Few understand how art shapes society like Darryl McDaniels does. As part of Run-D.M.C., he took hip-hop to the world, and on May 25, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee will discuss the intersection of arts and politics at a summit hosted by Cleveland State University's Center for Arts and Innovation. We talked with McDaniels about revolutions, education and classic rock.
The intersection of arts and politics has been debated greatly in relation to federal funding as of late. Why do you think that many Americans are in favor of cutting federal funding for the arts?
Over the last couple of years, I've learned that every revolution starts with the arts. It starts with the music. It starts with the literature. It starts with the sculpture and poetry. The arts are so powerful because it educates people in a way that politics and religion can't. I always say that the arts are more powerful than politics and religion combined because it's about the people, for the people and from the people. It's coming from that secret place in the mind that is nothing but truth, knowledge, wisdom, understanding. Creativity breeds innovation; innovation breeds evolution. So I guess, I don't think it's a conspiracy or anything, but maybe they spend money on all this other stuff and spend so little on education and the arts because they're afraid.
Kids go to school, and they don't learn by textbooks from 50 and 40 years ago. They don't learn from the curriculum made 100 years ago. But kids listen to rock records and hip-hop records, and they learn history, and they learn politics. Maybe [the government] is scared of the power of the arts — the educational, influential inspirational, motivational power that the arts have. Maybe that's it. Or maybe it's another reason. Maybe they don't value the arts as part of the educational process. It's always about, "This is the way it's done. See Spot run ... A, B, C ... one plus one is two." They don't value the arts as a valid part of instruction, learning and education.
At the same time, most Americans love movies and music. Entertainment is arguably our best export to the world. Why can't they see the connection?
I do lectures at colleges on hip-hop, but I go into the high schools and middle schools.I'm there as a hip-hop artist, but the teachers bring me in to encourage the kids about education. They look at me at 46 years old, and they don't know for sure, because they look at me and say, "Oh that's my older brother's music or my father's music or even my grandfather's music." I stand in front of these kids and said, "Hey, when we did hip-hop ... at 16 years old, when I would write a rap, I wasn't writing a rap just to impress my 16-year-old friends that I could spit a verse." ... The reason why the real hip-hop of purpose does what it does is because we were young people, and when the older people — the journalists and the educators and the preachers and the teachers and law makers — would listen to that old-school hip-hop, we was rapping economics, history, education. We were sharing ideas; we was informing each other. We were teaching others.
They look at me now [and say], "With all due respect, Mr. D.M.C., you're just saying that because you're wiser; you've experienced a lot, and you're more intelligent." I say, "Yes, you're right young brother or sister, but everything I'm saying at 46, I've been saying since I was 12."
The reason why hip-hop was able to have the impact that it had on society was because we were young people doing things of a higher level educationally, informationally, motivationally. Those hip-hop records taught us things. When I rapped, "I'm D.M.C. in the place to be; I go to St. John's University," those kids stopped gangbanging; they stopped selling drugs and said, "You mean to tell me I can have Adidas, a gold chain, a Kangol hat and a diploma, and that's hip-hop?" Yes, yes it is.
I don't know where it gets lost. These politicians, policymakers and lawmakers, they don't understand the valuable tool [art is], whether it's rock music, punk rock, hip-hop, those graffiti writers, whether it's a painter, a sculptor, somebody trying to make a movie, these poets, these spoken-word artists. These are valuable, valuable mediums to change education [and] better society. When they don't put the resources into it, when we take it upon ourselves to do it [and] get millions of people following us, they get scared of us and start calling us rebels and troublemakers.
Obviously Grandmaster Flash was a huge influence on you and your being a pioneer of the hip-hop movement. Who are some other artists who have shaped you that may surprise people?
Everything that came before Run-D.M.C. was our foundation. They gave us the platform to say here's how we can artistically give something to the world. Now, I'm speaking personally, the things that gave me the ammunition, the capacity, the desire — the creative catalyst for me was classic rock. What I mean by that was, when I was a kid growing up in Hollis, Queens, in New York, they had this radio station, 77 WABC, and they would play the Jackson 5, James Brown — "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud." — who else? All the funk bands and all the R&B groups. ... But this station would also play the Doobie Brothers, Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, John Lennon when he went solo, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elton John. ... In the 70s, when I was growing up, this station WABC would play all the classic rock and the folk, singer-songwriter rock stars.
So while all my friends in my neighborhood were grooving on "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud," I was listening to John Lennon, John Fogerty and Bob Dylan. These guys were talking about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women's Lib. ... So growing up, the thing that allowed me to be able to come and use this artistic foundation that Afrika Bambaataa and Flash gave me was actually the rock stars, because they sang about the issues. Everything they talked about was the society and the world I was living in.
The only other black artist at that time who was bold enough to take that step besides James Brown was Marvin Gaye. He was the love guy. He was all about love and women, and he's sexy, but he made "What's Going On." But outside of James Brown and Marvin Gaye, ... Jackson 5 was singing about first grade, lollipops and crushes. ... Politics and religion have their agendas, and religion separates where the arts don't. Our art over here [in the United States] touches that kid in Japan. It touches that kid over in Russia. It touches those kids in Libya right now. It touches those kids in Africa, whether it's the way we dress, the poetry, spoken word. You know, Tupac, Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C. — we all huge; we all gods over there to them. So for me, from 10 years old to 15 years old, before I ever started rapping on a mic, my influence came from the great singer-songwriters who weren't afraid to talk about the issues of the world we're living in.
The Creative Voices Summit featuring Darryl McDaniels, former New York Times classical music critic Tim Page, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts John Frohnnmayer will take place at the Idea Center at PlayhouseSquare, 1375 Euclid Ave., at 9:30 a.m. An Arts Education luncheon, hosted by actress Rosie Perez on the State Theatre stage, will follow at noon. The morning event is free and open to the public. Cost for the luncheon is $25. Online or phone registration is required for both events at csuohio.edu.cai or by calling 216-687-5018.