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To Go Down Dilapidated: A Case For Removing Confederate Monuments

By Mark Anthony Neal

As protests go, the pulling down of Confederate monuments is low-hanging fruit. They are largely symbolic acts directed at symbols that, by and large, have long been relegated to unread history books and museums. But low-hanging fruit can also be poisonous.

State laws passed to protect these monuments—to weaponize them—are now being used to undermine the work of social justice activists and quell resistance. The “Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act,” was passed by the North Carolina state legislature in July 2015, roughly a month after activist Bree Newsome brought down the Confederate flag at the State Capitol in South Carolina in response to the shooting deaths of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. by Dylann Roof.

Newsome’s act became a social media moment that inspired many other acts of resistance— including Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.

The 2015 law is also the subtext of the recent arrest of Takiyah Thompson, a 22-year-old North Carolina Central University (NCCU) student, who was among a group of activists and protesters who helped bring down a Confederate monument in the city of Durham earlier this week. Additional protesters have subsequently turned themselves into authorities.

A day after footage of Thompson scaling the structure to place the rope that was used to pull it to the ground went viral, she was arrested by Durham County sheriff’s deputies. Thompson was charged with four counts, including two felony charges for participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500. That the sheriff’s deputies patiently waited for Thompson to finish speaking at a press conference arranged on NCCU’s campus, speaks less to their recognition of her first amendment rights as it was public show of the sanctity of state laws.

Yet what these Durham activists understand is the fact not all laws are just. Indeed, the very states that have enacted laws to protect Confederate totems from removal by local municipalities and individuals, also understand that not all laws are just.

Durham’s Black city manager dubbed the protest “unlawful and inappropriate” and there were many, who, while affirming the goals of the takedown, were less supportive and even critical of the means in which the monument was taken down. Yet, if the Civil Rights era activists would have been able to use Twitter or Instagram 60 years ago, they likely would have used hashtags like #unlawful and #inappropriate, which would have been entirely appropriate in the context of struggles against laws that were unjust and absurd.

Rosa Parks broke an unjust law to challenge the treatment of Black people on public transportation in the South. When four students from North Carolina A&T sat at a “Whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro, they were pushing back against an unjust law—also a reminder of the role that HBCUs play in cultivating political consciousness among young Black people. Every enslaved African that chose to leave a plantation, under the cover of the night and live their lives as fugitives, knowingly broke, what they correctly deemed unjust laws. Indeed, there have been few examples of successful social justice movements that did not include the breaking of unjust laws, from the challenging of unlawful assemblies to illegal work stoppages. Generations ago, we quaintly named such activities as “Civil Disobedience” and can be traced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s.

The tearing down of the symbols and trinkets of the confederacy might seem like low-hanging fruit, but when we are more concerned as a society about the treatment of formed pewter than about the treatment of people forced to live under the policies and tactics shaped by those symbols, then it is indeed time to take a stand. After a successful fundraising campaign Thompson was freed on bail hours after her arrest. It was a reminder there are some willing to stand on the side of justice.

Mark Anthony Neal is chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @NewBlackMan.

Originally published in Cassius Life, Aug. 17, 2017.

The Juice Box Incident and the Erasure of Black Girlhood


by Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

It has come to be known in our family as the “juice box incident”. I was called to my youngest daughter’s kindergarten class at a local charter school because she was being suspended. Apparently, my daughter had been accused of purposely squeezing juice, from a juice box, into the eye of a classmate, a White girl. As I sat talking with her teacher, I wondered to myself about the dexterity it would take for a five-year-old to deliberately squeeze juice across the table into someone’s eye. What I did ask the teacher directly, was if he had ever handled a juice box before. As any rank and file parent will tell you, there’s nary a juice box occasion that doesn’t end with some amount of juice anywhere but in a child’s mouth.

I am reminded of the “juice box” incident reading the recent study “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls Childhood,” published by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown Law School and based on research from the team of Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez.

The gist of the report argues that adult educators, in their interactions with Black girls aged 5-19, believe that Black girls deserve less nurturing, protection, support, and comforting — dynamics that seemed to be grounded in perceptions of Black girl independence, though as the researchers note, that is rarely to their benefit. Though the scope of the research is admittedly limited — there were less than 400 respondents — I couldn’t help but read the report and think “this is my life.”

A critical component of the study highlights the “theory of adultification” of Black children where educators “associate Black girls’ behavior with stereotypes of adult Black women.” Adultification, in effect, creates a condition where Black children are treated as the babies of suspect stereotypes of Black women. As the researchers note, “adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from other developmental periods.”

The process of adultification has direct impact on the experiences of Black girls in school, particularly in the context of discipline with regards to in-school and out-of-school suspensions. Citing the work of Subini Annamma, the report highlights how Black girls are often disciplined for subjective reasons such as exhibiting defiance or as a school administrator said to me about my daughter “non-compliance,”  which was her way of describing my daughter’s regular proclivity to ask followup questions or request explanations for directions that might not have made much sense to her.

As such, in comparison to their White female counterparts one study suggested that Black girls were twice as likely to be disciplined for minor infractions such as dress code violations or cell phone use. And they are  two-and-a-half times more likely to be disciplined for “disobedience.” Remember the high school student who was assaulted by a school resource officer in South Carolina?  These narratives overlay troubling examples of police shootings where Black victims failed to comply by running away.

Ironically the very attributes that encourage Black girls to speak back to power, if you will, was openly cited by respondents as evidence of the leadership skills of Black girls. Yet the tendencies of Black girls to “talk back” are viewed as disruptive in the classroom, and those energies are very rarely nurtured or redirected towards leadership development opportunities. As the report’s researchers observe, “the perception that Black girls do not merit nurturing or that their leadership qualities should be restricted could be associated with our finding that adults believe that Black girls do not need protection or nurturing, and could affect opportunities for success.”

The report suggests that as “early as 5 years of age, Black girls were more likely viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age.” The day that I sat with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, I remember struggling for language to describe what I clearly viewed as a form of profiling; what the teacher heard was that I called him a racist. Unfortunately, as the report’s multiracial responders highlight, perceptions of Black girls transcend the race and the ethnicity of the adult educators. And as my own experience has shown ,with both of my daughters, now ages 14 and 18, very often adult educators believe that are helping Black children by encouraging, and even demanding, compliance and “good behavior” from them.

My daughter survived the “juice box incident” — and many such incidents.  As she prepares for her first year in high school, she is also hyper-aware of the mechanisms of surveillance that exist, in ways that her White counterparts simply don’t have to be.  In their conclusion, the researchers write, “all Black girls are entitled to, and deserve, equal treatment. Including equal access to the protections that are accepted as necessary and appropriate for children.”  There’s a part of me that lives with the reality that my daughters, like so many Black girls, never fully had the freedom to simply be children.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African + African American Studies and a English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African + African American Studies, and co-Director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE). Neal is the parent of two daughters, a rising college sophomore and a rising first-year high schooler.

1974 | Rock Your Baby by George McCrae

From PBS American Experience Collection, Songs of Summer:

By Mark Anthony Neal

His wife was supposed to sing it. George McCrae’s own music career had languished in Palm Beach clubs, in what might be thought of as an upscale chitlin’ circuit. At the time, he was about to go back to school to study law enforcement. But Gwen McCrae was late to the recording session at TK Records in Hialeah, Florida. Tired of waiting, engineer Richard Finch and record store employee Harry Wayne (KC) Casey asked George to stand in. The result was “Rock Your Baby,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Charts in late July of 1974.

For two weeks that summer, McCrae would rule the airwaves, backed by the futuristic rhythms of an affordable drum machine and propelled by two songwriters who would help define the sound of dance music throughout the 1970s and beyond.

To be sure, “Rock Your Baby” was not the first disco hit to top the pop charts. That distinction probably goes to the Hues Corporation and their song “Rock the Boat.” But there was something about McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” that smacked of the new — namely, the Roland TR 77, an early-generation drum machine and harbinger of the future. Good dance music means the beat stays in the pocket; now anybody could catch the beat, paving the way for disco to democratize the dance floor.

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Inaugural Trinity Distinguished Lecture To Feature Mark Anthony Neal

From Duke Today:

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor in the departments of African & African American Studies and English, will give the inaugural Trinity Distinguished Lecture on Thursday, May 4, at 3 p.m. in Penn Pavilion. His talk is open to the public and will be followed by a reception.

Through his research and public outreach, Neal challenges audiences to engage with Black popular culture. He is the editor and curator of the NewBlackMan (in Exile) blog, he hosts and produces the Left of Black webcast and has a combined Twitter following for the two outlets of nearly 65,000 people. Neal seeks to understand how the music, television, film and literature of African diaspora culture influences the societal and cultural norms of the United States and around the world.

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View lecture here.

Neal to Deliver Inaugural Trinity Distinguished Lecture, May 4

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke, will deliver the first Trinity College Distinguished Lecture, titled, “My Mother Gave Me This Big-Ass Name: A Black Scholar in the Mix.”

The lecture will be held at 3 p.m. in Penn Pavilion on the university’s West Campus. A reception will follow.

By delving into such topics as hip-hop music and gender relations within African American culture, urban sociology, black masculinity, and queer theory, Neal challenges audiences to engage with the ideologies of black popular culture. He seeks to understand how the music, television, film and literature of African diaspora cultures impact the societal and cultural norms of the United States and around the world. Neal is the founder and managing editor of the blog NewBlackMan and he hosts the weekly webcast Left of Black.

The lecture is part of a celebration of 50 years of black faculty scholarship in Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

Attendees are asked to RSVP at https://duke.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eWF3J0fzCiPnAA5.

Race, Place and Community: A Conversation with Author Emily Raboteau

Emily Raboteau

By Micah English, T ’17

Award-winning author Emily Raboteau visited Duke and Durham this week as part of the Duke School of Medicine’s ongoing series, A Conversation about Race.

She was interviewed by Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African American studies. Neal, is also the co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity and the host of the weekly webcast, Left of Black. The event was recorded live for a future episode of Left of Black.

The event, “Race, Place and Community,” free and open to the public, was held at 8 a.m., Thursday, March 30 at the Trent Semans Center. Dean Nancy Andrews provided opening remarks.

Raboteau, an English professor at the City College of New York, answered questions from staffers and signed copies of her latest book, Searching for Zion, following the talk. Her book is an exploration of her biracial identity and a longing for an accepting homeland.

“When you’re somebody like me who doesn’t easily fit into a racial category, it doesn’t satisfy. We show that these terms are myths and make some people uncomfortable. If you cannot easily say you belong to a race, then how can you say you are American,” she said.

The concept of a promised land, or Zion, she said, created a sense of shared cohesive identity among enslaved Africans in America united in the struggle for freedom.

“For those who made it North and didn’t get the full citizenship they expected, Zion became heaven,” Raboteau said. “The idea of a homeland really unified enslaved Africans and brought them into the religion of Christianity, because they were coming from different tribes, different languages. That’s what made them a people.”

When I think of Zion and talking to people looking for that place and asking whether they found it the answer is of course no. There’s always somebody on the other side of the wall who is less free than we are. As long as somebody is still at war, still struggling, none of us is free.”

Organized by the Duke Clinical Research Institute, the event co-sponsors include the Duke School of Medicine, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Center on Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship, and Left of Black.

Searching for Zion is a work of creative nonfiction that chronicles Raboteau’s search for a place to call “home,” as a biracial woman who never felt at home in America. Recently DCORE was able to speak with Raboteau about being of mixed race, blackness and the racial color line.

As someone who is considered ethnically ambiguous, how, if so, do you think this complicates the search for identity many African Americans struggle with?

I think my experiences being racially ambiguous contributed to a feeling in my youth of not belonging. But, this also was a result of growing up in a place where there weren’t very many people looking like me or my siblings. Which is to say, my experiences growing up mixed race were very different than someone who grew up in a different context. The feelings of not belonging that drove me personally to search the globe definitely drove the narrative in my book.

It’s of course a different experience of blackness, and a different one from people who look identifiably black, but I also felt a sense of kinship with people who had left home to search for a place elsewhere, who felt a sense of disillusionment with their experiences in the United States, who didn’t feel at home here and who felt a sense of homelessness that would drive them to look for home elsewhere.

Is that feeling related to the title of your new book, Searching for Zion?

Searching for Zion comes from the idea in the Hebrew bible that Zion is a place, the promised land to be exact. It’s an idea that there is a utopian sort of homeland for displaced people. I was borrowing from the tradition of African Americans in this country, that just as there is a place for Israelites outside of Egypt, there is also a place for those who were enslaved in this country, that would be a place of freedom and full citizenship.

Have you always felt accepted as “black,” or is this something that has been challenged?

I think there are, to quote a poet friend of mine, a lot of crayons in the box of blackness. And he’s talking about not only color and colorism, but also tone in a grander sense. There is no one such thing as what it means to be black… That said, to be a person who doesn’t look identifiably black, changes how you move through the world. I experience light-skin or white-skin privilege, depending on the context, so I had a different experience from people who are darker skinned.

I had a lot of people, particularly those who were not black, who were baffled by my identification with blackness. To them, they didn’t understand why I would want to identity as black. But I think most black people I have met have a range of colors in their family, so they have less trouble identifying me as black.

As a woman of color, how are you responding and reacting to the current political situation, specifically the election of Donald Trump?

For me, it’s exciting to see many people who I perceived as “sleeping on the job”, becoming more active in ways that I think are necessary to ensure the freedom and liberation of everyone in the nation. I hope the kind of mobilization we saw around the Women’s March will continue, and not flag as we progress.

As the U.S. population continues to become more mixed, how will the perception of being a mixed person change? How will this influence the ways we continue to view race?

I don’t really have a prediction, except that because this nation is so based on systems of white supremacy, it’s hard for me to see the racial conversation being dismantled. It’s hard for me to imagine this post-racial society that we were supposed to have entered to with the election of Barack Obama, which is to say we will be talking in the same way a couple generations from now using the same terminology about race that we do, which was already outdated from the start. These statistics being raised are important to think about. In the year 2043, which is when we become a no longer white majority nation, it begs the question what it will look like to look like a typical American… which means we have to think in more broad terms about who is American, what it means to be of this place, who this place belongs to.


On Citation, Collaboration and Teaching a History of Hip-Hop

by Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan

It’s another typical Wednesday evening on Duke University’s East Campus; typical only because for the past seven years, the White Lecture Hall has hosted, The History of Hip-Hop, a collaborative teaching experience between Grammy Award-winning producer Patrick Douthit, aka 9th Wonder, and Professor Mark Anthony Neal.

On this particular evening, Douthit, a founding member of North Carolina’s Little Brother, is launching into a lecture about standards. It is a conversation that began days before as a Facebook post about Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Steak-Ums and the T-Bone that you can acquire from The Waffle House — and it was not lost on the 100-plus students in attendance on this evening, that the subtext to the lecture was “Shether,” Remy Ma’s recent shot at Nicki Minaj.  Douthit asked the students to crowdsource criteria for what makes a classic rapper. The lecture ends with a reference to Douthit’s now legendary rant-turned-lecture, “They Give Out Too Many M*fking Jerseys,” a riff off on Chuck D’s notion that unlike elite levels of organized sport, Hip-Hop has become a site where “everybody” thinks they can be on the field.

9th Wonder, Timothy Anne Burnside, Mark Anthony Neal

Sitting in the audience this night is Timothy Anne Burnside, a curatorial specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), but who is, most notably, the woman who acquired the legendary J-Dilla’s equipment for the then still-under-construction museum in 2014.

Later that evening — the class meets once-a-week for 2 ½ hours — Burnside shares that Dilla’s equipment is the most referenced artifact in the NMAAHC, more so than Nat Turner’s bible and Harriet Tubman’s shawl. The revelation is as much about the global popularity of Hip-Hop as it is emblematic of the vision of the museum’s director Dr. Lonnie Bunch and his team to create a “born digital” museum.  After class, students approach Burnside to ask how she created her own lane with regards to digital curation.

A typical Wednesday evening.

Two weeks earlier Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli joined Douthit and Neal on stage in class, as part of a four-day residency that is part of Duke Performances’ Hip-Hop Initiative led by Aaron Greenwald.  Over the past seven years, artists and thinkers such as James Braxton Peterson, Jason Moran, Joan Morgan, Yaba Blay, Ronald K. Brown, Eboni Marshall Turman, Bakari Kitwana, and Blitz the Ambassador, are among those who have visited the class.  Included in that group is Rapsody, signed to Douthit’s Jamla label, who sat in the classroom audience many times, well before anybody heard her collaboration with Kendrick Lamar (“Complexion”) or about her joint deal with Jamla and Roc Nation.   As the class is also open to the public, it is not unusual for students from North Carolina Central University — a local HBCU — or UNC-Chapel Hill, to sit in, as well as community members, like Lamont Lilly who was the vice-presidential candidate for the Workers World Party.

The centerpiece of The History of Hip-Hop is, of course, the collaborative relationship between Douthit and Neal. The two first met in the studio of the local public radio station, WUNC(91.5), and began a fast conversation about fatherhood and Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).”  That initial conversation morphed into series of public events, including “Sampling Motown,” a public conversation held at the Nasher Museum at Duke where they were joined by Harry Weinger, a Grammy Award-winning producer and Universal Records executive who, over the past twenty-years, has been charged with caretaking the catalogues of James Brown and Michael Jackson among others.

Douthit joined the Duke University faculty in 2010 as an adjunct lecturer, and he and Neal offered the course,“Sampling Soul,” the precursor to “The History of Hip-Hop”, and in which noted Black feminist scholar and activist Dr. Treva Lindsey served as one of the course’s graduate teaching assistants. There were 80 students enrolled in 2010; in the 2017 iteration of the course, there are 138 students officially enrolled in the course, the majority of whom are non-Black.

Yet the strength of the course goes well beyond the collaborative energies of the two primary interlocutors — one a 40-something native of Winston-Salem, N.C.; the other, a just barely 50-something son of the South Bronx; both married fathers of two teenaged daughters.  The commitment to collaboration is extended to the class team, including Senior Librarian Karen Jean Hunt, who until her recent retirement, was embedded in the class as research resource. There is at least one Duke alum  of “The History of Hip-Hop” course who went on to successfully pursue a master’s degree in library science, because of Hunt’s vision of what a progressive, engaged librarian could be.

Ebony Marshall Turman, Yaba Blay, Joan Morgan and Rapsody

The foundation of the class team is the three graduate teaching assistants, led this semester by I. Augustus Durham, and including Shontea Smith and Nura Sediqe. Though there are the obvious classroom management responsibilities the trio also vet and distribute the course discussion questions (crowdsourced from the students), manage the classroom social media platform on Twitter (@DukeU_HipHop) and bring their own interdisciplinary expertise — African-American literature, public policy, political science, and Black religious thought — to bear on the course.  Durham even curates the course’s Spotify account, where playlists are derived (and named) from course lecture notes. Recent playlists include “Motown, to my parents, was Young Money” and “Rosetta and James Cleveland made a bet.”

For the past three years, beginning with an experiment that began in Neal’s course “Michael Jackson and the Black Performance” tradition, students have been required to produce digital final group projects. The students are asked to reevaluate classic Hip-Hop recordings in the context of the contemporary moment, with the caveat that the final product must be accessible and spreadable (with a nod to Digital Humanities OG Henry Jenkins) to various social media platform. Archana Gowda serves as the digital consultant to the classroom, helping to facilitate the work of the class.

In the first iteration of the digital final project in 2015, students revisited Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990), from which tracks like “Who Stole the Soul?” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” generated some of the most inspired responses.  Last spring students took under to consideration two recordings that marked 20th anniversaries: The Fugees’ The Score and Jay Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt. This semester the pool has been expanded to three recordings including The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death (released March of 1997), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (released February of 1997) and Eric B and Rakim’s debut Paid in Full, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.  To bring the theme of the digital projects full circle, Rakim is headlining this year’s Art of Cool Festival in Durham in April, giving the students the opportunity to witness the lyrical legend in performance.

Though the course is branded as a history of Hip-Hop, for most students the course serves as a history of 20th century Black cultural and political history.  Rakim for example, allows not only an exploration of the political economy of Black life in the 1980s, but an excavation of the ideology of the Five Percent Nation — a street-born worldview derived loosely from the Nation of Islam, which also inform Erykah Badu’s debut — that broadens our understanding of the relationship of African-Americans to traditional and non-traditional forms of Islam. In the spirit of scholar Tricia Rose’s classic description of Hip-Hop in her book, Black Noise as the process of  “flow, layering and rupture,” “The History of Hip Hop” takes serious the idea of Hip-Hop as a broadly defined citation practice; the sampling and citation of Black Culture writ large — an archival project.

Talib Kweli: The Beautiful Struggle Continues

Last week, Talib Kweli, a Grammy Award-winning, politically outspoken rapper, and self-proclaimed “Twitter troll killer,” brought his talent and political insights to a week-long residency sponsored by Duke Performances.

Kweli, a Brooklyn-based hip hop legend, who got his start in the underground rap scene and is often labeled a “conscious rapper” for his socially relevant lyrics, participated in two free, public talks, visited two African American Studies classes, and capped off the week with two sold-out performances at Motorco Music Club with opening act Actual Proof.

The events were presented as part of Duke Performances’ Hip-Hop Initiative, made possible, in part, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.

The residency began with producer/DJ and Duke professor 9th Wonder interviewing Kweli in front of a standing-room only audience at a lunchtime event, held at the Forum for Scholars & Publics Thursday on Duke’s West Campus.

Later, Kweli visited “The Culture and Politics of Respectability,” a course taught jointly at Duke and Smith College. He also visited “The History of Hip Hop,” a class that is open to the public and co-taught by 9th Wonder and Mark Anthony Neal, co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity. Nearly 200 members of the Duke and Durham community attended.

On Friday, “The Beautiful Struggle: Hip-Hop’s Role in the Trump Era,” held at Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham, featured Neal interviewing Kweli about the current political climate and attracted an equally large crowd. The restaurant closed for 90 minutes to accommodate the free community event.

During the talks, Kweli, who has released more than a dozen albums over 20 years, shared his insights on the art of music, the evolution of hip hop, his musical family tree (which includes luminaries such as his partner in rhyme Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey, Puff Daddy, 9th Wonder, and Q-Tip) and “The Seven,” his joint project with fellow rapper, Styles P of The Lox. He also discussed his approach to taking on anonymous critics and haters on Twitter, where he maintains an actively political presence.

“I thoroughly enjoy it,” said Kweli of the mental sparring. “One hundred and forty characters is like two bars. On Twitter you have to be clever and figure out how to make it fit… It trains my brain. It’s like exercise for me.”

Before an interview on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” Kweli spoke about the artistic process and life as a working-class rapper.

On the evolution of his career starting in New York in the ‘90s:

I can’t overemphasize the influence that New York City has had on my career. Because me and my friends, we’d make demo tapes. We’d see the addresses on the back of the albums and see the addresses of the record labels, like, ‘oh that’s on 5th Avenue’ and we would go there.  We’d sit in the lobby and meet interns and runners and assistants of assistants. I spent my teenage years doing that. It was a natural process of being a rapper in New York City. I didn’t really appreciate how good we had it to be able to do that until I started traveling more.

There was a lot of rejection but it never was a deterrent.

I would put on Timberlands at 7 or 8 in the morning, go to school, spend all day in school, then go to the park and be in the park until 3 in the morning. And let me wear a pair of Timberlands right now for a half hour and I have to take these shits off.

On his writing process:

My love for hip hop comes out of peer pressure, it comes out of wanting to be accepted by my peers.

It’s really the challenge that drives me. I was challenged by Mos Def and [producer] Hi Tek, now I’m challenged by Styles P and 9th Wonder. As a professional writer of bars, it’s not even comparable how much more efficient I am now.

This album with Styles P, we did it in a month. Wrote and recorded in a month. Sometimes I hear a beat and I’ll write 16 bars or two verses within five or 10 minutes. That’s not every song. Sometimes songs take 6 months to a year or 2 years to finish.

On being a “conscious rapper:”

More often than not, it’s used in a condescending way. I do conscious hip hop proudly. I do it well. So it’s no coincidence that people associate me with conscious hip hop. The only issue I have is when that’s all that they see me as. Because the people who choose to put music into those types of boxes, that’s how they identify it most of the time.

I put entertainer first. I put the song first. And that’s no disrespect or value judgement on what they do. It’s just a choice. A strategy. A tactic. For me, it’s important that I put the song first. Because if the song is not right, no one really cares. My job is to entertain people. I don’t get paid because of my message. I get paid in cultural currency which is in many ways more wealth. Any my career exists because of my cultural currency. When I step on that stage with that contractual agreement I made at that venue, with that promoter, they’re not paying me to say ‘fuck Donald Trump,’ they’re paying me to entertain people, regardless of how I do it.

The way that I do it has been entertaining, but it’s because I put the song first.

I never sacrifice the musicality. And I don’t shirk from my responsibility as an entertainer.

For more information on upcoming Duke Performances events, visit https://dukeperformances.duke.edu.