K-School panel discusses future of black music

BY KEN WALCZAK

The Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics Forum hummed with activity on Friday afternoon, as enthusiastic members of the Harvard community dodged television cameras, a coterie of technicians and the space’s usual foot traffic in search of seats for Whose Music Is It Anyway?, a panel on the future of African-American music and the entertainment industry. The event (organized to kick off Black Arts Weekend at the K-school) began about 10 minutes late, approximately enough time for a punctual law student to take note of the superior looks and social competence possessed by politics scholars.

Panelists included Boston Globe columnist Vanessa Jones, television personality (by which is meant former veejay and host of her own talk show) Ananda Lewis, record executive Larry Robinson and music video director Little X. Each was introduced falteringly by moderator Ingrid T. Monson, who holds the title of Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music.

As Prof. Monson’s opening remarks made clear, Friday’s discussion was intended to focus on the issue of white ownership and control over black art. Should black America strive to (re)assert control over forms of expression originated and developed by black Americans?

Yet the panel seemed unable to devote itself to this topic for more than a few minutes at a time. Perhaps it was the inherently slippery nature of the issue, or perhaps it was subpar moderating. For whatever reason, the discussion returned perpetually to the role of television in our society and the abundance of scantily-clad women in rap videos.

Things began promisingly, with Robinson observing that “Black people have been innovative with music from day one.” The world has embraced black music, such as hip-hop, because it is “cool, and hip and the best shit going.” Robinson expressed no reservations about the worldwide popularity of hip-hop. He is troubled, instead, that “Black folks don’t own anything in the United States, least of all in the music business.” While the new 50 Cent record may be phenomenally popular, the artist himself will see far less money from its success than will label owner Eminem, or parent-label owner Jimmy Iovine.

Lewis, whose comments were generally forceful and persuasive, must nonetheless share some responsibility for diverting the discussion away from its stated goals. In remarks seemingly tinged with personal resentment, she claimed that creative people are “always being owned and operated” by non-creative types, despite the fact that “the copyright laws in the United States pretty much state that if you create something, you own it.”

But the wheels really came off when Lewis made a cryptic reference to sacrificing compensation in exchange for credit, despite “your divine right for being the creator of something,” and X responded with the even more baffling maxim: “be the credit-maker, not the credit-taker.” Jones then caused further head-scratching with her observation that a Balkanization of music ownership would prevent Lenny Kravitz from “trying to do rock.” Opinions were not solicited on which way that remark might cut, and Jones spent most of the remainder of the event in silence, even when prodded to speak by the moderator.

In the meantime, Lewis postulated that “our kids will emulate what we show them to emulate” and X recounted how an eight-year-old’s troubling familiarity with Mystikal led him to change his ways and reform his directing style. (For example, in order to make the video for “Shake Ya Ass” more intelligent, he co-opted themes from Eyes Wide Shut.) After this, the next half-hour was all diamonds-on-the-thong and shouldn’t-be-broadcast-before-midnight.

The discussion thus evolved from “How can we assert control over an art form? (And do we even want to?)” into “How can we protect our kids from the TV?” This clearly prevented the panelists from effectively addressing the issue of diversity within the highest echelons of the entertainment business. In response to a question from a member of the audience on the lack of black-owned media companies, Little X mused: “The real responsibility is to realize that the TV is not what you think it is… it’s just a little box.”

It also prevented significant questioning of the assumptions underlying the present system, either by panelists or by attendees. For example, although all seemed to agree that black artists are insufficiently compensated for their artistic contributions, no one challenged Lewis’s depiction of copyright law, or called for stricter enforcement of her “divine right.” Similarly, no participant raised any objection to Robinson’s contention that since labels will “sell anything that sells,” we all “get the music [we] want.”

This omission seemed the most grievous, given the current and powerful tide of dissatisfaction with the record industry (as evidenced by declining record sales, the proliferation of file-sharing software and attendance in panels such as this one). Apparently, very few Americans are truly getting the music they want. Television and the radio are instead crammed with music that a few may want, but many more are willing to tolerate.

Perhaps a more focused panel would have been able to suggest ways in which the system might evolve, in order to better serve the rich variety of tastes present in the real world. In this age of the highly-specialized cable network, the example of television might have had more to offer such a discussion.

In the end, one can’t help but wonder if Friday’s panel would have benefited from a greater proliferation of voices on the suggested topic. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond the organizers’ control conspired to prevent the input of several individuals. Journalist Flo Anthony cancelled due to a family member’s serious illness. Her absence, along with Jones’s reluctance to speak, severely limited input from the media. A scheduling conflict — in the form of a concert Friday evening in Worcester — also forced rapper Guru (of Gang Starr) to cancel his appearance. Since all seemed in agreement that white ownership and control of the entertainment industry limits opportunities for black artists, it would have been nice to hear from an artist who has dealt with the system for more than a decade.

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