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David Banner, ‘Bless the Mic’ lecture

Oct. 18, Philander Smith College

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David Banner has the mic and he's not giving it up. A month ago, the Mississippi rapper testified before a congressional hearing on, among other things, the lyrical content of rap. Known chiefly for his vulgar, if infectious, club anthems “Like a Pimp” and “Play,” Banner, whose real name is Lavell Crump, may have shocked his critics with his eloquent, mostly lucid testimony. He cited a landmark Supreme Court case on the First Amendment and framed his music as “horror music” based on truth and akin to films.

Last Thursday, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, the self-described “hip-hop president” of Philander Smith College, brought Banner to campus to elaborate on his position as part of the school's “Bless the Mic” lecture series. Because of the contemporary spin on the series, Kimbrough introduced a new title, “Bless the Mic: Chopped and Screwed,” an allusion to the DJ technique of dramatically slowing down rap music — a call to slow down the debate, to focus.

Maybe some combination of the suit and the lights and cameras and Michael Eric Dyson and the congressman helped Banner stay on track during his testimony. Because Thursday night, in jeans and a T-shirt, he was anything but focused. His speech, written on his Blackberry, he told the crowd, was entirely digressive. For more than an hour, the rapper ranted about his childhood, Oprah Winfrey, the importance of not doing anything while on probation, Michael Vick, the evil that old white men do, “Mein Kampf” — whatever entered into his head. Every time he'd hit on something substantive, within moments, he'd tumbled down some other rabbit hole.

I would've been happier hearing Kimbrough elaborate on the theme of his introduction: “Higher education is organized in an outdated fashion.” Banner was clearly impressed. He apparently promised Kimbrough he'd make him the first college president in a hip-hop video. Stay tuned.

Banner's sporadic defense of rap began stridently on the parents-have-screwed-us-up side of the nature vs. nurture debate. “When you listen to rap music, we are a direct reflection on what you did or didn't do,” he said about the pre-hip-hop generation. “There's no original thought.” Then, lest that wasn't sufficiently persuasive, he said, “How can you let Arnold Schwarzenegger kill everyone in Cambodia and go to Mars and kill everyone in Mars, and then become governor of California?” The gist: Horror music should be accepted just like horror films and books.

At another point, he talked about his reluctance to revisit the socially conscious material of his first album. The thoughtful single “Cadillac on 22s,” in particular, he singled out as a commercial flop. “I'm making what you're buying,” he told the crowd. If he could become as rich and powerful as 50 Cent, then Banner could effect change in a way he'd never be able to with his lyrics, he said.

Earlier in his speech, without a hint of self-deprecation (not a popular hip-hop pose) or irony (ditto), he reviewed his early educational bona fides. In kindergarten, he could count to a million. As a third-grader, he was reading novels. Skipping ahead, he talked about becoming the president of student government at Southern University, raising his grade point from 1.0 freshmen year to 3.8 his senior year and earning a scholarship to a master's program at the University of Maryland.

For all his empty provocations, that narrative and its conclusion onstage made the whole night worthwhile. As Banner told the crowd — and proved just by his presence at “Bless the Mic: A Hip-Hop President's Lecture Series” — you can be educated and not forfeit your culture. You can be educated and not abandon street clothes and slang. You can be educated and embrace hip-hop, even its dark corners.

Lindsey Millar

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