Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis is known as something of a purist. He’s often pushed back against the avant-garde and fusion movements in the jazz world, and now he has words for another popular African American artform: hip-hop.
Speaking with Jonathan Capehart for The Washington Post’s Post podcast, Marsalis was asked about the rash of racial unrest currently facing the world. Instead of laying the blame at the feet of things like the Unite the Right or race-baiting statements made by the current administration, Marsalis took aim at rap music. Specifically, he said that hip-hop is indicative of “how we’ve lost our grip on our morality in the black community… using pornography and profanity and addressing ourselves in the lowest, most disrespectful form.”
He continued by comparing the popularization of rap to minstrel shows. “You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position, and it’s free. Now, the nation is entertained by that. It’s not free,” he remarked. “Just like the toll the minstrel show took on black folks and on white folks. Now all this ‘nigga’ this, ‘bitch’ that, ‘ho’ that, it’s just a fact at this point.”
Marsalis stated flately that he does “not like” rap, but noted that this is not a new position for him. “I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about niggas and bitches and hoes. It had no impact,” he told Capehart. “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… There’s more niggas in that than there is in Robert E. Lee’s statue.”
Read his complete remarks below (via Stereogum):
“You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position, and it’s free. Now, the nation is entertained by that. It’s not free. Just like the toll the minstrel show took on black folks and on white folks. Now all this ‘nigga’ this, ‘bitch’ that, ‘ho’ that, it’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. It’s almost like adults left the room or something…
I do not like [rap]. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t like it. And I recognize that. But I’m from the Civil Rights movement. I was called a nigger. And I’m not talking about in my neighborhood, which of course that went on. I’m talking about, for me, I don’t like the fact of drums going away. I don’t mind the computers. They’re fine. But they can’t replace the people… There’s a movement now to drag public music education down into that? Pssh! It’s almost comical to me…
My words are not that powerful. I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about niggas 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…
I feel that that’s much more of a racial issue than taking Robert E. Lee’s statue down. There’s more niggas in that than there is in Robert E. Lee’s statue.”
Updated – May 23rd, 9:00 a.m.: Marsalis has released a new statement via his Facebook page. He sticks firm to his opinion, but couches it by repeatedly emphasizing that he was not referring to “all” hip-hop. He also seeks to clarify his reference to Lee, stating that the Civil War general “is not widely or openly celebrated in the country and does not hold a position of prestige or power in the cultural marketplace.” That is to say that Lee lost, but some of those championing the removal of statues in his honor are also “defending some of the most popular and most promoted products (THOUGH CLEARLY NOT ALL OF ) an art form that is doing the exact same thing-except now, the perpetuation of negative imagery and stereotypes are self-inflicted for a paycheck.”
Read his full statement below.
Elsewhere in the discussion, he does give a nod of praise to Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and says Kanye West’s love of Trump isn’t as important as it’s made out to be. Listen to the full podcast below.