Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nas and the National Symphony Orchestra: Who's Legitimizing Whom?

So the rapper and hip hop extraordinaire Nas performed two sold out shows with the National Symphony Orchestra the weekend of Friday, March 28th at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC:

And this performance has been heralded as "historic" and a "victory" by the press. Perhaps it was. For one, Nas performed at the Kennedy Center - the organization that sanctions various facets of American culture and sanctifies them, enshrines them, embalms them for the future consumption of generations of American citizens. Perhaps the Kennedy Center's anointment of Nas in this manner shows how much hip hop is now part of the American canon.

Another reason why, I think, people are excited about this performance has to do with the nature of the collaboration. When was the last time a major symphony orchestra performed hip hop? I'm not really sure. I spent a little bit of time googling but didn't come up with much. Perhaps this signifies a shift in some way in the American orchestral landscape?

There have been plenty of orchestra musicians who have performed with hip hop artists before. They've long served as the accompaniment or backup crew to American popular and hip hop musicians' croonings in concerts. And hip hop artists have also incorporated western art music into their tracks as well (more on that in a later post!).

But the National Symphony Orchestra might very well be the first time a well-established orchestra, a large classical institution, took on the mantle of hip hop and sought to perform in a collaborative sense with a hip hop artist. (This leads to all sorts of interesting questions: how did they orchestrate Nas's music? Who orchestrated it? How much was Nas a part of this process?)

The funny thing about this collaboration between the National Symphony Orchestra and Nas is that their performances occurred mere days after the National Symphony Orchestra announced its 2014-2015 season. And, much to the outrage of contemporary American composers, their season will feature not a single note of American music.

So what's going on here? I'm not sure, but I can give you a couple of ways to "read"or "listen" to this performance. I'm wondering how much of this performance has to do with legitimation politics. On the surface, it might appear that classical music is legitimating hip hop. And there might be something to it. Here, for example, is an image of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys performing together with an orchestra behind them at Carnegie Hall:
I think it's important to note what kinds of spaces we're now seeing rappers like Jay-Z, Nas, and others performing in. Carnegie Hall, like the Kennedy Center, is another sacred space. It's another venue that legitimizes the performer/performance. In these spaces, both the performer and the listener dress in a certain (upper-class) manner (tuxedos, dresses) and observe/participate in certain rituals (being quiet before a performance starts, dimming down the lights, etc.)

Are hip hop artists performing the politics of respectability in these spaces? Are they demonstrating that they, too, are everywhere on the spectrum of American music-making? There have been plenty of excellent articles on the evolution of hip-hop, the mainstreaming of hip-hop, and, to some, how hip hop has sold out because of all of this. Here's the classic image of Nas from the early-mid 1990s:

Nas isn't simply placed in this urban landscape; he's a part of it. And unashamedly so. This photo is staged, right? But this is how he wants it to be staged. But here's Nas at the Kennedy Center:

One hip hop site marveled that this performance (tuxedo and all) demonstrated how Nas had "matured into a revered intellectual." And, as my friend, Lauron pointed out, Nas reception in recent years has celebrated the rapper as an intellectual. He has a fellowship named after him at Harvard University, after all. If the National Symphony Orchestra was interested in working with a rapper, perhaps it's unsurprising that they went with one of the most elevated, "legit" ones in the hip hop world.

Call me a cynic, but this celebration of "high" hip hop still makes me suspicious. Maybe I'm a die-hard but what's gravitated me to hip hop like a moth to a flame (as an outsider and a newbie to all of this still) is its insistence on not obeying the social order and following the status quo, its subversive politics, and its refusal to be swallowed up into the mainstream. Some of hip hop's messages were never intended for mainstream audiences, and screw you for suggesting they should be. That means, of course, that I don't understand or identify with some of them. But I'm fascinated by the inherent subversive nature of many of the classic works in hip hop's canon nonetheless.

Anyway. I'm digressing. Even if this is a form of legitimation somehow, I'm not sure that the NSO's collaboration with Nas is necessarily that important for hip hop. Hip hop, as I've mentioned already, has already picked at/poked at/joined with high culture for some time. Kanye's forays into fashion (however visually unappealing and disastrous they might be), his use of ballerinas in music videos, and deep and abiding love for expensive persian rugs are all examples of that.

What I'm more intrigued by is the notion that Nas might be legitimating the National Symphony Orchestra. That even though the NSO is refusing to perform any contemporary American classical composers like this guy on their program, they still thought it was a good idea to perform with Nas. Some might call this mere pandering. And I suppose it probably is. But I think it's still pretty revealing.

Have we reached a moment in American music where the National Symphony Orchestra needs Nas more than Nas needs the National Symphony Orchestra?

I'm not trying to fall into the "classical music is dying!" trap. Because it is a trap. But I do wonder if the NSO sought out this collaboration in order to support their (really traditional) programming of mostly 19th century European concert music. This Nas collaboration is a sign of the modern American orchestra's schizophrenia.

To an outsider, the fact that Nas performed with a classical orchestra might suggest Nas's elevation in American culture. But I think Nas's performance instead symbolizes the state of the American orchestra. As the historian William Weber points out in his book, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming for Haydn to Brahms, by the early 20th century about 75% of most orchestra's concert programming was comprised of music that had been written decades if not centuries before. Lydia Goehr's blasting critique of contemporary classical music-making (called The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works) argues pretty much the same thing. As orchestras seek to become adaptable to today's musical climate, I wonder if collaborations like the NSO's and Nas will become increasingly common. Might this be the direction some large institutions take? And if so, will it be to the detriment of contemporary American classical music?


  1. I think this legitimization process is sort of work two ways here. Given the space in which they are performing, there are probably some in the audience for whom this is an exoticized orchestral performance, or a gateway to make hip hop accessible. But in another way, I would also imagine that (not knowing the program, or is it the set list in this case?) that here it is the orchestra that has to adapt for the performer, given that most rappers don't sing or rely too heavily on pitched material, which is kind of the backbone of most Western orchestral rep. And given their lack of featured American composers this season, is this a commentary about what American music is these days?

    Also one more thought - in response to considering Nas the intellectual, I want to point out that he is responsible for founding and funding the hip hop fellowship at Harvard. Additionally, his rap style has been considered socially conscious and intellectual, so I don't think this moniker is a new thing for him.

    1. Girlfriend, you are making so many amazing and excellent points. As for how this music *sounds,* this is why I'm glad I have musicology friends. Here's a link with a (bootleg) video of one of the songs performed during the concert:

      Maybe this warrants its own post? Making hip hop *sound* "classical"?

  2. Is this really a new thing or an old thing with a new artist? Jazz and rock have long been a part of the "classical" world. Sometimes this has been through new works, but mostly this has been by letting orchestras be the backup bands for people like Doc Severinsen, the Moody Blues, Judy Collins, and nearly every other "experienced" popular musician. Now that hip-hop is pushing 40, it's only natural that it would to show up on the orchestral Pops circuit (where video game music has been for about ten years now).

    1. I think your'e right; hip hop is now pushing 40 and it's time for its canonization. Perhaps this is exactly how canonization *works.* Perhaps the whole "orchestra as backup band and legitimator" requires its own post. It would be really fascinating to do a side-by-side comparison of jazz/rock/hip-hop in this way. We're always seeking guest posters if you wanna write it...! :)

    2. and to clarify: I don't necessarily believe that it's "time" for its canonization but that it seems to be reaching a teleological conclusion that other genres of music have reached. I'm more of a canon-buster than a canon-promoter.

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