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Panel discusses jazz, hip-hop’s reflection of black culture

Peter Ninneman | Thursday, February 9, 2006

The portrayal of hip-hop artists in contemporary society and the progression of music genres that reflect the progression of black culture were the topics of discussion Wednesday evening in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

“Fight the Power: The Evolution of Music in African-American Culture” was sponsored by Shades of Ebony and the Department of Africana Studies. It included a panel comprised of Ivy Wilson, assistant professor of English; Larry Dwyer, Notre Dame’s director of jazz studies; Alvin Tillery, associate professor of political science; and Richard Pierce, associate history professor and Africana studies department chair.

Jazz and hip-hop were the two music genres that received the most attention, though the discussion involved the entire history of black music and culture.

“You literally could look at black music as a soundtrack to black history,” Wilson said.

After quick introductions and opening statements, the panel dove right into the question of whether jazz was a force for social change.

“It was [a force for social change] in a few respects,” Dwyer said. “For one, it did bring white and black musicians together to play music together.”

Nearly one quarter of Billie Holiday’s accompanying musicians were white in the 1940s. Black and white jazz musicians got together for jam sessions, even though laws forbade them from doing so publicly, Dwyer said.

Wilson disagreed with Dwyer’s point.

“Social change may have occurred on an atomistic scale, but not at a social level,” Wilson said.

The panel also discussed the role of jazz during the American civil rights movement, and how it differed from other music genres.

“Gospel, blues, funk – those were much more the soundtrack of the civil rights movement,” Tillery said.

Eventually more lyrical music passed jazz as the most popular form of black music in American popular culture. Pierce said this occurred because black culture had changed, so the music followed.

“If you look at 1916 to 1948, blacks are moving,” Pierce said. “That’s the heyday of jazz in terms of popular culture.”

The panel discussed many facets of hip-hop and rap. Major subjects included political roles, commercialization, objectification of women, depiction of black culture and the effects music has on black children.

“I’ve got a lot of beef with hip hop music … but it’s dialectical,” Tillery said. “For every Public Enemy you’re going to have a ‘Laffy Taffy.’

“These are kids living in de-industrialized cities in an age when the state abandons them. So thank God for hip-hop. What would they be doing without hip-hop?”

Kanye West – the Rocafella records artist who had a relatively middle-class upbringing – was a specific artist Tillery singled out. Tillery expressed disappointment with West’s “irresponsible” message on the lack of importance of a college education, citing the success of West’s album “College Dropout.”

“We always want our artists to act a certain way, and we’re always disappointed,” Pierce said.

The role of consumers in controlling the ideals portrayed in rap videos and music was also addressed. Wilson diagnosed a problem in consumers who “just want dope beats [that] carry [them] through the day.”

“Consumers have to show record labels that we’ll buy the next ‘Chuck D’,” he said.