Cornel West, the Musician?

Public scholar and philosopher Cornel West has teamed up with Prince, Gerald Levert, KRS-One and other musicians on the new CD, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: What's one of America's most outspoken public intellectuals doing kicking around with hip-hop and soul music vets? If you're Cornel West, you've been laying down a brand new album. The Princeton religion professor has recently teamed up with Prince, KRS-1, Talib Kweli and other artists to record "Never Forget: The Journey of Revelations." The disc is entertainment to the fullest. West shares his ideas on politics and black culture while guest artists rap and sing across 12 tracks.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Of course, Cornel West is much more than his music collaborations. He's a decorated scholar, for one, and a best-selling author. Over the last decade and a half, he's written several wise and widely popular critiques of race and democracy in America. He sat down with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Let me go straight to some of your songs because you do have some really interesting contributors. You have this song, "Mr. President," with KRS-1 and M-1 of Dead Prez. Tell me what that's about.

Dr. CORNEL WEST (American Scholar; Professor of Religion, Princeton University): Well, it's a direct address to the president, Socratic questioning. We want to know why you lied. We want to know why you spied. We want to know why you're torturing folk or condoning torturing and the kind of jargon-written language, what people actually know on the ground that torture is taking place.

(Soundbite of song, "Mr. President")

KRS-1 (Rapper): (Rapping) Why did you lie about the war? Too many precious lies of wars. Aha.

M-1 (Rapper): (Rapping) That's right. Too many precious lies of war.

Dr. WEST: And of course, like this there's no way that I can begin to capture the artistic subtlety of KRS-1 and M-1 in terms of their own ways of characterizing the challenge to the president.

(Soundbite of song, "Mr. President")

KRS-1: (Rapper) What's up presidential election, or was it resurrection? So we wait for your profession, it's a lie. That's (unintelligible), at least, with that service and protection because I don't do red, white and blue because look what that has cost us.

M-1: (Rapper) Every time I see that flag, I'd be so enough to busta(ph)…

CHIDEYA: I have a book in my hand, which was about why people don't consume conscious hip-hop, what is called conscious hip-hop. Do you - first of all, do you believe that's true? Secondly, if so, why? And third, if so, why are they going to listen to you?

Dr. WEST: Well, I think that actually if conscious hip-hop had more visibility and had access to the ways people would eat it up. But I do believe that we're going to see a swing - a shift is taking place. A paradigm shift is taking place in hip-hop. Look at Brother Knox(ph), just in December, right hip-hop's dead. Well, this city has acknowledged, it's not dead. No, because we've got something to say. But it's going back to the best of the tradition. And at the same time, it connects with young folk.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of connection with young folk, you are around people of all ages. I would expect virtually every day of your life having dedicated yourself to being a teacher.

Dr. WEST: That's right.

CHIDEYA: And have gone through, by now, a full generation of students probably.

Dr. WEST: That's right.

CHIDEYA: What do they think? Do any of your students say, oh, my gosh, why are you cutting a rap album? Or, fantastic, you're cutting a rap album? Or, I don't even like rap, why are you cutting a rap album?

Dr. WEST: Well, I mean, you know the students they don't speak with one voice. They don't have a homogenous view but it is true that for the most part they're very excited about it because they said it themselves. My God, we've got this brother from Motown, Philly sound, a Curtis Mayfield generation still trying to present a danceable education. But they also say, why are you taking a chance at 53 years old and make your own trail in this terrain? I said, no, I'm young in spirit and I'm willing to learn and listen from the artists.

(Soundbite of song, "Dear Mr. Man")

Dr. WEST: (Singing) Raise your Socratic questions to the system.

You think a talented figure like Prince, when we do the song together "Mr. Man," they say, mm-hmm, what does Prince have in mind? Well, he figures - here is this brother West, older generation, willing to intervene but in a self-critical and a humble way.

(Soundbite of song, "Dear Mr. Man")

Dr. CORNEL: (Rapping) Break it down, Brother Prince.

PRINCE (Singer): (Singing) What's wrong with the world today? Things just got to get better. Show me what the leaders say and maybe we should write a letter.

CHIDEYA: You have not been afraid to offer up your walking papers. For example, at Harvard at which you made a happy home for many years, Lawrence Summers who obviously has issues of his own, who's just left as the president of Harvard after a very tumultuous tenure. You - he criticized you, you bounced to Princeton. Are you afraid, on some level, that the level of integrity that you show in your academic life will be diluted by you moving in to the pop culture sphere?

Dr. WEST: When you talk about integrity, you're really talking about a certain kind of witnessing, a certain kind of being in the world that goes to some classroom to the streets, that goes from the church, mosque, synagogue and temples to the community centers.

And in that regard, I think people will be more apt to say it's interesting that he's taking this risk than a hit album. They said, oh my Lord, this is a historic piece. He has pulled this off. And so your integrity is actually reinforced. But in the end, of course, it's not about you. It's really about the cause. It's about the suffering that we're trying to overcome. It's about the vision we're trying to promote.

CHIDEYA: Well, finally, give me just the essence of what your vision of a just world is. What do you want to see? What do you see in your dreams when you dream?

Dr. WEST: I think in the end, it's really about a dignity and the self-respect that people have given the assets, the material resources, so it's both an elimination of a material poverty. It's an overcoming of a spiritual poverty. And the CD is about the courage to think Socratic, the courage to love, which is prophetic, and the courage to hope, which is blues-like. And this is a blues-like CD coming out the best of a blues people.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, professor, on that note, thank you so much.

Dr. WEST: Thank you so very much. You stay strong. God bless you.

CHIDEYA: Same to you.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with West. Cornel West is a professor of religion at Princeton University. He also has a new CD out called "Never Forget: A Journey of Revelation."

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