Cornel West is nothing if not prolific. Professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy at Harvard University, West's latest addition to a vast body of work is a spoken-word CD released in collaboration with his brother, Clifton West, songwriter Mike Daily, and producer Derek "D.O.A." Allen. I listened to Sketches of My Culture over and over as its R&B riffs transported me to the '70s and its beats brought me to the realm of present-day hip hop.
The CD opens with "The Journey," a discourse by West on the evolution of music of the black experience in America. As West speaks, we first hear the shouts and guttural cries of the kidnapped in a foreign land, the rise of the spirituals into the tragic-comic perspective of the blues, and then on through jazz ("the finest art form of the 20th century," West says), R&B, and hip hop (which fuses "linguistic virtuosity and rhythmic velocity"). The modes of music illustrate his words and flow perfectly from one phase to the next. It is a terrific intro that draws the listener in and makes one eager to hear more.
The track "N-Word" evokes the spirit if not the style of The Last Poets, a group whose song "Die, Nigga!!!" was about the negativity and self-hatred that comes from the self-identification of the word. It opens with a mock radio program over a soulful R&B groove; folks call in to defend the term and are quickly dispatched by the host who wants to know why we use the word. The third caller is brother West, who––in his familiar lilting phrasing-says, "We need a renaissance of self-respect...a renewal of self-regard...we ought not use the word at all!"
The track that shows the most promise for heavy rotation on the urban contemporary stations is "Elevate Your View," with its heavy bass line under rap lyrics about love, life, and strife interspersed with an affirming message from West: "The past is prologue to your future!" By the end of the summer that thumping bass you hear coming from the car stopped at the corner will be kicking a groove by Cornel West.
A Postscipt: West turns up yet again-this time to provide the preface for an important work called Urban Souls, by Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou.
Important for its honesty, Urban Souls is a sort of hip hop manifesto that looks directly into the soul of the culture with an unblinking eye and a loving heart. Urban Souls is a compelling read with a cultural sensibility not often heard in the lofty circles of academia and an intellectual clarity that does not rely on gimmickry to make its points. Sekou brings a young prophetic voice to issues of race, class, age, religion, and sexuality while asking "How do we make things right?"
Larry Bellinger is assistant editor and advertising manager of Sojourners. See www.cornelwest.com for more information.