Wynton Marsalis’s scathing critique of rap understands how hip-hop relates to the larger problem. Leaving aside the lyrics, rap is musically “ignorant,” Marsalis says. “Rhythms have to have a meaning. If the rhythm is corrupt, the music is corrupt and the people become corrupt.” (And, one might add, rap also subverts music’s aim of creating a realm of harmony and beauty.) As for the lyrics, Marsalis says, “I call it ‘ghetto minstrelsy.’..."
I am not well able to comment on the musical opinion Marsalis is quoted on (although I find the idea intriguing), and I refer people to the City Journal article for a discussion of hip-hop syndrome. What I wanted to share was something about Wynton Marsalis, the man.
Eighteen or so years ago, I had the good fortune to hear Mr. Marsalis play. I enjoyed the experience, although I was well aware that my place would have been better filled by a more musical person who could more fully appreciate the obvious artistry. What I best remember is a non-musical thing. I was seated near the stage and could see everything. Mr. Marsalis' piano player was blind and before the performance began, Marsalis led the piano player to his seat himself. And after the performance, Marsalis, the man we were all there to see, gave the piano player his arm once again and led him off the stage. Now, that might seem just common courtesy, but there were other band members, less famous, who could presumably have been made to do it. And there was something thoroughly humble about the manner in which this action was carried out. Mr. Marsalis' name and his face was the one on the tickets and the posters, but he clearly did not consider himself above the un-glamorous task of helping a colleague to his seat. Moreover, it seemed to me by the way he introduced his fellow musicians that he respected them; he really seemed to be more interested in the music than his own ego.
This may seem like a very small thing to relate, but it impressed me at the time. And really, can anyone imagine Barbara Streisand helping her underling to his seat with her very own hands? Or any of quite a lot of other famous people putting aside their own applause for a moment so they can look to someone else?
I may not know much about music, but I do know that I have a lot more respect for any man (or woman) who is more interested in practicing his craft and in being a decent person than in behaving like a prima donna. No one will ever write "Decent Guy" out in sequins and sparkly paint on a tee-shirt, the way they do with "Diva", but we'd all do a lot better to aspire to decency and humbleness than to diva-hood. Or to hip-hop values.