CORNEL WEST SAUNTERS onto the stage at the ARCO Forum of Public Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. After glowing introductions, he mounts a podium; his fingers twiddle rapidly at the lectern's sides, as if he's revving his internal engine. A crackling recording sounds from the balcony. He cocks his head to the side, his left hand cupping his bushy beard, his knuckle stroking his upper lip. With his lips tightly locked in an upturned grin, and his head smoothly, slowly, sensually shaking from side to side, he appears to be in sheer, exquisite pain. "Mmm," he murmurs into the mike, eyes scrunched into slits. "Mmm ... mmm."
The room is packed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, and famed Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree sit behind West, looking serious. The president of Artemis Records, Danny Goldberg, is in the first row of the audience. Black Entertainment Television has a crew in the back, taping the event. And hundreds of students cram into the balconies of the multi-level auditorium, trying to get a peek.
Amid appreciative coos and respectful nods, West, who teaches African-American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard, is holding forth on hip-hop culture; when he isn't speaking, he's playing tracks of an album he recently put out with his brother Clifton West, songwriter Michael Dailey (a childhood friend), and producer Derek "DOA" Allen, who has worked with R&B singers Tyrese and Bobby Brown, among others. The album, called Sketches of My Culture, has 10 songs that mix hip-hop beats with touches of jazz, soul, and blues, and tell stories about the cultural legacy of black music.
At 48, West already has plenty of exposure: he's a familiar face on C-SPAN, he regularly reaches out to seven million listeners on ABC Radio's The Tom Joyner Morning Show, he works the international lecture circuit, and he's published 20 books, including 1993's best-selling Race Matters (Beacon Press). But these days, he hopes to spread his message through a new medium: music.
His aim, he explains, is to reinfuse hip-hop with the political and cultural relevance it had in the golden age of the late '80s and early '90s, when groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions thrived. Adding his smooth, paternal voice to the bling-bling consumerism of Jay-Z, the "I got hos" braggadocio of Ludacris, and the thumping misogyny of DMX, West wants the hip-hop nation to, in the words of Public Enemy's Chuck D, fight the powers that be.
"In a sense, if I can have an impact both in the larger public and also in the industry," he says over drinks at Rialto in Cambridge, "so that it helps create more spaces for hip-hop to become a force for justice, a force for criticism ..." He pauses, his face crinkling in thought. "I'm almost like a midwife ... [Sketches of My Culture] wants to create rihhhples." His explanation is accompanied by fluttering, expansive gestures. "We need a whole generation of Lauryn Hills and Mos Defs - young folks talking about freedom and justice, all that talent and creativity channeled in that way."
In other words, he's seeking not just a new medium but a new audience. After proving himself in the groves of academe and the corridors of power (he's served as a political consultant to Bill Clinton, Ralph Nader, Bill Bradley, and now Al Sharpton), the renowned scholar hopes to take his message to the streets. It's clear that West has built an impressive audience for the deft academic genre-jumping that is his trademark - just look at the 700 students in his current Introduction to Afro-American Studies class, or the several hundred who've shown up for tonight's lecture, which is called "Reflections on Hip-Hop Culture." But will he be able to make a dent in a world currently more concerned with Bentleys, bitches, and blunts than black power?
NO MORE valuable citizen of the Harvard community exists," effuses Gates, introducing West at the forum. "He is a man of unparalleled intellect," adds Ogletree. Hip-hop magazine XXL proclaimed him the "smartest black man in America." It's hard to come up with punchy enough words when it comes to Harvard's hottest professor. With his signature three-piece dark suit, his slimmed-down 'fro, and a preacherly lecture style nourished by his roots in the black Baptist church, Cornel West cuts a distinctive, impressive figure.
And he's been impressing people for quite a while. After graduating from Harvard magna cum laude in only three years in 1973, the Sacramento native launched himself headfirst into academia, earning his PhD in philosophy from Princeton University in 1980, then teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1987, he returned to Princeton as a professor of religion and head of the department of African-American studies. Much of his work focused on the distinctively American philosophy of pragmatism. Seven years into West's stay, Gates gave him the nod to join the "dream team" of African-American scholars at Harvard's Du Bois Institute. Most recently, West was named one of 14 Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professors; the appointment allows him to jump between departments and disciplines, a freedom that fits perfectly his lithe and flexible teaching style. Throughout his career, West has been profoundly dedicated to promoting both liberal politics and a message of liberation that has its origin in a tradition of African-American struggle.
Despite a daunting schedule of media appearances and lectures, West is currently teaching six classes a year, and one of his courses - Introduction to Afro-American Studies - is the second-largest in the university. He has an authentic, heartfelt devotion to his students; it's said that he rarely misses a lecture. And instead of turning people away when the class got too big, he moved it to a larger space, in the basement of St. Paul's Church in Harvard Square. "The idea of me asking 300 students not to take my course is crazy," he explains. "I mean, we've got 350 seniors, and that's almost 20 percent of the senior class. This is their last chance. They lose their last chance because Harvard can't find a room?" He leans back for full effect. "Nineteen-billion-dollar endowment - come on. You know what I mean?"
It seems appropriate that as his introductory class expanded beyond the size of its original room, the university had to choose between the church and a movie theater for the new location. West fuses the appeal of a movie star with the inspirational allure of a religious leader. And he is at once charming and compelling. The crucifix behind the blackboard in his makeshift classroom doesn't seem as far out of place as you might think.
But in many ways, West is preaching to the converted in his Harvard lectures and frequent speaking engagements. With his hip-hop album, he figures, he might be able to reach folks who don't take his classes, who aren't necessarily faithful New Yorker readers or C-SPAN watchers. Black music, he explains, acts as a "springboard" into social issues; from spirituals to hip-hop, music has provided a voice for struggle and liberation. "I think that in the case of Grandmaster Flash and Mysterious Five, Chuck D, and KRS-One, you have a new form that's still continuous with the struggle for freedom," he explains. "The challenge now is the third wave of hip-hop artists. Will they keep it alive?"
SKETCHES OF My Culture was the brainchild of Mike Dailey, a songwriter in Sacramento. The team started working in the studio in December, laying down tracks; West rolled in a couple of times, listened to the beats, and, without any notes or written prompts, added his voice to the music. In most cases, he was done in one or two takes. West's delivery is something in between spoken-word, lecturing, and rapping, with cadences, timed wording, and beat-infused delivery. "I was just runnin' my mouth," he says soberly, eyebrows raised. "I'm serious. Just runnin' my mouth." But clearly, though the running of the mouth may not have had rhyme, it had reason. "I didn't want to remain contained, in a certain sense," West explains. "You want to be fairly loose. You want to say what you want to say in a nutshell, without any jargon, without any alienating nomenclature - and yet be true to yourself."
In a track called "The Journey," which chronicles the black musical tradition from spirituals to jazz to R&B to hip-hop, West talks about what that art can do: "The music soothes our bruises/It caresses our bruises/It attempts to give us a foretaste of the freedom we so deeply want even if we can experience it only for a moment/The struggle goes on/The story must be told and retold/Every generation must be connected to that story to be linked to that struggle for freedom."
Other highlights of the 35-minute album are "N-Word," in which West lobbies to silence that epithet, and "3Ms," a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Amazon.com reports that the album appeals to the same buyers who pick up R&B records by India Arie, Alicia Keys, Sade, and Jill Scott - namely, soul-loving, middle-class, multiracial college-age-and-beyond folks. Additional crossover is likely to come from fans of hip-hop artists Mos Def and Common - a more masculine, political, beat-hungry crowd. Sketches of My Culture's gospel-influenced vocals, smoothed-out keyboard arrangements, and fluttering cymbal punctuation create the same retro-soul mood that appeals to those artists' fans.
West, his brother Clifton, Dailey, and Allen, who set up an independent label called 4BMWMB (4 Black Men Who Mean Business, Inc.) before getting signed by Artemis, have a three-album deal. Clifton, a software engineer in Sacramento, has already started working on some songs for a second album, which the team will start recording in a month. They plan to make a video, using the infectiously catchy track "70's Song" from Sketches as the single. "Chuck D and I have talked about going out and doing a Public Enemy/Public Intellectual tour," West says with a grin. "And people would have to choose which one. Chuck could be the public intellectual and I could be the enemy, or vice versa."