Renée Graham

Still harping on hip-hop: Wynton Marsalis’ respectability politics strikes again

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 17: Jazz at Lincoln Center Managing and Artistic Director, Wynton Marsalis speaks on stage during the opening of the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Atrium at Jazz at Lincoln Center on December 17, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Jazz at Lincoln Center) -- 08PULITZER
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Jazz at Lincoln Center
Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

WHEN WYNTON MARSALIS condemns rap and hip-hop, it’s less of a surprise, and more of a “Mama, it’s that man again” moment.

On a recent episode of a Washington Post podcast, the renowned jazz musician derided rap as a “pipeline of filth.” Marsalis compared what he perceives as its deleterious effect on culture to that of minstrel shows, which, more than a century ago, amplified racist stereotypes about African-Americans.

“My words are not that powerful,” Marsalis said. “I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about [n-words] 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.”


A few years ago in New Orleans, Marsalis fought for the removal of Lee’s statue. He would like to do the same to some hip-hop.

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Hip-hop is more than 40 years old. Marsalis’s unfettered public hatred of it has been percolating for nearly that long. At first glance, that’s fine. All sorts of people, for whatever reason, hate all sorts of music. Yet Marsalis’ dislike of rap goes deeper than his own differing musical tastes.

It’s another manifestation of the divisive respectability politics fostered by self-appointed cultural gatekeepers who scold black people for not behaving the “right” way. And “right” usually means whatever curries approval from a majority of white people.

Of course, that’s the problem with respectability politics. Those whose respect you crave most will never give it to you. If you’re black, it doesn’t matter whether you can recite Shakespearean sonnets instead of Cardi B lyrics or prefer sashimi to fried catfish. That’s not how racism works. It’s discrimination, but it’s not discriminating. It’s a power structure that elevates some while denigrating others based not on what they do, but who they are. That mindset cannot be changed by expunging profanity or violent imagery from rap music.

Even so, nurturing his notion of respectability is what seems to drive Marsalis. He doesn’t just hate rap. He judges it injurious to African-Americans.


This is nothing new. In his early 20s, Marsalis became the first artist to win Grammys in both jazz and classical categories in the single year. Without mentioning rap, his acceptance speech seemed designed to skewer the samples, break beats, and rhymes that were fashioning a revolution.

“I’d like to thank all the great masters of American music — Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk — all the guys who set a precedent in Western art and gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends. . . or bad taste.” As he uttered those last works, he had a noticeable smirk on his face.

From the beginning of his career, Marsalis has been more than a talented musician. He has been an evangelist for jazz to be recognized as a uniquely American art form, created by African-Americans. Yet he has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that same distinction for a genre that gave voice to the joys, frustrations, aspirations, and spirit of an entire generation of young African-Americans. Hip-hop untied their tongues, and gave them an avenue of pure expression not unlike the one Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Bud Powell found in jazz.

After his Washington Post comments ignited a Twitter conniption, Marsalis addressed the controversy in a lengthy Facebook post. He has never condemned “ALL of anything,” including rap music, he said. He added:

“At 56, I’m pretty sure I will not be alive when our country and the world (of all races and persuasions) no longer accepts being entertained by the pathology of Black Americans and others who choose to publicly humiliate themselves for the appetites of those who don’t share the same ongoing history and challenges,” he wrote. “Over the years, I have come to accept this, but that doesn’t mean I have to like and endorse it. So I don’t.”


Perhaps the real pathology is Marsalis’ belief that hardcore hip-hop is worse than Confederate monuments. He should know that black respectability means nothing to white supremacists. Racists don’t care whether African-Americans can play a trumpet concerto or freestyle a rhyme.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.