By Steve Jones, USA TODAY
Hip-hop is under constant fire for portraying negative images, but Princeton religion professor Cornel West says it is untapped as a positive social force. With his new album Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, he hopes to inspire a shift in the music’s emphasis.
He lectures on such politically charged topics as the war in Iraq, the n-word, homophobia, corporate power and the aftermath of 9/11 with musical support from Andre 3000, Jill Scott, KRS-One, Killer Mike, the late Gerald Levert and others. The first two singles are the pointed Dear Mr. Man, featuring Prince, and incendiary Bushonomics, with Talib Kweli.
“It’s very important to have a sense of history, especially for the younger people,” says West, 54, who has endorsed and is advising Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
“So much of the album has to do with trying to keep alive the spirit of Curtis Mayfield, where you bring together the spiritual and the social, the personal and the political, while keeping it artistic. In hip-hop, there is a real need for that.”
West, author of 17 books, including 1993′s Race Matters, meshed politics, scholarship and music on 2001′s Sketches of My Culture and 2004′s Street Knowledge. But where those albums infused jazz, blues and R&B, Never Forget focuses on hip-hop to appeal to younger listeners.
It’s the first release on Hidden Beach Forum. Founder Steve McKeever says the new Hidden Beach imprint is similar to Motown’s Black Forum label, which released recordings by Martin Luther King Jr., black nationalist Stokely Carmichael and poet Imamu Amiri Baraka in the early 1970s.
As much as “80% of the media that we hear, read or see is controlled by six companies,” McKeever estimates. “Then you have a situation where you have these towering figures who don’t have a large microphone to speak from. Cornel clearly had something to say.”
West says he didn’t know how many artists he’d be able to get to participate in the project, though he had relationships with KRS-One (who has attended West’s classes for years) and Levert (who featured West on the title track of 2004′s Do I Speak for the World). But it didn’t take long before stars started getting on board.
The album comes in the wake of a firestorm of criticism aimed at hip-hop after CBS Radio shock jock Don Imus’ disparaging remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Imus was fired, but the debate over rap lyrics intensified.
Never Forget is not a direct critique of hip-hop, but West says rappers have to be responsible for what they say and portray.
“We know that misogyny is shot through the culture,” West says. “It’s in country. It’s in rhythm and blues. It’s in the White House, and it’s on Wall Street. So you can’t just single out the hip-hop artists and have them bearing the burden for the whole culture. On the other hand, Snoop Dogg is just as accountable as anybody else.”
West encourages rappers to be more thoughtful in their rhymes.
“We need to respectfully challenge them on the issues of misogyny and homophobia,” he says. “You can hear that on the album, too. Quit bashing gay brothers and lesbian sisters. Quit this domestic violence.”