Pass(ed) out

Dec 17, 2003 at 12:00 am

“I can dig rappin’, I can dig scrappin’/But I can’t dig that backstabbin’” —James Brown, “The Payback”

There was a time, back in the ’70s, when people like Jay-Z or 50 Cent wouldn’t have been the only speakers qualified to say, “Let me rap to you for a minute.”

In fact, it’s more than likely that one or more of the recording superstars’ parents, like thousands of other young soul brothers and sisters, uttered the phrase or some variation when there was occasion for serious discussion.

You see, back then, rap had nothing to do with platinum sales or televised music awards. To rap meant, simply, to hold a dialogue. In fact, the most highly regarded rappers, such as legendary activist Hubert “H. Rap” Brown, were the young men and women who could most articulately express their thoughts in a verbal medium.

In the spirit of ’70s-era rap sessions, three of the better-known voices associated with contemporary black social and political issues will visit Detroit. It is a traveling discussion forum called, “Pass the Mic!,” that features radio personality Tavis Smiley and authors Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson.

Smiley, a commentator for National Public Radio’s “The Tavis Smiley Show” (heard weekdays at 9 a.m. on WDET-FM 101.9), says he conceived the idea for the forum about six months ago. He invited his friend West, a renowned Princeton professor, to accompany him on a speaking engagement in New York, where Smiley was to address a group of MBA candidates.

When Smiley offered West the microphone, he recalls, their joint lecture began to resemble a hip-hop-style MC battle, in which each speaker took turns sharing thoughts with the audience.

“I passed the mic to him. He hit it, passed it back to me. I hit it,” Smiley says. “So you kinda get the idea. Then we got the idea for a ‘Pass the Mic’ tour.”

Dyson, a Detroit native and University of Pennsylvania professor, is also a regular guest on Smiley’s show, so the three decided they would bring their dialogue to a broader audience.

“I could no longer wait on national radio to do that for me,” Smiley says.

While public response to the tour has surfaced as an apparent mix of curiosity and resentment that “Pass the Mic!” charges for the chance to simply hear opinions about issues facing the black community, supporters say the forum is unique.

“This is an historic tour,” says Jenny Lawhorn, a publicist for National Public Radio, a co-sponsor of the tour. “It’s never been done before.”

“People pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for concerts,” she adds. “Well this is a brain concert. These guys are professional speakers.”

Smiley points out that while he and his colleagues are regularly on the lecture circuit, “Pass the Mic” provides a rare opportunity to see and hear “three thinkers” together.

“We want to place a value on empowerment, just as black folk place a high value on entertainment,” he adds.

All of the discussions are unscripted, says Smiley, adding that the mic is also passed to audience members for their input. Subjects have ranged from rap music to politics and current issues facing the cities on the tour, including Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Atlanta.

While others are skeptical about whether an event that might be considered the equivalent of a town hall meeting is worth $50-$60 admission, Dr. Imelda Hunt, a Bowling Green State University professor of black popular culture, says it could go over well in Detroit.

“‘Pass the Mic’ has a flavor of both academe and black theater, both of which stimulate audiences by provoking thought and using this same format,” she says. “This format reaches back to traditional African oral traditions of call-and-response. These oral traditions are strong in the spoken-word and hip-hop communities, as well.

“Also, I feel that the show is excellent for not only climbing the ivory tower but breaking down the walls of elitism and making knowledge functional. … This an excellent tool for mentoring our black children and presenting scholars, as well as knowledge, in an attractive and desirable package.”

For his money, Smiley says no one who attends “Pass the Mic!” will leave the rap session uninspired.

“Caring about this country is contagious,” he adds.


See the “Pass the Mic” tour Friday, Dec. 19, 7 p.m. at the Detroit Opera House (1526 Broadway, Detroit). Call 313-961-3500 for ticket information.

Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]