on New CD

Dr. Cornel West, one of the nation’s most recognized Black public intellectuals, this week released his second hip-hop CD, a collaborative project with some of the biggest names in rap and R&B.

The CD titled, “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations,” by West, who teaches religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, enlists the sounds of artists like Prince, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, KRS-One and the late Gerald Levert. 

It’s the second socially conscious CD for the academic who released “Sketches of My Culture” in 2001, a CD that was harshly criticized by former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers who publicly questioned West’s scholarship. Summers ridiculed the CD, arguing that it was not befitting of real scholarship. The public spat eventually caused West — who felt disrespected — to abandon his alma mater for Princeton.

“Sister Tilghman is qualitatively different than Brother Summers,” says West, referring to Dr. Shirley Tilghman, the current president of Princeton University, who helped to lure West to Princeton from Harvard. “The hip hop scared Brother Summers. It’s a stereotypical reaction.” 

In a recent interview with Diverse, West said that he wants this latest CD to help “the older generation raise their voices and listen to the younger generation so that there can be an internal dialogue between the two generations.”

He adds: “We wanted to provide a danceable education that highlights the need for an awakening, for political engagement, for progressive politics and for sheer fun.”

In recent years, hip hop has become an important cultural form of expression that many Black intellectuals have embraced. For example, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University, has published a new book called Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, and Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, a 28-year-old professor at Temple University and a protégé of Dyson, routinely appears on television shows discussing this cultural phenomenon.

This strategy makes sense to West.

“The academy and the street is all one world,” said West, who has written 17 books including the best-selling Race Matters, a collection of essays that examine racial issues in the United States. “A lot of people are trashing hip hop and demonizing our young Black brothers and sisters, but it’s important to bear witness in a variety of contexts and to be multi-contextual.”

And yet, West says that hip-hop artists who demean and disrespect Black women should be held accountable as well. He also said that artists should become more sensitive to the use of the ‘N’ word and is heard on the CD debating Dyson, who defends the use of the word. On the CD, the conversation between Dyson and West is moderated by television host Tavis Smiley.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of engaging and utilizing the ideas and energy of young people in activism geared toward addressing injustice here and abroad,” says Kevin T. Smith, co-founder and co-editor of SleptOn.com, a socio-political online journal that features news analysis and commentary on politics, entertainment and culture.

“A major impediment of progressives and radical lefty activists today is the failure of the imagination … a failure to adapt beyond the old mobilizing ideas and to adopt some of the new, popular modes of reaching people,” says Smith, who applauds West’s initiative. “Hip-hop music is an international phenomenon that has really captured the spirit of this generation. It only makes sense for those concerned to try to capture and harness the enormous potential of cultural art forms such as hip hop while engaging its listeners.”

– Jamal Watson

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