Cornel West and the Socioeconomics of Music

I recently had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Cornel West at Calvin College in which he spoke, almost in passing, about the impact of one’s economic circumstances on the art they create (specifically in this example, the music). He explained, in part:

“But Hip hop from below, coming out of high schools where the art programs have been systematically eliminated so they can’ t learn how to play the instruments in which the way the Ohio Players or Lakeside or Con Funk Shun or the Bar-Kays do. Those negroes can play their instruments. […] but if you come in a context where the shift from poor people to the well-to-do has been so systematic, where the drug invasion has come in as the only source of you sustaining you sustaining yourself as your families become so weak, your community so feeble and market values begin to permeate every nook and cranny of your life … then what do you do; well you get some old equipment around and have sampling. Okay we can’t play instruments but Sly sure sounds good … and James Brown sounds very good … work it Grandmaster Flash, bring your Furious Five with you.”

It had never before occurred to me that looking down on musicians who sampled could be not only snobbery but a form of racism given that it was economics that made a tape deck the only instrument some people had access to (while meanwhile in suburbia I had access to strings, percussion, winds and brass and the private lessons to master them). In that context, the esteem and awe with which people like Michael Eric Dyson speak of Hip hop becomes perfectly clear.

One of the phrases that kept ringing in my head from the lecture was the idea of “…bouncing off tradition in order to promote innovation.” Anyone who has studied music knows that you become acutely aware of the fact that every musician stands on the shoulders of previous musicians; whether you’re sampling or playing an instrument.

There are some interesting manifestations of the mashup of musical influences and available instruments going on in the digital world nowadays:

  • There’s a whole generation of artists whose work is influenced by the accessibility of immersive 3D video game environments that have been remixed and used like a brush and palette to create original works. They work particularly well for music videos; Jonathan Coulton fans like Spiffworld (who favors World of Warcraft) have created them for songs like “Tom Cruise Crazy,” “Re: Your Brains,” and “Mr. Fancy Pants.”
  • An Israeli artist named “Kutiman” has created an entire album remixing YouTube videos. I can’t even describe how amazing it is; you have to check it out for yourself.
  • The DIY crowd has started hacking the plastic controllers that come with games like Guitar Hero to create *real* instruments.

It makes one excited to see what the future will bring (or not, depending on which age demographic you fall into).

[Listen to the full Cornel West Lecture: “Hope on a Tightrope”].

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