- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

They say music is forever, and embattled Harvard Professor Cornel West is probably happy about that. His recent falling-out with university President Lawrence Summers was rooted at least partially in Mr. West's musical endeavors.
"Sketches of My Culture," Mr. West's solo effort, was released in September and floundered, selling around 1,000 copies, according to industry measuring stick Soundscan.
But the recent flap has more than tripled sales of the compact disc to 3,500, according to Mr. West's label, Artemis Records since Mr. Summers asked the professor to cut back on the extracurricular activities and concentrate more on his academic duties.
While Mr. West has drawn both critics and supporters during his run-in with the Harvard president, his unlikely legacy is a surprisingly proficient musical ability that may or may not have a place in one of the country's most-esteemed learning institutions.
The CD is something of a breakthrough for the 48-year-old activist and author, although it is doubtful that Mr. Summers will be driving through Cambridge with "N-Word" one of the CD's songs blaring through open windows. Here is a sample of the song's lyrics:
''Brother James said/'Say it loud/I'm black and I'm proud'/Black meant human/Not subhuman/So let's try to rethink this thing/I think that in the end/We would all conclude that we got to give it up and turn it loose."
The CD hasn't exactly set the music scene on fire, although it has drawn predictable rave reviews from academic and media quarters for many of whom music means whatever is on the radio.
"Although not contemporary 'rap' as we know it, 'Sketches of My Culture' does hearken back to the rhythmic 'conscious' poetry made popular by Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets during the '70s," said the Philadelphia Tribune, a black newspaper. "The structure of this project, however, is artistically quite unique, juxtaposing contemporary rap with West's traditional 'spoken word' delivery."
Mr. West's older brother, Cliff, also performed on the album, which was recorded earlier last year. He noted that the message, while truly activist, was hardly the stuff of pop rap music.
"The thing that gets me is that if we would've cut an album that glorified things that are glorified by rap music, we would be selling 10 times what we are now," said Cliff West, 51. "It's a real eye-opener."
Amazon.com customer reviews of the album where listeners form a community of music critics grew as quickly as the CD's sales after news surfaced of Mr. West's troubles at Harvard. The review section turned into a political forum as some critics attacked Mr. West's scholarship, and others, his musical talent.
"For artistic merit, look elsewhere," reads one commentary, dated Jan. 9. "For belly laughs at a Harvard Professor in a 3-piece suit trying to seem like he's down with the peeps in the hood, this is your album."
A Nov. 20 review, though, asserts that "'Sketches of my Culture' fuses the realms of intelligenia and hiphop into an uplifting celebration of African American cultural life. Listeners will be immediately engaged as they are drawn into the first piece 'Journey' which begins with West proclaiming, against a background of African drums and chants, 'Let the word go forth here and now that the struggle for freedom continues.'"
In an article titled, "Cornel West Busts a Rhyme," the New Yorker magazine reviewed an August promotional appearance for the album's release at a record-industry sales convention in Tarrytown, N.Y.
The magazine quoted Mr. West as saying at his appearance: "We try to fuse the musical, the intellectual, the sensual. From the painful laughter of the blues themselves to the sophistication of jazz, to rhythm and blues and the sharing of soothing sweetness, to the sweetness of soul. Then along comes hip-hop, with its linguistic virtuosity and rhythmic velocity, all connected to the struggle for freedom."
Cliff West said he has received e-mail messages critical of the project in a tone similar to those on Amazon.com. He blamed closed-minded individuals and hostility to the Harvard professor's leftist politics for the poor reaction to the album.
"There is a tendency among some people who seem to feel that this jeopardizes the order of things," he said.
"It seems to be coming from a Shelby Steele sort of thing," he said, referring to the black conservative who criticized Cornel West in a Wall Street Journal editorial this month.
However, the Tribune review was on target with the Gil Scott-Heron comparison. Mr. West's collection of songs contains a mellifluous if sometimes flat delivery of a harsh message. Without a lyric sheet, the sounds are a melange of jazzy, easy rhythms and beats.
With the sheet, though, the shallow, tedious civil-rights-industry message becomes well, tedious. The lyrics to "Stolen King" are a street version of Mr. West's book, "Race Matters."
"No other people in the modern world have had such unprecedented levels of unregulated violence against them/Psychic violence/Taught to hate ourselves and told we have the wrong hips and lips and noses and hair textures and skin pigmentation."
Mr. West has a slate of tour dates lined up for the rest of the year, beginning in April. But he is now resting at his home, preparing for coming prostate cancer surgery. His public persona is also taking a break in the wake of the high-profile fracas with Mr. Summers.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Mr. West said he was distressed over Mr. Summer's admonition that the Harvard professor focus more on his academic duties, saying, "I have never been attacked and insulted in that particular way."
Maybe he didn't read all of the Amazon.com reviews.

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