In a Facebook post, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center delinates the difference between "all" and "some."

wynton marsalis photo
Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis’ appearance this on The Washington Post’s podcast “Cape Up” with Jonathan Capehart sparked controversy. In it, he dismissed hip-hop for its crude vocabulary, and asserted that it was more of a threat to the African-American community than the Confederate monuments that he wanted removed. Emcees and jazz artists alike took issue with his comments as dated, classist, and narrow. Glen David Andrews wrote, “Blu Lu Barker, Ma Rainey’s songs wasn't Gospel music, that's for sure,” he wrote. “They were the Nikki & Cardi B's of their day.”

The podcast provided a partial framework for Marsalis’ thoughts. His opposition to hip-hop has musical roots and comes from the replacement of drummers with drum machines, and all the spiritual, historical, cultural and musical loss that he believes comes with that change. Part of it comes from being a child during the Civil Rights Era who learned to expect little help from white people and focused on how African Americans help and hurt themselves. 

The interview came as a surprise because Marsalis has used the platform he earned for the public good. When he spoke at Tulane on Martin Luther King Day in 2006, he delivered a powerful call to young people to work to rebuild the city that was beyond city leaders at the time. Late last year, his guest op-ed at put the Confederate monuments in context and powerfully framed the issue. The monuments weren’t an abstract, ominous sign that underachieving African Americans could blame their woes on; they helped to fuel the real racism that affected all African Americans in the city, including ones who succeeded like Marsalis.  

That background made his response to the controversy Wednesday on Facebook disappointing as he responded to the criticisms with even less nuance than he showed in the interview. He implied that his critics were putting words in his mouth, contending, “When someone makes a general comment and does not say ALL, it is assumed that they mean some.” That’s a straw man defense because no one I read expected Marsalis to have an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop, nor did they use examples of little known rappers in marginal scenes to challenge his thoughts. In my comments, I wondered how he processed Hamilton and Kendrick Lamar—hardly obscure examples. 

But his all/some tension is also a weak defense. Marsalis dismissed hip-hop as a form because in his mind, that language is a defining characteristic. Whether all emcees or only some of them use language he considers problematic is beside the point; he thinks enough do that the form is dead to him. To now argue that readers and listeners misconstrued his position is disingenuous. As one commenter wrote, " If someone says, 'I hate vegetables,' I would not assume they like SOME vegetables." 

He then fought back in modern, social media mode by claiming victimhood. It’s a stance that helped power Trump’s run for president by activating everybody who thinks that they can’t say anything that isn’t “PC” anymore. “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,” Marsalis wrote.

He hasn’t lost the right to critique, nor has anybody on the right who feels put upon because their language and ideas have got them in hot water. The First Amendment still protects freedom of speech including the freedom to say ill-considered things; what it doesn’t guarantee is freedom from consequences. The question is not whether you can say what you want; it’s whether you’re prepared to pay the price for saying it. The PC wars are not Marsalis’ battle, but the thrust is the same. He wants the ability to dismiss hip-hop without the blowback that comes such a stance.

Or does he? In the very next paragraph, he wrote, “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.” It’s not clear how those pieces fit together.

It’s easy to understand how in the late 1980s, he heard 2 Live Crew, NWA and the first flickers of gangsta rap and decided that that was culturally regressive. He wasn’t the only person black or white to be concerned about the language and the one-dimensional portrayal of African-American life, and he is he alone in his concern now. The rapper XXXTentacion is currently at the center of controversy for lyrics in his songs that describe violence toward women much like the actual violence toward women that he has done time for in his real life. 

But nothing Marsalis said to Capehart or wrote on Facebook suggests that he has kept up with the hip-hop conversations since 1990, nor does it look like the controversy was anything but another sign of our culture imploding. He wrote: 

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.

There’s no interest in dialogue or anything he doesn’t already know expressed in that paragraph as he dismisses rap artists and their fans. Then, he took a swing at social media:

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.   

The condescension in that conclusion dismisses young people with their short attention spans and their social media. By doing so, Marsalis reinforced all the classist critiques that have been leveled at him over the years. It’s also a sad ending because hip-hop has been central to the social, political and cultural lives of Americans under 60, black and white. Rather than join the conversations associated with it, Marsalis waves them, the music, and its significance away.