MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, a conversation with one of the most influential figures in hip-hop on the occasion of his new appointment at one of this country's most prestigious cultural institutions. Q-Tip is one of the founding members of A Tribe Called Quest. Along with Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, the group formed in the early '90s became one of hip-hop's trendsetters, introducing smooth beats and sharp social commentary inspired by the group's friendship and the issues of the day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECK THE RHIME")
Q-TIP: (Rapping) Back in the days on the boulevard of Linden, we used to kick routines and the presence was fitting. It was I, The Abstract.
PHIFE DAWG: (Rapping) And me, the 5-footer. I kicks the mad style, so step off the frankfurter.
MARTIN: Last year, the group released what would turn out to be its final album, "We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service," after the death of Phife Dawg. But now, Q-Tip, the group's unofficial leader, has a new, and maybe for some, eyebrow raising role. He's been named the first artistic director of hip-hop culture at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here in Washington, D.C., a venue better known for more traditional offerings such as opera and ballet. Q-Tip launched the center's inaugural season Friday night in a musical collaboration with his friend, pianist Jason Moran, who is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center.
Q-Tip was kind enough to sit down with us as he prepared for his performance even though he was fighting off a bad cold, as you will hear. And I started our conversation by asking him how he was coping with the loss of his close friend and longtime collaborator, Phife Dawg.
Q-TIP: It's been difficult. But it's good because we're here and it's been a lot of growth into adversity. Once you realize you can get past it, it shapes and builds your character. And that's something more than a silver lining. It's a blessing. So although we have emotional bouts with it as humans, whatever, it's been a value or good value.
MARTIN: So that kind of leads nicely to this new platform, your role at the Kennedy Center. What are your thoughts initially about what you hope to do with this? And first of all, I have to ask if you are surprised that the Kennedy Center was interested in offering this kind of a platform to hip-hop?
Q-TIP: No, not surprised. It's inevitable. You know, the culture and the music has gotten so big. I think it's a great opportunity for this country in a lot of different ways that a historic institution for arts such as the Kennedy Center, that they want to, in so many words, institutionalize hip-hop because for so long, the creators and the practitioners of the form were looked at as degenerates, uneducated hoodlums, you know, saying - provocateurs, cop killers, rapers, you know, misogynists - like all these different labels.
So through all the black and blues, to be able to have the K Center wrap up hip-hop and claim it like jazz before it and blues before it and so forth is a part of like a true American art form to kind of investigate not only the rich foundation of hip-hop and his beginnings or whatever, but it helps people who may not be from this world to understand truly the complexity - what black complexity is.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Do you see this platform as a - in a way - outreach to people who may have had those views of hip-hop? Or do you see it as people who were already there kind of helping them deepen their understanding...
Q-TIP: For both, both.
Q-TIP: And it's there on display, an expose for all to see, to learn. It would be great to see the Mormon family from Utah running into a family from Harlem - a African-American family - and they both are looking at something or sharing something about hip-hop, whether it be like a Tupac display or Grandmaster Flash, DJ mixing, and they see that they have something in common. I think that's a church of the arts. It's a great idea.
MARTIN: I can imagine where it does do both things in the sense that it brings people to the Kennedy Center who might not see it as their place. But you can also see where there are probably still some people who see hip-hop in the way that you described it as kind of outlier, degenerate, this and this and misogynistic, anti-police and so forth. And I wonder, do you really think in the current environment that we have now, which is very polarized, are people willing to cross that bridge?
Q-TIP: You know, that's a great question. And the reason why it's great is because there's really no answer. Because one could really say, given the climate, that the lines have been clearly drawn. And there's sides now, like clear sides. People are saying, I'm - well, I'm here. I'm rocking with the white supremacist, wall-building, [expletive] grabbing, name-calling - that's my squad. Who's your squad? That's a clear line drawn. So some people may be just beyond it.
I mean, look. We're talking about precedent. We can't act like this. That's our elephant in the room. He's so polarizing. He and his wife had to kind of decline the invitation to the center, which is something that since its inception, I believe, since - what? - '73, '74, that every sitting president happily went to because the arts is - it's our biggest export in this country. It's not oil. It's not apples. It's not cotton. It's entertainment in all forms - media, sports, music. So when you have something as prestigious as the Kennedy Center that's on your same lot and you're that polarizing that you'd have to excuse yourself from that, it's a real query that you asked.
MARTIN: Well, we hope we get to talk again as you're farther down your residency because I'll be interested to know how you're going to navigate that, how you are going to navigate that. That is the elephant in the room.
Q-TIP: I'm not going to shirk away from it, though. You know what I mean? But it's not about even going toe-to-toe with somebody like that. You want to be able to like just be the light and just really try to like speak truth into power and just be transparent and learn and grow, you know.
MARTIN: How will you know you have succeeded in this quest when you're - completed your time in residency here?
Q-TIP: Who knows? If you think about that, then you ain't working. You know what I'm saying? (Laughter) Right? You just got to be doing it.
MARTIN: That was Q-Tip, member of the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, speaking to us about his new role as the creative director of hip-hop culture at the Kennedy Center. He was nice enough to talk to us just before he performed at the inaugural event. Q-Tip, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Q-TIP: Thank you, queen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN I KICK IT?")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) Can I kick it? Yes you can. Can I kick it? Yes you can. Can I kick it? Yes you can. Can I kick it? Yes you can.
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