Jelani Cobb on 50 Years of Hip-Hop and the Future of Journalism
To Jelani Cobb, reading, writing, and education are inherently acts of empowerment, and sometimes even ones of defiance. A staff writer at The New Yorker since 2015 and recently appointed the dean of Columbia Journalism School, where he has been on the faculty since 2016, Cobb is, in many ways, the paradigm of success in these worlds. Cobb would be the first to admit, though, that the journey to his current position was no cakewalk. Growing up in a working-class family in Queens during the 1970s and ’80s, in tandem with the birth of hip-hop—and the rise of the likes of De La Soul, Run D.M.C., and LL Cool J—Cobb first learned to write by crafting verses and rhymes as an adolescent under the moniker MC Trate. Encouraged by his parents to pursue higher education, he went on to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. It took him seven years to graduate. As Cobb says, “I went to school when I had money, and when I didn’t have money, I didn’t go to school.” After Howard, he spent seven additional years at Rutgers University, from which he received a Ph.D. in American history.
Across his tenure at The New Yorker, Cobb has written on subjects ranging from the power of Dave Chappelle’s comedy, to the vital lessons of Martin Luther King Jr., to Donald Trump as a rapper. Cobb is also the author of the books The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress (2010) and To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (2007). (His early-career writings, many of them from an Africana.com column, were also published in the 2007 compilation The Devil and Dave Chappelle: And Other Essays.) Hip-hop, not so surprisingly, is one of the topics Cobb meditates on most: He recently wrote a New Yorker piece titled “Hip-Hop at Fifty: An Elegy,” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop—a sort of artificial milestone, as Cobb points out, but an important one nonetheless. In all of his work, Cobb provides necessary historical context to pressing issues. Given the precarious moment we’re in when it comes to truth and the future of not just journalism, but democracy itself, he is unquestionably one of the most essential writers, historians, and thinkers of our time.
On this episode, Cobb talks about timing and flow in hip-hop, why being a “first Black” leader in any high-profile profession is like “doing a high-wire act without a net,” and his belief that the future of journalism will include greater transparency around how a story gets made.
Cobb reflects on the five decades since DJ Kool Herc threw a legendary party in the Bronx, and talks about the impact that rappers and MCs from the borough of Queens, such as Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, and Q-Tip, have had on the art form. He also emphasizes the essential role basements played in shaping New York City hip-hop.
Cobb speaks about his parents from an ancestral-roots perspective and his upbringing in the New York City borough of Queens.
Cobb discusses his 14-year higher-educational journey as a student, first at Howard and then at Rutgers.
Cobb talks about his career as a writer and journalist, beginning at the Washington City Paper, and then as a columnist for Africana.com in the early to mid-2000s and more recently at The New Yorker. “If I published a collection of my New Yorker columns,” he says, “it would be almost a journalistic history of the Black Lives Matter era and things that have happened in that moment.”
Cobb remembers several instances of police aggression in his own life and shares lessons he learned from them. “The trick is to balance a wariness of the dangers of the world with appreciation and wonder for the capacity of beauty and wonderful things to exist,” he says.
Cobb shares the joys he felt of his recent appointment as dean of Columbia Journalism School and where he sees the field of journalism headed.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Jelani. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
JELANI COBB: Thank you.
SB: I’d like to begin this conversation on the subject of hip-hop—
JC: As one does.
SB: Yeah, which is turning fifty this year, and it began in the summer of 1973, at this party thrown by DJ Kool Herc, as the legend goes, in the Bronx. You’ve been writing about the subject for decades. You recently wrote a piece about the anniversary for The New Yorker, “Hip-Hop at Fifty: An Elegy.” In 2007, you published this brilliant book, To the Break of Dawn.
JC: Mm-hmm, thank you.
SB: Let’s start with the present moment. What are your views on the right now when it comes to understanding hip-hop and this five-decade legacy?
JC: So the thing about a culture turning fifty years old is that’s an artificial milestone. Humans have ten fingers and we’re prone to multiples of five [laughter] for that reason, one for each hand. So you have fifty years—it’s a nice round number to us. But we are actually imposing what historians call periodization on something that, by its definition, is unwieldy and chaotic and creative and does all these other kinds of things, just like we impose the beginning in 1973 in the Bronx, with Kool Herc. But Kool Herc’s family is Jamaican. Kool Herc is of Jamaican ancestry. So, do we place that before him with the popular Jamaican music, West Indian music that he was exposed to? Do we place the origins at the Black Arts Movement and the syncopated poetry of groups like The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets and other groups like that? Do we place it, all these things, with funk? It’s an arbitrary starting point and an arbitrary finishing point, but it’s manageable for us.
So when I think about hip-hop at this point, I think the marvel is all the things that it has been. It has been a B-boy street culture. It’s been a fad of the downtown art set. It’s been a newly discovered medium of advertising, which, in the 1980s, people thought it was revolutionary. Like, “Hey, we can actually use this as a marketing device.” Then it’s been all these other kinds of more substantial things, like this means of communicating about the world as it was being experienced by a certain set of people, the people who they called “the hip-hop generation,” the people who were my age, born between, I think it was 1965 and 1980 was the categorization for it.
But now they’re two generations. There are people who were born after that, who were steeped in that culture, who have their own understanding of it, and for whom the people who we thought were foundational are like Louis Armstrong is for modern jazz people. Like, “Oh yeah, I know he’s important and so on, but I’m really into this. I’m really into that.”
For me, the thing that I like about hip-hop is that so little of it can be contained and that it spills past all of these boundaries. What started as this “cute” thing that these, as I say, invisible kids in the forgotten precincts of the city had created now is a mechanism for them to tell the whole world what they think, what they feel, how they see. I think that that is probably the most amazing thing about that fifty-year anniversary.
SB: There’s this line in To the Break that this makes me think of—comes to mind here: “Hip-hop is the blues filtered through a century of experience and a thousand miles of asphalt.”
JC: Mm-hmm. So I can tell you the backstory for that, which is that that book, To the Break of Dawn, was a product of an argument I got into with August Wilson, the playwright, as a young person. August Wilson, in fairness, had a complicated relationship to hip-hop. After this discussion, this debate, I later learned that he’d said lots of complimentary things about hip-hop and where it fit in the spectrum of Black culture and so on, but I think I just caught him on the wrong day. [Laughter]
There was an event where he was talking, and it was very hostile to the younger generation of Black creatives, almost on the borderline of evicting us from this tradition of Black art because there was so much that he found to be distasteful about hip-hop. When he came off the stage—and this was maybe 2000, 2001—when he came off the stage, I said, “If my baby don’t do what I tell her to do, I’ll take my 32-20 rifle and cut her half in two.”
He said, “Skip James.” I said, “Yeah, that’s your boy, Skip James. As violent and misogynistic as that is, that is your boy, Skip James, who is a legend to the blues—and is not any more violent or misogynistic than anything that happens in hip-hop.” He was like, “Well, I don’t know…” We just went back and forth about this.
I had this idea that at some point I was going to write this book about the relationship between hip-hop and the blues. I was a graduate student at the time, had to write a doctoral dissertation. Then, when I finished my dissertation and defended it, I was like, “Oh, I think I’m going to write this book on hip-hop in the blues,” and that’s how To the Break of Dawn came about. That is, to your point, the relationship, the things that people were thinking about and talking about, and that the blues encapsulated: the blues as sociology and the blues as history.
All those references to trains—“I’m hopping on a train and my baby’s here, I’ve gone….”—that was because these were transitory people. They were nomadic people. When you read the social history of the South and the aftermath of the Civil War, people whose lives were defined by the constriction of slavery, the only way they understood what freedom meant was to go somewhere. So there were these migrations and people moving from place to place to place. Then, when you listen to hip-hop in that same way, you are now listening to people articulate what their lives are like a century-plus after those bards of the blues began singing about what they were experiencing. So I saw the dialectical relationship between those two art forms.
SB: If we’re going to talk about hip-hop and time, I think we’ve got to talk about flow.
JC: Oh, yeah.
SB: Which, as you’ve written, is “the science of funking with one’s expectations of time.”
JC: Mm-hmm. So it’s interesting because Ralph Ellison, he has this piece—I think it’s in Invisible Man; actually, it might not be in Invisible Man, but he has this incredible scene that he describes where [it’s] between an old fighter and a young fighter, and they’re in the ring and the young fighter is all dazzle and speed, and he’s doing all these things. You think that the old fighter is just washed-up. Then all of a sudden, he steps in and throws this unexpected punch and lays the younger fighter flat. He said he had simply “stepped inside his opponent’s sense of time.” I was like, “That’s it. That’s it.” Speed is one thing and timing is another. You can have all the speed in the world and have bad timing, or you can be slower, but have a sense of timing that conveys something.
So what hip-hop did, when it first started out, when you first listen to early hip-hop it’s very predictable. Da-dat, da-dat, da-dat, da-dat. Da-dat, da-dat, da-dat, da-dat. The rhyme scheme, A-B rhyme scheme, and as it evolved, you began to see a more sophisticated palette of techniques. So when people would talk about flow, they were really articulating what an individual’s sense of timing was and how they played with your expectations, how they played with your time. You expect the rhyming line to be here, but what if I put it here? Or what if I make it half a beat quicker? Or what if I intentionally have jammed too many syllables into this next line so that listening to it, I’m rhyming the first line at this pace, and then the next line is at this pace?
You’re doing that and doing that, and it’s a mathematical relationship that, unless you are, one, a rapper, or two, someone who is a serious observer—someone who takes the music seriously enough to actually listen to what’s happening inside of it—that gets lost. I think because of the people who created hip-hop, there’s this body of literature around jazz where people understand that jazz required a particular technical sophistication because they were using classical European instruments. Rappers don’t do that, and so there was this sense that these people don’t really have any technical sense to what they’re doing, and this is all, like, doggerel. That’s what I was trying to get at when we were talking about the sense of flow and what is really inside of that, what people mean by that.
SB: Where does freestyle, or this notion of freestyle, fit into this?
JC: The same thing, with that relationship between hip-hop and the blues and other improvisational forms of music and expression. With the blues, particularly with the A-A-B structure blues, which is the classic, “My baby done left me and I feel so bad,” and then you repeat that same line: “My baby done left me and I feel so bad,” and then now the next line would be different: “This is the worst feeling a man like me ever had.” The reason why you repeated the second line was that a lot of these songs were improvised. So you would say the first line twice, which gave you time to think of what the third line was going to be, and the third line was typically the punchline.
So a comical one was “Red House Blues,” which Jimi Hendrix actually recorded. I think I quote that in the book where he says, “I think I’ll go over yonder, on over the hill. I think I’ll go on yonder over the hill. If my baby don’t love me no more, I know her sister will,” and that does exactly what you expect it to do. That’s what makes the listener chuckle. It’s the irony; it’s the punchline. Hip-hop, especially early, like freestyle hip-hop, was built around these punchlines, except they were doing something even more daunting, technically, which is that you were only saying the first line once. So you had to actually be articulating a line and thinking of the rhyming line that went with it at the same time.
So it’s this mental dexterity that was required of freestyle rapping that also hearkened back to what blues musicians had been doing. Even the work songs that the blues themselves are built on, which people did on chain gangs, where you’re building a song around the fall of a hammer. Here, you’re building the song around a syncopated sense, someone drumming on a table or someone doing a beatbox or whatever, and you’re building a song as you go. Same skill, same technique, just separated by a century.
SB: Another element of this time/hip-hop thing—we can maybe call it “hip-hop time”—is that it’s in the culture so sped up that you’re quickly going from one thing to the next. You’ve written, “In the lifespan of a culture, seven years is not a long time, but in popular music and especially in hip-hop, it is a millennium.” You’ve also written, “Rappers are created in accord with the reigning flavor of the nanosecond.” [Laughter] So I wanted to ask you, how do you think about this music, this art form in that sense? Because there’s this fleeting nature to it, and yet, some of these songs really endure; they push through that.
JC: Yeah. That’s funny because I can’t even speak to where the edge is at this moment, nor is it for me to do that. But there’s always a certain portion that gets preserved, that speaks beyond this moment. It’s like, it’s unpredictable what you’ll play that will resonate with people down the line. But also, when I think about my parents’ music: Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Lou Rawls, and certainly Marvin Gaye, and all those people. Those people are foundational to me. I think that there are songs that are contemporary for me as hip-hop that are now foundational for a whole other generation of people. You think about, “Oh, they played this in the car when I was on my way to school.” That kind of thing.
SB: Yeah, for sure. I was reading one of your pieces where you referred to Eminem as “Columbine chic,” I think.
JC: Oof. Ouch. [Laughter]
SB: I grew up in Denver, and I remember a whole generation of kids in the late nineties, early 2000s listening to that.
JC: I will say initially I think I was too harsh on Eminem because really, I was writing about the reaction to him more than I was writing about him, and that probably wasn’t fair to him, as an artist. Over time, I think, that’s probably been established. He is who he is and he’s trying to articulate a particular thing. But when people try to draft him into being the Larry Bird of hip-hop, there was never going to be any good outcome to that, a good reaction to that.
But I still think it was significant that there was this white person who was articulating this existential angst and nihilism, this sense of worthlessness that really had not been associated with—certainly not in hip-hop. It wasn’t associated with white people, period, and it wasn’t associated with hip-hop. I think that was part of what made him actually stand out, like, “Wait, I have to listen to this.” Of course, Biggie had talked about the suicidal despair, but it took a long time for hip-hop to really wrap its head around about talking about it, being vulnerable in that way.
JC: With Eminem, it was just right there on the surface. He had this line where he said, “How can I be white when I don’t even exist?” Which was a fascinating thing, which was trying to grapple with who you are as a human being, before you can even get to all the layers of things that come with whatever your particular epidermal pigment is or is not. So yeah, I think if I look back at it, I probably was too harsh on him, at least in my early writings about Eminem.
SB: Yeah. The relationship between generations and music makes me think about kids right now listening to, say, Kendrick Lamar, and that positioning in twenty years from now.
JC: Right. Well, people will say he’s classic now, but not classic in the way that he will be in twenty years. Even then he’ll be archival. So for him in particular, I think that there will be people who could delve into the layers of meaning in his work. I could easily see someone doing a book explicating what he said and what the themes are in his work, just the way someone would examine any other form of poetry, the way someone wrote a book about Rita Dove and her meaning—I’m just picking poets at this point, but—if someone had written an examination of their work, you’d be like, “Oh, this is fitting.” I think that Kendrick would probably fall in that category.
SB: I was interested to learn, while preparing for this interview, there was the fact that you were listening to hip-hop at the time of Tupac and Biggie’s murders almost religiously, it seemed. Like you loved this music. Then that happened, and you stopped listening to hip-hop for almost five years.
SB: It was a Roots concert that brought you back out of it. I was hoping you might speak to those five years, what that was like for you to be removed from the music.
JC: Well, it was interesting because one of the great things about hip-hop was that it was this forum for Black people, but predominantly Black men, to talk about how they experienced the world and some of the shit-talking braggadocio, bravado, that’s an art form. To understand that culturally, that’s a culture I grew up in. Even the purpose that it serves: It’s like a psychic armor that people use when they go out into the world. If the world is going to underestimate you or disparage you, it’s like, “I’m this. I’m that.” You’re really hyping yourself up in a world that won’t do that, and so I appreciated that.
But at the same time, at some point, it became inescapable that it was also feeding into this other dynamic, which I wrote about when I wrote the “Elegy” on hip-hop, people being murdered in the streets. It wasn’t like this was exclusive to hip-hop. The streets were running red with blood in the nineties in Black and brown communities. It was this astounding amount of violence. I had to start grappling with the question of whether hip-hop was a reflection of that or whether hip-hop had become causal.
At the same time, my daughter came into my life at that point; [it was] certainly stuff that I wasn’t going to listen to around her, and it really gave me permission to deepen my interest in other forms of music. Which is actually when I first started really engaging with the blues and re-engaging with soul, classic music that I’d listened to growing up, and re-engaging with funk—certainly deepening my understanding of funk.
When I returned back to listening to hip-hop again frequently, first, I had missed all this stuff. I had missed the window where Jay-Z debuted and just this voice that was out there like, “Yeah, people are talking about this guy, Jay-Z.” But also I think I brought more to the table. I understood the music in a different way, which is why that book, To the Break of Dawn, is a product of that second engagement with the music.
SB: I was also interested to learn that, in your upbringing in Queens, you had what you call “the first words I ever wrote seriously” as rhymes, which you created as the South Queens MC Trate.
JC: Yeah. [Laughs]
SB: Do you remember some of those rhymes now? I was hoping you might share a bit about your life or time as a budding MC.
JC: Oh, yeah. First, I remember many of those rhymes. No, I will not ever reiterate any of them. They’re about what you would anticipate for a 16-year-old rapper.
JC: I do remember that I frequently referred to myself as The Great MC Trate, which was funny even at the time.
Also, one important thing about that was that I learned how to write by writing rhymes, and the things that—my voice really, as a writer…. I have lots of different voices depending on what purpose you serve. It’s like having different clothes in your wardrobe, but what you wear when you’re most yourself, that’s your voice. That’s the thing.
So that is undeniably, almost entirely, shaped by hip-hop, in that sense of rhythm and bravado and dashing sharpness and those kinds of things, those kinds of traits. That was what that was. It was also a reflection of when and where I grew up. I grew up in Queens in the 1970s and eighties, and Run and DMC were my older brother’s classmates, and LL Cool J was my eighth-grade classmate, and lived not all that far from Q-Tip, and Phife [Dawg], and Salt and Pepa. Nas was on the other side of Queens—he’s younger than that set of folk. But still, in Queens, in that environment…. And Kool G Rap. You could just go through this whole—
SB: Pharoahe Monch.
JC: Pharaohe Monch, right, who’s from Southside Queens. There’s a whole geography of all these people who were creating this culture.
I also have a theory about that, by the way, why there were so many of those foundational acts that came from Queens. Then Public Enemy, from Long Island, and then De La Soul, from Long Island.
Hip-hop started in the Bronx and spread to Harlem. Bronx and Harlem: unquestionably the birthplaces, the places where hip-hop gained its first foothold. I think that… So James, as we called him then—the world now calls him LL—told me…. I remember this specifically, I ran into him in the airport about five years ago and told him this story. I was like, “You probably don’t remember this.” I was like, “One, I remember when you came to school and said that your grandfather had bought you two thousand dollars worth of DJ equipment and that you were in your basement using that DJ equipment.” He later used that equipment to make the demo that he sent to Rick Rubin.
JC: So we were 13 at that time. So two years later, that’s where that came from. The significance of that story was lost on me at the time. But one, he had a family that had enough disposable income to buy him musical equipment, and two, he had a basement. It’s like, the basement for those rappers was what the garage was for the Silicon Valley people and start-ups, which is mainly a space where you could explore and not get on your parents’ nerves.
So all of those rappers, who were from middle-class families, they had this Black experience. They were steeped in the same culture. But they generally had material advantages that their counterparts in other parts of the city didn’t have. I think that was why so much of that music was clustered in those parts of Queens.
SB: The basements.
JC: Yeah, the basements.
SB: Let’s get into your family history and upbringing in Queens. Both of your parents migrated from the American South. From a historical or ancestral-roots perspective, how do you think about your family and your parents?
JC: So, when I was 18, I was at Howard. I took this course called “Black Diaspora,” which was required. It was a required course. In it, we learned about pre-contact, pre-colonial Africa. We learned about the transatlantic slave trade. We learned about the diaspora, the Black diaspora. We learned about the Great Migration. We learned about the Cold War and the dynamics of the Cold War in the Caribbean, and the migrations that came as a result of it. We learned about all of these things—urban renewal, Harlem, the Bronx—all of these things that at some point became clear to me were contextualizing my life.
I had never thought about the fact that I grew up in this neighborhood in Queens that was full of Black families that had migrated up from the South—and we were the children of those migrants—full of West Indian families who had migrated from Jamaica, from Trinidad, from Haiti, significant populations there and that many of the people who lived in Queens had come there from the Bronx and Harlem.
The Civil Rights Movement had actually opened those doors, made it possible for Black people to begin getting a foothold in the housing market, begin buying homes in New York. All of that stuff, to understand that your life is not happenstance, is not a product of just a random set of occurrences, that there are these historical currents and you exist inside them, and that’s how you are here at this particular moment, that’s how you’re having these particular experiences, that’s why my parents were making cornbread and pig’s feet where my other friend’s parents were making ackee and saltfish, or my friends over here whose parents were making roti and all these things, and it reflected those other kinds of dynamics.
So my father, who had come from rural Georgia, a place called Hazelhurst, came up in the World War II migration. My mother, who was a good deal younger than my father, came up to New York in the early 1960s. But for dynamics and things that are connected in history, they’re very clear. My mother saw a future of cleaning white people’s houses in Alabama and said, “No, thank you.” My father really thought that there was nothing ahead of him in Hazelhurst, Georgia, and that he had this idea, which he told me later, laughingly, that if he could just make it to New York City, everything else in his life would be okay.
They met in Harlem. My father was an electrician in a building my mother lived in. He got sent to fix some lights and he was like, “Oh, no, I have much more important matters than fixing the electricity here.” [Laughter] So he just kept talking to my mother until she realized that he was not going to go away until he had her phone number, and that was how they met.
SB: That’s incredible. What are some of your earliest writing memories? I know you’ve mentioned that your father taught you the alphabet and that’s maybe the earliest.
JC: Yeah. So my father taught me the alphabet. That’s a story I’ve told a few times, which is that my father had a third-grade education and that he was very intent upon me getting more education than he had. One of the first things I remember was him tracing the letters of the alphabet with his hand wrapped around my hand, which is something I’ve done with my own children just for continuity purposes. They’ll learn the alphabet in school and all those other kinds of things, but I just was like, “I want you to have this memory of us doing this, too.”
It’s funny because I always tell my students that. I say that we like to think that we can escape our parents. On some level, perhaps you can, but your parents also have a good decade to program you before you even know what’s going on: birth to 10 years old and maybe even more. So my father would always give me writing pads as a gift. If he was gone or he was coming home from work, he would give me a writing pad and a pen.
I don’t know that he conscientiously set out to, or consciously set out to make me a writer, but he gave me the implements. So that was what got me started, and then I picked up this love of reading. And my mother explaining to me what a metaphor was, which I remember distinctly and getting the sense of, “Oh, that’s amazing. That’s an amazing concept.” That was what registered with me.
SB: You’ve said that your mom read “voraciously as an act of self-defense.” Could you elaborate on that? Also, was she shoving books in your hands?
JC: So we had a reading time. We all had a time when we had to read for—maybe it was like thirty minutes or something. But my mother— This is something that was psychological that I later recognized. I didn’t figure this out about my mother. I figured it out interacting with other people of her generation, most of them Black people, but not exclusively.
Newspapers—and it’s interesting that I work in journalism—newspapers serve this function of informing the public, in the classical sense. This is pre-internet, of course, they served this purpose of informing the public, but they also educated the public in many ways. A person who did not have a great deal of formal education, but who read the newspaper every day would know what was happening in this art exhibit. They would know what bills Congress was considering. They would know what the mayor was doing. And you could interact in the world in an informed way, and public libraries, which I love to this day. I would say that I give every year to the Queens Public Library because I think that libraries are the most democratic institution we have. We should wish that our Congress was as democratic as our libraries are.
My mother always went to the library because she had dropped out of high school, in Alabama. She finished high school in Detroit, but that was as far as she went, in my youth. She went back to college when she was 52 and actually got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work from N.Y.U., which she was immensely proud of. But at that time, being able to read and to be well-read, to read the newspaper, to read books from the library, it allowed you to interface in this world on, if not equal footing, more equal footing than you would’ve had access to otherwise.
SB: From there, you go to Howard University. You also attend Rutgers for your Ph.D. in American history. I was hoping, could you tell me a little bit about your, I guess we could call it “training” period—your education. How do you think about your time at university now, looking back?
JC: Oh, it’s so funny. I had no idea what I was doing when I first got to college, not really a clear sense of why I was there. Honestly, I didn’t really think that this scheme was going to work out. So, like most first-generation kids, I got pushed toward law. It’s like, you get pushed toward law, business, or engineering—or medicine. Those are the “acceptable” majors. My mother wanted me to be a doctor, and I thought I wanted to be a lawyer until I took that “Black Diaspora” class and then became aware of the way in which history could make sense of the world. That was it. It was a course taught by a professor named Adell Patton. That sent me on that path. It was, of course, a circuitous road. I say I went to school when I had money, and when I didn’t have money, I didn’t go to school, so—
SB: Seven years until you graduated.
JC: Seven years, it took me seven years to graduate from undergrad. But I had this basement apartment, which…. it was the worst apartment in Washington, D.C. It flooded; it was semi-heated. It was not a great apartment, but it was like my laboratory because during the years when I was out of school and I was just working at bookstores, I accumulated this library.
I devoted every other hour in my spare time to reading and trying my fledgling efforts at becoming a writer. So I still think back, and not fondly, ’cause that place was a dump, but I do think about that. This was about a year ago, I was in D.C. for something else, and I just stopped by that block where it was and just looked at this building and was like, “Wow, that place was exactly thirty years ago.” I was like, “Man, would you imagine if that dude walked out of that door and looked across the street and saw this dude, would he ever imagine that he was capable of becoming that?” I was like, almost certainly not, because I felt like all of those things were just foolish diversions. And that was it. I got back into school through the intervention of a professor, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, who basically helped talk them into letting me register despite these outstanding debts that I had.
And I got in, and finished, then people were shocked because it took me seven years to finish undergrad. I was like, “Now I want to get a Ph.D.” They were like, “Are you crazy? Are you on drugs? What’s wrong with you? That’s going to take forever.” [Laughter] That took seven more years. But the thing that occurred to me was, those seven years will go by either way. Seven years from now, I could either have a Ph.D. or not, and so it’s like, I’m going to keep doing this thing.
SB: Well, I think what’s so profound too—those seven years, seven years—it’s the most valuable thing you had, was time, right?
JC: Yeah. Yeah, especially to be on the other side of it now. Time was the biggest resource I had. Now I have no time. Every single day, time is budgeted to the minute.
SB: Well, I’m glad we have an hour together.
JC: Right. Right. But even this hour, look how much work it took to actually get this hour.
SB: That’s true.
SB: That’s true. There was some rescheduling.
JC: Yeah. I didn’t know at the time that— I was like, I knew I had to do these things, but I didn’t know, Oh, you don’t have money. You don’t have connections, you don’t have resources. You have time. And if you use that time, you can actually get to be really good at the thing that you want to do, and that will help you move through all these other kinds of obstacles.
SB: Well, it strikes me that we were talking earlier about these budding rappers and MCs in basements, and then you’re in this—
SB: —basement, too.
JC: I’m in this basement, exactly. Yeah. [Laughs]
SB: You’ve got this great Washington City Paper story about David Carr.
SB: I wanted to bring him up because he’s a voice that I really hope doesn’t get lost to time.
SB: You wrote a beautiful tribute to him after he died, too.
JC: Yeah. Carr was this incredibly original person who Ta-Nehisi [Coates] introduced me to him. So Ta-Nehisi Coates and I overlapped at Howard because it took me so long to finish. When I came back, he was actually just starting. So we met. He was this freshman and I was this super-duper senior. Somehow or another, we connected around writing.
He met Carr and was like, “You should talk to Carr.” I was like, “Oh, okay. All right, whatever.” But I did wind up sending him some clips and those things, and he told me to come down. He was like, “You can come down to the offices.” So I go into the office and he’s sitting at his desk and the office is dark. I go to turn the light on, ’cause I’m like, I don’t know what this is. This is an interview. What’s happening? It’s a dark room.
So I go to turn the light on. He’s like, “No, no, no, don’t turn the light on.” It’s like, okay. He says, “Yeah, I used to spend a lot of time in dark crackhouses; I still can’t deal with overhead light.” I was like, Okay, this dude is not serious. I’m like, This is not for real. It’s like, he opens his blinds, so sunlight filters in, but it’s almost like a scene from a noir movie or something. I was like, What is happening here? He read the clips. He was like, “Oh yeah, you’re good. You should work here. Can you start whenever?” I was like, “Sure.” But I’m still not sure that this is actually a real thing.
Then later I learned that no, he did. He spent a lot of time in dark crackhouses. He had this drug problem, which he has been enormously candid about, and which was foundational to him in all these other kinds of ways and [in] what he did. I think Carr was possibly the most honest person I’ve ever known. What that enabled was an equal degree of honesty. He could interact with people, which is a tremendous advantage for a journalist. You could interact with people in ways that make them implicitly unguarded. He came by that honesty really hard, but that’s part of who he was.
SB: Was that, meeting him, an entrée into journalism for you?
JC: It was an entrée into serious journalism, or more of an entrée, ’cause I’d already been writing at a small outlet called One Magazine. Coming into Washington City Paper, I got a lot of understanding about the metabolism of a newspaper. The New Yorker operates in the same metabolism that the City Paper did, with the same functions, the same editorial meetings. I didn’t realize that this was a template that worked at scale that I was being introduced to, and that Carr would have expectations. He would talk about when we’d done well, he would chew us out when we hadn’t. He also was really, in a way that is now I think, common to the best editors, really exacting like, “Do you know this, or do you think this?” He wouldn’t allow you to take the lazy route or to dodge something. You had to double and triple check to make sure that you were accurate.
I wrote, after he died, that the voice in the back of my head, all these years later, that says, “Do you know this? Are you being sloppy?” That voice is David’s, to this day.
SB: I also wanted to bring up the “Past Imperfect” column you wrote for Africana.com. It’s been nearly twenty years since—
JC: Oh, my God.
SB: —you started that column.
JC: That’s a scary thought. [Laughs]
SB: What stands out to you from that particular body of work, which was an interesting time in the internet—
SB: It was still the AOL era.
SB: Getting out of dial-up to ethernet.
JC: Yeah. So there were a lot of us who had started this column when Africana.com first started, which Skip Gates created. I was there; they hired me. Amy Alexander was a columnist. Bomani Jones, who’s on HBO now, was a columnist there. Lester Spence wrote about politics, A bunch of us who were really young in our careers, but I think took ourselves very seriously.
We were writing about race in, I think, ways that tended to be maybe more thoughtful or more informed than the general murmurs that you saw bouncing around. Really, I think that was one of the points at which I became more clear about what I want to do, what specific niche that I wanted to occupy. So the stuff I do at The New Yorker now is a direct outgrowth of the Africana.com columns. Some of those columns were combined in a book called The Devil and Dave Chappelle: And Other Essays. So I wrote about the Iraq War for that. I wrote about the death of Coretta Scott King. I wrote about, obviously Dave Chappelle, who at that point had a very different profile as a comedian than he has now.
So at the end of the Africana.com era, I was looking at all this work that I had done and I put it up on a website. I had this personal website and this editor reached out to me and was like, “Would you take all these things down from the internet and send them to me so we can make a book?” I was like, “Absolutely.” I was like, “Not a problem.” So I did that and that’s where that book The Devil and Dave Chappelle came from.
SB: Well, yeah, these echoes of that work and the work you’re doing now, one of the things you’ve been writing about for more than twenty-five years is police and policing and race. How do you think about your particular work in this realm, whether it’s writing about Amadou Diallo, or your first story for The New Yorker, in 2012, which was on Trayvon Martin?
JC: That’s right. Yeah.
SB: How do you think about all of that particular work and what has it taught you about history, about America, about time?
JC: So, going back to your previous question, what Africana.com established to me was that I wanted to write about current events, but I wanted to write about current events with historical context, and the relationship between the past and the present, which is why that column was called “Past Imperfect.” The relationship between the past and the present was really fertile ground; you could always find ways to understand what was happening now contextually.
So the emergence of these issues around policing in the public consciousness—which has happened over several iterations—but I would say the beginning of that period was with Trayvon Martin, I met David Remnick at a dinner party. And he invited me to submit something to the website. Which is funny because for most people an invitation to write for The New Yorker is huge. I was like, This guy is not serious. Which is funny, I guess. I had the same reaction between David Carr and David Remnick, but it was for very different reasons. I was like, Ehhh, this is just something people say at dinner parties.
But I still did the due diligence and sent him an email after like, “Great meeting you,” and so on. He then connected me via email to Amy Davidson, now Amy Davidson Sorkin. She said, “Would you mind writing something about this situation in Florida?” People didn’t even know the name Trayvon at that point. It was just this thing that was bubbling around on the internet. I don’t even think there had been substantial mainstream media coverage of it at that point.
So I wrote this piece called “Trayvon Martin and The Parameters of Hope.” It was about how all of these policing issues had existed prior to Trayvon Martin and all these things had existed prior to Barack Obama. But the fact that they could coexist with a Black president meant that you had to change your understanding of what a Black presidency meant. Obama had always said the biggest obstacle that he was trying to surmount when he was a candidate was cynicism. He wouldn’t say racism—obviously you couldn’t say that, that’d be radioactive—but he was like, “The cynics, when you all say this….” You could go back to his campaign rhetoric. He said “cynicism” a billion times. It’s like, “The cynics—”
SB: You could just cross it all out, replace it with racism.
JC: Yes. Yes, exactly. You could almost always cross out “cynic” and replace it with “racist.” It was like, at that point, he was waging this campaign against cynicism and the doubt that he could become president. But on some other level, there was a justified cynicism, or skepticism, that, even with a Black president, there was going to be this break with history. That was the first thing that I wrote for The New Yorker. At the time, I was like, Okay, I’ve written for The New Yorker. That’s good.
I specifically remember Amy saying, “Why don’t you stay with this story?” I was like, “Okay.” I had no idea that, not only was the story going to become what it became, but that it was going to be the benchmark for this whole other era that ultimately became the Black Lives Matter era. And that, if I published a collection of my New Yorker stuff, my New Yorker columns—which I occasionally give thought to doing—if I published a collection of my New Yorker columns, it would be almost a journalistic history of the Black Lives Matter era and things that have happened in that moment.
SB: There were so many quotes about history and your writing that I pulled for this interview.
JC: Oh. [Laughs]
SB: The one that really stands out to me and situates itself really interestingly in this conversation is, “History, according to a wise source of mine, is five minutes ago.”
JC: Yeah. A friend of mine said that. “History is five minutes ago.” I think what he meant was, like, we’re talking about a very thin membrane between what’s happening now and what has happened before, which was also the thing that led to is another line, I think, that I said that “History is interred in the shallowest of graves.”
There was this incredible metaphor about history, and this wasn’t something I made up; this was actual real life, which is that I spent a semester in Moscow, as a Fulbright [scholar], in 2010. One thing about the United States is that we’re kind of ahistorical. We’re an ahistorical society, generally speaking. We don’t deeply engage with the past.
Russia is not like that, like, not at all. The past is an animate part of the present. They don’t really make that same distinction in the way that we do, especially particular parts of the past, like World War II. Now, of course, they lost twenty-six million people, which is something that a society is scarred by. You don’t forget easily, generally speaking.
I visited a high school and these young people were excitedly telling me about what they were doing as this class project. It was a class project that no American high school would ever engage in, that I could not imagine any American teenager being eager to participate in. It just is contextually so far out of our frame of reference that it would be illegible to us. Because so many people died in World War II, so many Russians died in World War II, there are a lot of people buried in mass graves. So these high school students were going to a national historic site to help flag the places where the bones had begun to rise out of the soil.
If you need a more heavy-handed metaphor for the past reasserting itself in the present, I don’t know where you would find one. But I think that that also explained a lot of things to me. The past does that literally, in that context, but it does it metaphorically all the time. So we are having to engage with those kinds of elements and understand the ways in which we’re shaped by these dynamics that precede us, in ways that we are not even necessarily conscious of. So that’s the thing that I got.
I learned a lot of facts in graduate school. I went to Rutgers for my doctorate in American history. I learned a lot of facts about history, but probably the most valuable things that I learned were the philosophical element of what history is and what history means.
SB: Yeah. Your quotes of metaphor, another from a piece you wrote about Rodney King when he died, it was an obituary/tribute to Rodney and his life. You wrote, “History’s encores are often just as brutal as its debuts.”
JC: Yeah. I don’t remember writing that, but that’s a good line, though. [Laughs]
SB: Tell me about your own interactions with police. I read you’ve had police pull guns on you three times.
JC: Yeah, which is something interesting because I recently wrote a piece about the Manhattan D.A., Alvin Bragg. He also has had, in his youth, police pull guns on him three times. And we are roughly the same age. I’m a little bit older than him, but we’re both from New York. He’s from Harlem, I’m from Queens, and we grew up in a period in which [that kind of] policing was acceptable; that was the acceptable behavior.
The most notable of those was when I was at Howard and we were walking on a really narrow sidewalk. Two of my friends were on the sidewalk, and I was walking along the curb next to them, like, the sidewalk was literally too narrow for me to walk next to them. But a police officer pulled over and jumped out with his hand on his gun. He didn’t draw it, but he jumped out with his hand on his gun and said, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.” I was like, “What?! What?” Then he got in his car and drove off, but I was like, “Yo, what just happened?”
So we had other interactions like that with police, especially as a young person, and so that came to frame our understanding. My father, who had come north in the Great Migration and who had moved to Harlem and had lived his life and learned what living in a city meant, one of the first things he told me, as a young person, I was like, 10—he was like, “Never let a police officer hand you anything.” I was like, “Why not?” He said, “They just want to put your fingerprints on something.” I heard him say, “Is this your knife? Is this your gun? Are these your drugs?” Or whatever. He was like, “Anytime you interact with a police officer, you keep your hands at your sides.” And that was the start.
But whatever barometer of progress it is or is not—my twin sons are 3, so they wouldn’t understand this—but when they’re older, that’s something I absolutely would tell them, too. We still live in that world, where that is relevant information.
SB: What would you say to them, I guess, when you do say that to them? I’m thinking here of Ta-Nehisi, actually, and [Between the World and Me] that beautiful book he wrote to his son.
JC: I think that the trick is to balance a wariness of the dangers of the world with appreciation and wonder for the capacity of beauty and wonderful things to exist in the world. It’s like using a knife. I remember when my parents would first let me use a knife, there were all of these things about, “It’s sharp. Hold it like this. Don’t do that, don’t do this. But then you can cook, you can cut things. You can put this in the pot, you can make this and all these other kinds of things. You always have to bear in mind, this knife is dangerous and you can really get hurt badly if you don’t handle it with care, but you can also use it to do these amazing things.”
So I think that would be the type of balance that I would want to strike with them, and my daughter, who is 6 years old. I have a daughter who is 30 as well, but my advice is, she’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it.” [Laughter] But for my younger kids, I think that that’s something that’s important for me to convey to them.
SB: Before we finish, I wanted to talk about your appointment as dean at Columbia Journalism School, which began last summer following six years as a professor there, at the university. Could you speak to how you responded? How did it feel when you were propelled into this hot seat, let’s say?
JC: I’ll be honest with you, I think it was a little intimidating. So being a dean was not on my dance card. It was funny, because I said this in a meeting once. It was a whole group of deans, and I had to introduce myself, and I said, “This was not on my radar as something I aspired to do.”
Everyone started laughing. They were like, “None of us aspired to be a dean.” I thought about it, and I was like, It’s such a specific job that…. Nobody’s like, “I want to be a dean when I grow up.” So when the possibility first arose, my initial reaction was like, Nah, I’m not going to do that. I was very much invested in my books, my writing, the things that I was doing. I was like, All right, but let me think about this. What would you do if you were dean?
Then, I actually started thinking a little bit about my own hypocrisy, because I had written a lot about what was wrong with our democracy, about the places where the media had fallen down, about things we had gotten wrong, about the vital role that journalism plays in preservation of democracy, the need to diversify the institution and the profession—just all of these things. I said, and here, if you have a possibility to actually do those things, you’re like, “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t like it.” So it was like, “Oh, you just want to talk.” I thought about that and I was like, all right. Okay, so I don’t want to be a talker, but what would you do?
Then I started thinking about orienting our reporting so that it is explicitly democracy-oriented, or democracy-focused, and working on accessibility, so that, as I said in my interview, I said, “We have a choice between educating the best journalists in the world or the best journalists who could afford us, and I would rather do the former.” So that meant thinking about how the structure of the school and tuition and financial aid and all these other kinds of things—things I’m still wrestling with, and that my team is still wrestling with—then thinking about diversifying, to make sure that journalism looks like the country that it covers, which is extremely important. Just thinking about what that moment presented, and then I was like, Okay, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.
My initial reaction was like, No, I’m not going to do that. But by the time I got to the interview phase, I would’ve been severely disappointed if I did not get it, because I was like, If I go for it, then I’m going to really go for it. I’m going to do everything that I can do to try to get this position.
President Bollinger, Lee Bollinger, called. I think it was a Wednesday morning, and I was in the midst of trying to get my daughter dressed. We were trying to get my daughter out the door, and at her school, if you do something good, you get a sticker. So I was on the phone and I was explaining to my wife what was happening. I was like, “It’s the president.” I put my hand over the phone and was like [whispers], “It’s the president.” Then my daughter was trying to understand what was going on. So then my wife was explaining to her what was happening, and then he said, “I’d like to offer you the deanship of the journalism school.”
Which was incredible. I was like, I didn’t even know what to say about that. Well, my daughter said—she had these stickers, and she said, “You did something good. You can pick any sticker you want,” which was the sweetest thing she could have said. So somehow or another, I wound up with a sticker of a pig and I put it on my phone. So that was, to this day, I think probably the most valuable accolade that I’ve gotten about this position.
SB: Are you the first Black dean?
JC: I am. Yeah.
SB: I asked this because you’ve written about the notion of the “first Black.”
JC: Yeah, I wrote about Colin Powell. I should probably revisit that column and see what I said about that. But I wrote about the dilemma of being the first Black person in the high-profile position.
SB: In the all-white arena.
JC: In the all-white arena. I said, it is probably [like] doing a high-wire act without a net.
Well, what’s interesting to me is that a student raised that. I have open hours, and I didn’t expect their question, but she just spat it out. She said, “Do you think it’s harder for you as the first Black dean?” I said, “That’s a really interesting question.” I said, “I think that there’s probably a bigger spotlight in some ways.” In some other ways, it’s just, you do what you do. Some of the ways— People notice that you’re the first Black dean of this prestigious journalism school, and that could translate to pressure if you thought of it that way.
But at the same time, a few days before that, I had been walking down the street, walking my sons to school, and this car a guy was driving, stopped, backed up, and he said, “Hey, you’re the new dean at Columbia, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Good luck, brother. Good luck. We’re pullin’ for you.” I said, “Thank you,” and he drove off. So my son said, “Is that your friend?” I said, “Kinda.” I said that, if there is more pressure that comes with that position or that visibility, there’s also all these people who are invested in these ways that offsets that. So at the end of the day, I don’t think that much about it. I’m way, way too busy to dwell on that. It’s just, how do we get to the next level?
SB: You’ve stated that your focus is democratization and really training journalists for this world of disinformation that we find ourselves in—an “assault on truth,” you’ve called it. Could you talk about how you hope to maybe shift certain things within the school to attack that assault on truth?
JC: So one of the things I think is—I think we already do this, but we should be more explicit about it, about putting our reporting up front. So there’s a new motto that I’m going to unveil, for your listeners first: “Reporting begins here.” That is what we do. As a dry-cleaning shop, we dry-clean. There’s lots of other stuff that happens, but we dry-clean. That’s our thing.
Inside of that, I want to invest in our capacity to teach digital forensics, which, I think, is going to be important. It’s one of the growth areas. It’s one of the things that people are hiring around. If somebody sends you a video that they purport shows Russian soldiers committing war crimes in Ukraine, how do you know that video is what it says? Now, in the automation era, how do you know that video is even real?
SB: A.I., it’s extraordinary.
JC: Yeah, A.I. is it, right, exactly. So journalists, just like we have fact-checking now, we’re going to need to be conversant in digital forensics and, in that language, how do you operate in a disinformation ecosystem?
One of the things that I keep saying, which is my recommendation, is that when we publish, we should have a link to how the story was reported. Meaning, “I got an anonymous tip that sent me this document that related to this government agency. I called that agency to see if this was accurate, which then led me to file this Freedom of Information Act request, which then led me to interview this person who formerly worked there and to look at the documents associated with this lawsuit. On the basis of that, I interviewed the head of this agency, they said this and this. I had evidence that it was actually that this and the other.” That’s how this story works.
SB: How the sausage is made.
SB: It’s like slow news, in a way. It’s unpacking, “This is where the pig came from.”
JC: Exactly, but also I think that was the benefit of having a social science background. News is traditionally operated on the basis of trust. Social science operates on the basis of distrust, as is with the hard sciences. Unless I can replicate your findings, I don’t really believe you. So we have to find some sort of middle ground, I think now, because trust is at a high premium.
SB: So the final question, before we finish, there’s one last quote of yours, and I couldn’t get it out of my head after reading it: “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
JC: Oh, yeah. Did I say that? A lot of people have used that before. I just—
SB: One of those things that’s like, well, yeah, obvious, but when you think about it in the context of history…..
JC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Right. I had a math teacher, Mr. McCaskill, who pointed out that you could, under certain circumstances, make mistakes in a math problem and still come away with the right answer. It was like, But you’re still wrong. That’s where the whole show-your-work thing comes in. If you only deal with your number, your product or whatever, your dividend, it’s like, Oh, okay. You nailed this. But when you have steps in there, sometimes you’ll make a mistake and correct that mistake with another mistake [laughs], and they’ll cancel each other out. You’ll be wrong as hell, but have the right answer.
So sometimes we encounter right for the wrong reason and sometimes wrong for the right reason. That’s part of what I think makes doing opinion commentary interesting.
SB: Jelani, thank you so much. This was a pleasure.
JC: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 6, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo.