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William Jelani Cobb: Respect the intellect

Professor drops knowledge with To the Break of Dawn



As a leading African-American critic and essayist for publications such as the Washington Post and Essence, Spelman College professor William Jelani Cobb is accustomed to analyzing black cultural trends. When Spelman students held a widely publicized protest against Nelly's strip-club anthem "E.I. (Tipdrill Remix)" in 2003, Cobb mentored the participants. He also appears in Byron Hurt's controversial documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes, a wide-ranging critique of machismo, violence and sexism in hip-hop culture.

But for his third book of essays, To the Break of Dawn, Cobb bypassed the sociopolitical debates that, thanks to Hurt's incisive film and Nas' brilliant album Hip-Hop Is Dead, have recently engulfed the art form. "I wrote the book in response to the surprisingly resilient discussion that people have had about hip-hop's status as art," he says. "I had a conversation with [deceased playwright] August Wilson, interestingly enough, and he was very dismissive about hip-hop. He, [music critic] Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis have that perspective – these major black cultural figures that just won't acknowledge the art form."

So, To the Break of Dawn is a response. Cobb bolsters his approach by linking hip-hop with black aesthetic movements such as West African/slavery era music, the blues and gospel. He equates a Nas lyric from "Live at the BBQ" to a Muhammad Ali poem and a Stagolee verse.

"To reckon with hip-hop is to reckon, by necessity, with the fractured history of black manhood, and the tentatively constructed ideals of black masculinity in America," he writes in "Hear My Train Comin'," an excerpt from To the Break of Dawn posted on his website. Other sections are less heady, looking at the culture's musical development and top artists such as Cold Crush Brothers, Rakim, Jay-Z, Scarface and Jean Grae.

"What I want people to do is step away from the headlines for a minute," Cobb says. "When you come to hip-hop, 85 percent of the books are about the social politics. At the end of the day, it's not so much a social movement as an artistic movement."

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