In a recent podcast on race, Wynton Marsalis revisits his issues with hip-hop and situates them in the Confederate monuments conversation.

wynton marsalis photo
Wynton Marsalis

[Updated] Tuesday, Wynton Marsalis made news when he asserted that hip-hop is more harmful to African Americans than Confederate statues. “I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about niggers and bitches and hoes,” he told The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart on his podcast, “Cape Up.” 

“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.”

Much of the heat that Marsalis got yesterday on social media were based solely on the pull quote and not on the 54-minute podcast, which merits attention on its own. He talks about his role in the removal of the Confederate monuments and his upcoming musical project, “The Ever-Funky Lowdown,” which presents the pathway to oppression as a series of game-like gates. People have to pass them, resisting the manipulation of each one to keep from getting caught up in the Ever-Funky Lowdown. The piece seems profoundly cynical as he describes it, but maybe that’s natural for a composition that maps out a system built on preying on people’s insecurities and weaknesses.

That part of the interview is the most interesting as Marsalis pulls out voice memos on his phone where he sang ideas that he would incorporate into "The Ever-Funky Lowdown." That sequence provides some insight into his composition method, and not surprisingly, he sounds most authoritative when he explains his work. He illustrates some of his long-held beliefs on the centrality of swing and drums in music in ways that make his points clearer and more engaging, though not necessarily more persuasive.

Drum machines and the static grooves they create—next to jazz—are just one of his problem with hip-hop. He presents jazz as culture and hip-hop as a commodity, and he asserts—confusingly, for me—that a commodity has to enact the thing it’s commenting on to speak on it, so it has to be porn to comment on porn, or be racist to address racism. If anyone’s got a clearer grasp on this section or a reference to the roots of his thinking on this, please let me know because I’d like to better understand what he’s getting at here.

It’s also not clear how jazz, which is commodified when it is sold through recordings or live tickets, escapes being a commodity. Capehart lets Marsalis assert a lot without asking follow-up questions, and it doesn’t serve either of them well. He did ask Marsalis about Childish Gambino's "This is America" and Kanye West, but West's idiosyncratic output makes him an easy out for someone dismissive of rap. “Hamilton,” Kendrick, and culturally progressive hip-hop might have opened up the conversation or reveal the parameters of Marsalis' knowledge of rap. Often in the interview, he sounds like a guy who heard “Me So Horny” and Straight Outta Compton in the late 1980s and wrote off the form then and there.

Marsalis has long-held these points of view, and he is hardly alone in his concern about hip-hop’s language. He asserts its damaging impact without tracing the mechanism that makes it harmful though, and I wish Capehart would have drilled down here too. By letting Marsalis declare a cause/effect relationship so easily, he makes Marsalis sound like a member of the PMRC, fretting as if the danger and damage were self-evident. Since studies have tried for decades to understand the relationship between popular culture and those who consume it, I’d like to know which theories he found persuasive and why. 

Marsalis’ ideas organize around a vision of African American self-sufficiency, and his first look is toward other African Americans to see how they’re contributing to their community. It’s a viewpoint with deep roots, but I wonder how he squares it with his gig as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center—an organization that, if it’s like other non-profits, is likely heavily reliant on support from wealthy white donors. I don’t think Marsalis is being inconsistent, but I wish Capehart would have pursued this. Marsalis is a smart man who has clearly thought through his cultural and political place in the world. I’d like to have heard him think through some of the more nuanced tensions to put seemingly reactionary positions in a clearer context.

For some interesting Facebook responses to Marsalis' comments, check out the conversations started by Glen David Andrews, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Alfred Banks, and Orlando Bishop.

Updated May 24, 5:46 a.m.

On Tuesday, Wynton Marsalis responded on Facebook to the comments made about his takes on hip-hop and the Confederate monuments. In it, he stressed again and again that he wasn’t saying all hip-hop used language he found problematic; only some. “When someone makes a general comment and does not say ALL, it is assumed that they mean some,” he wrote.
This is incredibly disingenuous. People weren’t challenging his assertion because they could think of exceptions. They took issue with the way he treated hip-hop artists’ use of offensive language as a defining characteristic and a reason to write off a whole form. If he genuinely thinks offensive language isn’t a defining characteristic but he’s willing to shun an entire musical world anyway, that’s pretty hardcore.

Marsalis then went to a disappointing place. “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,” he wrote. The conflation of criticism with lost rights is weak, but it’s in these days. Those worried that they can’t say anything anymore in this PC world make the same equation, and the claim of victimhood rings hollow in both cases. The sentiment translates to, I want to say what I want, but I don’t want the consequences. In this case, Marsalis threw shade on an industry—and continues to do so in his response, contending that record companies encourage rap artists to make their music more “violent and profanity-laced”—but seems unhappy that people threw shade back. I say “seems” because 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.”