May 2, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | The Importance of Afrika Bambaataa’s Hip-Hop Legacy

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To the Editor:

Some years ago, when I introduced a unit on hip-hop in a course I was teaching in the English department, a visiting musicologist at Cornell came to my class and spent 50 minutes discussing the complexity and richness of a single track, Afrika Bambaataa’s  “Planet Rock.” At the end of the hour, he hadn’t finished. That session alone was enough to convince me that Bambaataa’s mixing of musical fragments, shouts from a crowd and other background noise into a seamless whole exemplified a whole new approach to music and to listening that assured him a place in the history of urban music.

When Cornell acquired the world’s largest collection of  early hip-hop materials, I was therefore proud to become a member of the hip-hop advisory board. If asked about the significance of the acquisition, I would have said something like this:

Cornell’s collection not only preserves these materials for history but also dramatically re-defines what a rare manuscript library can be. Katherine Reagan’s activist curating has gone beyond simply preserving the material, incorporating it into the Cornell educational experience. Initiatives include regular visits and concerts by hip-hop founders, a first-rate museum show, appearances in the Ithaca community and an array of courses, including a large team-taught University course that combined music, urban sociology and African-American culture. When Bambaataa appeared with other hip-hop founders at the inaugural conference on the archives, his remarks showed him to be a musicologist and educator as well as a musical innovator, with a vast knowledge of the rich tradition on which his own creative synthesizing depended. And now, the digitizing of his vast collection further connects past and future, the academy and the streets and the methods of scholarship with the living experience of music-making. These connections are no act of cultural appropriation but rather a breaking down of the walls of privilege and prejudice, increasing both knowledge and pleasure. I was proud to meet Bambaataa on his visits and to thank him for his generosity to Cornell.

But now the DJ Troi Torain has sponsored a petition demanding that Cornell sever its ties with Bambaataa because of accusations that the musician has abused young men; as a result, the Daily News has declared Cornell to be “under fire.”  What would I change in my last paragraph as a result of the claims and the demands?

Not a single word.

By maintaining its ties with Bambaataa, Cornell does not support child abuse and does not collaborate with a criminal. Bambaataa remains innocent before the law. If the charges against him (which he has denied) were ever to be proved, that would be cause for sorrow and regret, but his private life remains separate from his music.

This should be obvious to anyone with a clear head, but sometimes it’s important to affirm the obvious. Cornell’s only obligation is to stand by the statements it has already made. As for Troi Torain’s petition, it would be insulting to take seriously anything this disturbed person says about child abuse. In May 2006, Torain, a radio DJ, was arrested for endangering the welfare of a child.  According to The New York Times, “In a May 3 broadcast, Mr. Torain mentioned [a rival DJ’s] wife and two children and threatened to find and sexually abuse his daughter.  ‘I’ll come for your kids,’ Mr. Torain said that day, adding that he would pay $500 to anyone who told him where the girl attended school. Mr. Torain, who is black, also used racial and sexual epithets about DJ Envy’s wife, Gia Casey, 27, who is part Asian.”

Prof. Paul Sawyer, English

  • George

    Professor- granted that in the United States there is a presumption of innocence, but disturbing to see that even if found guilty, you view Bambaataa’s music as distinct from his personal conduct. I guess you would say that Bill Cosby is a really funny guy, rape accusations notwithstanding. Is anything a crime in your mind?

    • CuStu

      That doesn’t mean we need to remove his content. Same as it doesn’t mean we should go out and destroy all of Cosby’s work.

    • Map

      Maybe you can clarify, but I was bewildered by your comment. A reasonable argument, although one I disagree with, would be that Cornell continuing to house these records acts as a celebration of the man himself. And that, if the allegations are proven true, such celebration would be inappropriate. But that doesn’t seem to be the argument you are making. Rather, you are suggesting that the quality of art is directly contingent on the moral character of the artist. Which is absurd.

      Again, maybe I am misrepresenting your opinion, but I can’t even see how anyone could make a positive argument that the quality of art is contingent on the artist’s moral character. None of the objective traditional measures of art(complexity, originality, whatever) has ever used such a standard. Even subjective measures seem ridiculous. Do the revelations about Cosby mean that less people laughed at his jokes? Have comedians who were influenced by him all of a sudden forgotten what they learned? And on the other side, does a mediocre artist qualify as talented if they are a good person?

      More likely, you have fallen into a complete perversion of reality. The question of contingency makes complete sense to you because you don’t think someone who is bad could even produce good art. I see this type of argument in sports pundits frequently. “So and so can’t win because they are selfish, lazy, etc”. They confuse sport outcomes as a test of moral character. And then, all of sudden when that athlete wins, then the athlete has clearly become a whole new person and learned the errors of their ways. Its comforting to think the world works that way, but you’ll spend a lot of time very angry.

      • George

        There is some validity to your comments. If a baseball player, for example, hits 60 home runs in a season (without steroids), that is a remarkable achievement even if that player is a total jerk. Conversely, if the nicest player in the game bats .200 for the year, that is still terrible. Nevertheless, the total separation of character and achievements is also problematic. Curt Shilling was just fired for making a comment deemed offensive to transgenders. If he is an interesting and astute commentator, why should his comment matter? Many other people in the media have been terminated from making allegedly offensive remarks. Pursuant to your worldview, why does it matter what they said? Under your theory, the transgressions of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are irrelevant to their capacity to lead the country. After all, someone can oppose illegal immigration and still make good tax policy. I believe that this artist’s alleged conduct diminishes his art- you apparently believe that his art makes the conduct more palatable. If my crime is believing that morality matters, I plead guilty.

        • Map for Territory

          I am not suggesting that his art makes his conduct more palatable. I’m saying that conduct and art are (often)independent of eachother. To carry the baseball analogy forward, Curt Schilling’s ability to pitch well is neither helped nor hurt by his character. He was able to win ball games because he was a good pitcher. That’s not inherently good or bad. Just means he’s good at throwing the ball. As far as Schilling getting canned, as a commentator, his comments are his art. I am not going to defend art that is independently hateful in and of itself(ie Birth of a Nation). But I would also be hesitant to try and attach too much moral conclusions from decisions driven by market forces.

  • Cornell Grad Student

    Misleading/wrong: “accusations that the musician has abused young men”

    CORRECTION: “allegations of child molestation levied against the artist”

    Wait for the trial before declaring him guilty. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Appreciating, respecting the form of art is not condoning his alleged behavior.
    Accepting $20 US currency, etc. doesn’t mean you are promoting slavery.

    • George

      If Adolph Hitler was a great artist, would you mind if Cornell displayed his works?

      • I would 100% support the display of Adolf Hitler’s art because at the end of the day he was a man who changed the world. He did horribly awful things. But he is not a man that we should ever forget. Displaying his art would help to humanize a man who orchestrated the mass killing of 6 million people. Which is critical because as soon as we believe that we are above Hitler, that we as a society could never stoop so low again, that is when we will.

        We should not condone the actions of such monsters but erasing their actions from history only serves to hide their crimes.

        • George

          You totally missed the point.