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