In Conversation with Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber November 15, 2010

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In Conversation with Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber

November 15, 2010

LIVE from the New York Public Library

Celeste Bartos Forum
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Good evening, good evening, good evening. Are we excited? No, are we excited? No, are we very excited? Yes! Well, I’m very happy that you’re excited because boy oh boy am I am ever excited! My name is Paul Holdengräber, and I’m the Director of LIVE from the New York Public Library. You have heard me say that my goal at the Library is to make the lions roar. Well, guess what? Tonight my goal is to make the lions rap! Last time we were here we had Keith Richards here at the library. It’s a great honor tonight to have Jay-Z, (applause)'>(applause) and as far as I’m concerned there’s a great—there’s a great continuity here, partly because there is continuity, partly because Jay-Z has been around for twenty years and Keith Richards has stood his own as well. So the library is roaring, we’re making it live, we’re making it come alive. We’re making the books dance, we’re making a heavy institution levitate and as I always ask, I’ve asked now for six years, if anybody in this building knows how much this library weighs, please tell me.
I would like to encourage you all to join our e-mail list, to become members of the library, to find out what we have coming up, for instance on Thursday we have Siddhartha Mukherjee coming talking about a biography of cancer. On Monday we have Zadie Smith coming here, who I will be interviewing. And then we have Derek Walcott, and we end the season with a tribute to the National Lampoon. We begin the season in January with a tribute to Gypsy Rose Lee. We actually have the archives of Gypsy Rose Lee, so you’re in for some burlesque. Finally, after the conversation tonight, Jay-Z will be signing his magnificent book, Decoded, so go to the back of the room and get it signed.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to quickly thank Jana Fleischman, Barbara Fillon, Julie Grau, as well as my producer Meg Stemmler for all they have done. (applause) A big round of applause and then, then, then, now. Cornel West, Cornel West, (applause) Cornel West is—I guess Cornel West is pretty popular. Cornel West is Class of 1943 Professor at Princeton University, my alma mater. His books include Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and most recently a book whose title I love. Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. A self-proclaimed bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas, Cornel West has appeared in both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions as Counselor West, has released two spoken-word albums and is currently working on various, various books he’ll be talking to us about. With Tavis Smiley he’s the host of a newly launched public radio show, Smiley and West. Ladies and gentlemen, Cornel West.
Ladies and gentlemen, Shawn Carter, Jay-Z, holds the record for the most number one albums by a solo artist, eleven, and has been honored with ten Grammy awards. He is a cofounder of Rocawear clothing line, Roc-A-Fella Records, and Roc Nation. The former CEO of Def Jam Recordings, Jay-Z co-owns various restaurants, a cosmetics company, and the New Jersey Nets. His new memoir Decoded is one of the most extraordinary books I have read in the last decade. I have to tell you this is a book of a great, major poet. He belongs at the New York Public Library. Jay-Z!
Well, well, well, what do we now? Well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do now. What we do now is prove what I just said and the way we do it—the way we do it is by reading a passage:
“When I was a kid my parents had like a million records stacked to the ceiling in metal crates. They both loved music so much, when they did break up and get a divorce, sorting the records out was probably the biggest deal. If it was hot in the seventies,” you write later, “my parents had it. They had a turntable, but they also had reel to reel. My parents would blast those classics when we did our Saturday clean-up and when they came home from work. I loved all that music but Michael Jackson more than anyone. My mother would play “Enjoy Yourself” by the Jacksons, and I would dance and sing and spin around. I’d make my sisters my backup singers. I remember those early days and the time that shaped my musical vocabulary. I remember that music making me feel good, bringing my family together and more importantly being a common passion that my parents shared.
“The songs carried in them the tension and energy of the era. The seventies were a strange time especially in black America. The music was beautiful in part because it was keeping a kind of torch lit in dark times.” And finally, “I feel like we rappers, DJs, producers, were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization out in our music and use it to build a new world. We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on streets and in history and in a way that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. That was a part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built into the culture we created. Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”
JAY-Z: You made that sound really good. (laughter) I especially liked you saying “bounced.” (laughter) With your accent, it was just really cool.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Tell me why, how would you say it?
JAY-Z: No, no, you said it perfectly. Better than I could ever.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: So, this music—When your parents separated and we heard that song at the beginning before we came onstage, “December 4th.” When your parents separated they separated the record collection. That record collection in a way was what bound your family and kept your family together.
JAY-Z: Yeah, my house was like the good-time house, I can just see knee-high right now having a great time over there… my cousin Brian is in the audience right now, he spent many days over there. My house was like the house around the neighborhood that everybody went to because we had all the newest records and you know, I just had super cool parents, which goes to show—like they had their names on their records—they shared kids, they shared a home, they shared food, but you know those records were something that were so dear to them that they had their names on the individual records of who bought what. (laughter) Yeah, it was a very pivotal part for me and it filled the house with joy and emotion and feeling and it also gave me, very young, you know, a wide range of listening to different sorts of music so I don’t have those sort of prejudices when it comes to music. I just pretty much like good music and bad music. You know, you look on my iPod, you know, it’s everything—it’s everything from Miles to Thom Yorke to Old Dirty Bastard, seriously.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You will lose me at times. (laughter) I approach part of this, I have to tell you, with a—no, no, I’m telling you—I approach part of this with the euphoria of ignorance.
JAY-Z: That’s how we approach life.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And I have to tell you that is what was so striking about your memoir Decoded is it just—I—Jay-Z, I was just not ready to be bowled over the way I am. Partly because I grew up, you know, listening to various versions of The Magic Flute. (laughter) So our childhood is somewhat different.
JAY-Z: A little bit.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: So I grew up with, you know, “Is Wilma Lipp the best?” and the reason I know about—
JAY-Z: You will lose me at times. (laughter/applause) I think at the core of who we are, we are human beings, if you take away the titles of who we are, black, white, male, female, you take away that, we all have the same emotions—who do you love? You love your mother, you know, you love your father, your father abandoned you, you feel hurt, it affectts your relationship going forward, your father wants you to be just like him, you can’t be just like him, it builds some sort of insecurity inside you, so at the end of the day we’re all human beings, you know, so these emotions and feelings inside this music, you know, is a conversation, and just like you said this book was necessary for me because I had that conversation with you.
I wrote this book in part—Me and Mr. West, Brother West, had a conversation at my dining room table one time, he came to my house with Brother Geoffrey Canada, who runs a children’s’ home up in Harlem and we had this beautiful conversation about language and the use of language in rap being more responsible for the things we say, and I try to explain it this way or why we say these things, because any of these things—any thing, any lyric or music without context is a lie, because if I tell you that NWA said “fuck tha police,” you would look and say those guys are gangster rappers and they shouldn’t be saying things like that until the Rodney King beatings, which gave it context, and you knew this was what happened in their neighborhood, it was police brutality, and it was an excessive amount of force, and they would take some gang members and drop them off in their rival gang members’ neighborhood and tell them to get home. That was fun. You know, so without context, and now, not saying the decisions that we made were right or wrong, because we were young boys of sixteen—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: No, you’re very honest.
JAY-Z: But it’s honest, it’s like “here what happened.” Now, as a normal person you could decide what decision you would have made. There’s a movie called John Q., that, you know, I used this as well. The movie is about this man’s fight to save his son, you know. Here it is, there’s this black man inside a hospital with a gun, if I told you that, you’d say there’s no reason on earth why anyone should be in a hospital with a gun, but then, you know, given the context of his son is dying and he’s trying to save his dying son, maybe you would say, well he didn’t have to bring the gun, but given the context you could understand the reasons why people come to these choices that they make, good bad, or indifferent.
CORNEL WEST: And that was a wonderful discussion we had, and you were kind enough, as you recall, to come to Princeton, to my seminar.
JAY-Z: Kind enough? I was honored—I was in Princeton discussing Horace and Biggie.
CORNEL WEST: It was a moment, we had Jay-Z here, and Toni Morrison, on my left, Phylicia Rashad on the left of Toni Morrison, and I was talking about Plato and Socrates and how Plato had decided on a deep sense of loss and mourning to make the world safe for Socrates so that people would remember the name of Socrates forever and you said, “Well, I have been playing Plato to Biggie’s Socrates,” that hit all of us so hard, because it showed the degree to which your sense of history both in regard to another lyrical genius like yourself, both in regard to another artistic giant like yourself, part of the black tradition, the American tradition, the modern tradition, this contemporary postmodern, late modern, everyone, whatever term you want to use, but this issue of context is for me so very important because when I look at you and see your humanity, when I hear you and remain attuned to the genius I say to myself, “what a great tradition, what a great people,” because the black musical tradition, as I understand it, is in part an antiterrorist activity.
It’s the history of terrorism coming at black people, the history of trauma coming at black people, history of stigma coming at black people, and the response from spirituals unto slavery to blues unto Jim and Jane Crow, to Marcy Projects, and there’s a lot of Marcy Projects in America, with the terror and the trauma and the stigma still there and the response is what? Unbelievable oratorical linguistic musical response trying to make sense of the world and of course it’s going to be shot through with all kinds of blindnesses, because we all have our blindnesses and our own forms of ignorance—could be learned ignorance, quasi-learned ignorance, nonlearned ignorance, whatever it is we all have it, one way or another. But you have decided to keep this tradition alive in such a powerful way, little brother, and that’s why for me I am always inspired as well as instructed when I’m in your presence.
But my question to you would be where you are now? After eleven albums, not just number one, but representing high levels, cause there’s a sense in which quantity is important, but Curtis Mayfield never won a Grammy, and we know how great he is, so it’s question of quality, because you’re producing high quality, no matter how many you sell, but where you are now in your life in regard to this tradition and how you would want to try to speak to the younger generation.
We got brother Harry Belafonte right here in the front row. (laughter) Brother Harry Belafonte in the front row, and, you see, if you see these two brothers together, you can see this flow. You can see this flow, you see, brother had the first million copies sold of an album, but at the same time there’s Paul Robeson in him, he has Du Bois in him, there’s Ella Baker, there’s Martin King in him, same way we knew that song that you came out on. I want to represent where Rosa sat, where Martin was shot, Marvin was popped, that spirituality, the musicality, but also that unbelievable sense of engagement in the face of the context that you were talking about. How would you characterize yourself right now in that regard?
JAY-Z: You know, in terms of this music and this form of music is the thing that literally saved my life. There’s a good brother right there whose name is Emory, who’s sitting right there, who I was with every single day of my life.
CORNEL WEST: Give this brother a hand, give him a hand.
JAY-Z: Who unfortunately got caught up into the circumstances of life and, you know, he went away for an extended period of time as a young kid, as a kid making these decision and I know absolutely without a doubt, a hundred out of a hundred, me and him would have been in the same place, exactly the same place, because we were together every single day so my job pushing the culture forward and leaving something that saved our life and saved my life in a better place and having a conversation with people what this music means to us and how we arrive at these decisions and why we make some of the decisions that we make is very important to me, more important than having eleven number one albums, although that’s very fun. I really like it. (laughter)
And on a sidebar, I want to just say, Mr. Belafonte, I’m very happy that you’re here today, and I’m very honored. I remember. I have this photo on my wall, I have this wall of photos of all my inspirations and people that inspired me in my life. There’s this beautiful picture of Coretta Scott King, she, it’s beautiful in the sense of you can see the stress on her face, but you could tell that there was turmoil happening, and brothers next to her with big shotguns and everyone’s around and then there’s you in the picture, like a protector of hers, and then I was like, “This guy’s a musician, right, or a movie star, like, what is he doing there?” and that made me realize that musicians and movie stars and people we have a greater responsibility to the world as well. You were one of those inspirations for me, and I thank you.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I’m very inspired really and intrigued by this notion of context because one of the things that I was really not ready for in this book was to see you become the critic of your own work. It’s as if you become the Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot—you became the person who was reviewing and studying with extreme clarity your own work and so for those of you who don’t yet know this book, and I would say that’s probably everybody since this book is basically embargoed until tomorrow morning, but you’re getting it tonight. I have news for you. There are about three dozen tracks of Jay-Z that are commented by Jay-Z nearly line by line nearly in a Talmudic way. (laughter) I mean it.
I was not ready for this, but you have—what you have done here, which is extraordinary, which is you have written down the history, you have set the record straight—perhaps that would be a way of putting it—set the record straight about these songs, made people understand that reading carefully is extremely important. Reading between the lines is incredibly important. Reading against stereotypes is incredibly important, and what is striking about this, to my mind, so I have many, many, many questions embedded in all of this. What is striking to my mind is that you are also known, I read, to be the only rapper to rewrite history without a pen. (applause) And yet and yet and yet you are immobilizing in some way these songs, given them structure and form and telling the people who are reading this book, “you better read me carefully, because if you don’t, you might to miss a lot,” so you are interested in the virtues of difficulty and complexity and ambivalence.
JAY-Z: Yes. Thank you.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: But do say more.
JAY-Z: I will. I am giving a little space and pause to what you said. For me, you know we all are complex human beings. Nothing is simply black and white. There are multiple reasons why we arrived at such decisions, any decisions made. You can’t just say, “This person is from this particular part of a planet and he’s that way.” You know, it’s impossible—again, it’s impossible without context to tell a story, because you’ll be telling some sort of lie, so, for me, it was just very important to give these stories context and not just, you know, give excuses to everything we’ve done. We’ve made bad decisions, we’ve arrived at bad decisions, we’ve done bad things. But, you know, without proper context it’s very difficult to arrive at that decision. It was very important for me to have these conversations. In part, you know, Oprah Winfrey was a big reason I wrote this book.
She and I had another conversation, you know, about language and about the N-word and about things like that, and we walked away from that conversation—we actually walked away from that conversation saying, “let’s agree to disagree,” but we walked away from the conversation with a better understanding of who each of us—who we were in this world, we had more things alike—we had more things alike than dissimilar, you know? We both come from very tough upbringings, and tough backgrounds and we both arrived at this book called Seed of the Soul, and it was like a breaking point for us.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And she was amazed that you should love this book the way she did. And that changed the way she perceived you. What did that change in her attitude to you based on you loving a book that she loved tell you about her?
JAY-Z: It made her realize again, the conversation made her realize, wait a minute, we do have similar things and we do search for the same things, and we all are looking for—you’re looking for that book, you’re looking for some answers—right? We’re looking for some sort of answers to why we are and what is our real purpose, you know, what is our greater purpose, how did we get here, et cetera, et cetera. And for me these things are just conversation. This book is another form—music was the conversation, is the conversation for us. We had a conversation together, and I mean people who listen to the music, and then there were people listening to the music and knowing the words, memorizing the words, but not knowing its deeper meaning, you know, and then hearing certain buzzwords, and saying “wait,” because you’ve got to figure from the beginning rap was dismissive—everything about rap was very dismissive—“rap is a fad, it won’t be here ten years,” that’s how it started, and then it’s like “it won’t last,” and then it’s “oh, these guys only talk about this and that.” That’s so black and white to say, “they only talk about bitch and ho.”
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And I must say that reading your book my vocabulary did expand. (laughter) But you had the analysis—
JAY-Z: And I’m a big proponent—not to cut you off, but I just to finish that last point. I’m a big proponent of people’s actions and intent and not words and not language, so we remove language and that word means a—the N-word—means a whole entire different thing to Oprah Winfrey, you know, she comes from a generation that people were getting hung from a tree, and that’s the last thing they heard—so she has a deeper connection.
CORNEL WEST: But the point that you did make to Oprah in the epilogue, was very importantly, namely that Oprah is an entrepreneurial genius, but she is subject to critique like all of us, (applause) when she sponsors a film like Precious there’s a whole lot of derogatory things going on in that film, or even writers who use the N-word—why is it that that’s all right for them to use the N-word, but when the hip-hop artists come along then she holds them at arm’s length? She has to be more consistent in that regard. Now, if she’s making a point about misogyny and homophobia and so forth, that’s different, because she’s got a lot of evidence in that regard, (laughter) but in terms of her being consistent, you came right back at her, and you had a Socratic exchange.
JAY-Z: And that’s what I’m saying is she left that conversation with a deeper understanding and left this book, even this book, with a deeper understanding of who I was, and we all evolved as human beings and we all have to learn more about, you know, one another, that’s life.
CORNEL WEST: One of the things I love about both of these towering artists is they have the courage to be themselves. You all have the courage to be yourself. When I first met you, it was clear to me—and I’ve met a whole lot of black folk in my life—it was clear to me the brother had the courage to be himself.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What did you say about your grandmother?
CORNEL WEST: What my grandmother told me a couple of weeks ago?
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I loved that line.
CORNEL WEST: That the older you get the more you look like yourself.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I’m going to use that.
JAY-Z: There’s a song called PSA where I say you are who you are before you got here, it’s the exact same conversation, again, public service announcement, when we have these conversations, again we realize this language is—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I love the commentary you have on “99 Problems” and that one line which I can’t quite say that everybody constantly misunderstood.
CORNEL WEST: The B-word, the B-word.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Yeah. Help me out.
JAY-Z: For me it was like I was being—Because rap at some times is provocative as well, I was being provocative. I thought it was deeply funny that people hear certain words and just immediately hear white noise after that, it’s almost like “I don’t hear anything else, he’s talking about that,” it struck me as deeply funny—so I kind of did it on purpose.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And the word meant what? That sentence meant, in fact . . .
JAY-Z: The song is “99 problems but a Bitch Ain’t One,” and the second verse deals with this exchange between people. You have a guy who’s in a car and he has drugs on him and he’s all the way in the wrong, and he’s going on the highway, and here you have this cop on the turnpike, and he pulls the car over not because they have drugs in the car, but because the driver is black. Which happened a lot—if you look at the survey during those times, in between ’88 to ’96 there was a big investigation about that, “driving while black.” So this officer pulls—
JAY-Z: So this officer pulls, so they pull the car over, he pulls the car over, and they have this exchange. Both guys are used to getting their way. The driver knows he’s in the wrong, but he knows he hasn’t done anything to be pulled over, so, you know, the line in the song, “I was doing 55 in the 54,” there’s no such thing as a 54, I was actually doing the speed limit, and he pulled me over for no reason, so there’s small lines in there that say so much, so he pulls me over and say, “Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are.” That blanket statement tells you what sort of person he is. “A lot of you are.” “Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are.”
And this guy knows a bit about the law because he’s used to breaking it, (laughter) so he’s protecting himself, he knows, “you can’t go in my glove compartment without a search warrant and you can’t go in my trunk—you can’t go anywhere that your hands can’t see or reach, you can’t open a locked glove compartment unless you have, you know, the proper search warrant,” and the officer’s retort was, “are you some type of lawyer or something?” So it was this conversation between these two people, and he’s waiting for a K-9 unit to come, a K-9 unit comes, we’re all in trouble, because the K-9 smells the drugs, the car gets pulled over, boom we get locked up. But somehow the K-9 was on another call, and he couldn’t hold us but for so long, so we pull off, and as we pull off, about five minutes down the road, we see a car screeching, lights blaring, and we look and we see “K-9 Unit” coming up the highway, so I have 99 problems, but that bitch ain’t one. (laughter) That just struck me as deeply funny that I tell that story and people would think that it’s about women in general. It’s my sense of humor.
CORNEL WEST: For me it raises the question of what sits at the center of your artistic but also your social perspective. You say that the aim of the text is to establish that rap is poetry, that it tells a story, and that it connects with all of us as human beings, and that you found your voice even when you listened to other giants like Rakim and KRS-1 and all the great ones who came before, Big Daddy Kane and all of those folk are inside of you as part of your tradition. And you said “ah, my voice is going to be the voice of what’s inside the mind of the hustler,” it’s almost like “Pusherman” of Curtis Mayfield, this notion of what it is to get inside the world, the mind, the soul of the hustler, given dilapidated housing, low-quality education, police always coming at you, the fear of capture and confinement, which is the experience of too many young brothers and sisters of all colors, poor, but disproportionately black, brown, and red. You said, “that’s going to be the voice that I examine,” and that has been the voice in these eleven albums.

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