“My words are not that powerful. I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about niggers and bitches and hoes. 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.”
Wynton Marsalis covered all the bases. Race. His role in New Orleans’s removal of Confederate statues last year. His deep antipathy to rap and hip-hop. And the damage he believes the genres inflict on African Americans. “I feel that that’s much more of a racial issue than taking Robert E. Lee’s statue down,” Marsalis told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “There’s more niggers in that than there is in Robert E. Lee’s statue.”
Marsalis was the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1997 with “Blood on the Fields,” a vocal and orchestral rumination on slavery. It came 12 years after the release of “Black Codes (From the Underground),” which won two Grammy Awards in 1986, and 10 years before “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.” Marsalis will add to his collection of commissions that blend his fluency in jazz and matters of race with the debut of “the ever-funky lowdown” on June 7. Actor Wendell Pierce, another New Orleans native, will serve as narrator. If you’re not in New York you can watch the premiere via a free live webcast at http://jazz.org/live.
Marsalis began composing “the ever-funky lowdown” in 2015 and was still writing when we sat down in the Jazz at Lincoln Center offices on May 14. “Not only am I still writing, I have a long way to go writing. I’m not close,” Marsalis told me after singing and scatting portions of his new work.
In the exploration of America’s relationship with race, “the ever-funky lowdown,” Marsalis said, “just builds on the question of ‘who is we?’ That’s the question.” The composition takes the listener through a series of games with a protagonist named Mr. Game. In the end, Marsalis said, we learn that the ever-funky lowdown is “that you will act absolutely against your best interests because you want more to get this person … because you’re fixated on who you think is your enemy.”
Marsalis then explained how the ever-funky lowdown also manifests itself in the consumption of damaging mythology about African Americans.
It plays on how you think — what you think — the mythology you’re given. You’re given this mythology — all these movies and shows. Black people commit crimes. Black people call each other niggers. Black people call each other bitches. Black people — all this. Everybody lives in drug-infested communities [ph], everybody shoots this, they don’t have any respect — every black person has no integrity. You could have a movie with no black people in it, the one black person in it would be the one with no integrity. That’s just mythology. So if I’ll get you to buy into that, okay, that’s the ever-funky lowdown.
After hearing Marsalis say that, I couldn’t help but ask him what he thought of “This is America” and its singer, Childish Gambino. “I applaud his creativity and what he’s doing,” Marsalis told me before delivering the hammer. “From a social standpoint, it’s hard to decry a thing that you depict. That’s difficult.”
I then asked Marsalis for his thoughts on Kanye West. You’ll recall that the rap phenom said during a TMZ interview earlier this month, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years?! That sounds like a choice. You was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally in prison.” Marsalis was not impressed, neither by what West said nor by the import given to what he said.
“I think Kanye West makes products. He’s going to put his product out, and he wants his product to sell,” Marsalis said about the rapper, who has a lot of “products” in the form of new recordings that are about to drop shortly.
“I would not give seriousness to what he said, in that way. Okay? This guy is making products. He’s making him some money, got probably a product coming out that he’s selling. He’s saying stuff. People talking about him. They’re going to buy his product,” Marsalis said. “It’s not like Martin Luther King said it, a person who knows or is conscious of a certain thing. … [H]e’s entitled to whatever it is he wants to say. The quality of his thought is in the products he makes.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Marsalis talk more in depth about “the ever-funky lowdown” and how he came to help then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu remove Confederate statues from his hometown. “It’s just really two middle-aged people who played trumpet in high school, who’ve known each other for years, sitting down, having breakfast, talking,” Marsalis said with humility. And he goes in deep on his problems with rap and hip-hop.
“You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position” and not have it take a toll on society, Marsalis told me. “It’s just like the toll the minstrel show took on black folks and on white folks. Now, all this ‘nigger this,’ ‘bitch that,’ ‘ho that,’ that’s just a fact at this point. For me, it was not a default position in the ’80s. Now that it is the default position, how you like me now? You like what it’s yielding? Something is wrong with you — you need your head examined if you like this.”
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