Lupe Fiasco, Harry Belafonte, George Clinton take stage in tribute to Cornel West GS '80
Singer and activist Harry Belafonte, rapper Lupe Fiasco and funk musician George Clinton gathered in McCarter Theatre on Wednesday to celebrate the retirement of African American studies professor Cornel West GS ’80.
The event, called “A Bluesman in the Life of the Mind,” honored West’s 40-year relationship with the University. West is retiring as a Princeton professor and will begin teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City next fall. Belafonte, Fiasco and Clinton were not announced as performers in order to surprise West.
Speaking at the end of the event, West discussed the role Princeton now plays in the ongoing quest for justice and equality.
"Here we are together, here in Princeton, which used to be the northernmost tip of the Confederacy, now has been consecrated by a new legacy, new voices, new legends, new perspectives," West said. "Princeton University is now an important part of that same tradition."
Fiasco performed his hit songs “Superstar,” “Kick, Push,” “Out of My Head” and “The Show Goes On.” He also offered his thoughts on the direct impact that West has had on his music and pop culture in general, noting that two of his album titles have been inspired by West’s words.
Fiasco said the title of his sophomore album, “The Cool,” was inspired by a conversation the two had in which West spoke of the importance of altering societal perceptions of what is ‘cool’ and what isn’t. His third album, “Lasers,” stands for "Love Always Shines, Remember to Smile,” which he also said was inspired by West’s thoughts.
Furthermore, his forthcoming album — which will be called “Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album” — references West directly. The lyrics of one song, called "It’s Hood Now," read, “The Ivy League was running really well; then they slipped up and let Cornel in. It’s hood now.”
Before playing his last song, Fiasco offered his closing words to West.
“We don’t die or retire. We inspire. The show goes on,” he said.
In addition to Fiasco, performers such as the Princeton Gospel Ensemble, jazz musician Terence Blanchard and the Cornel West theory shared the stage with West’s colleagues and students who shared their enthusiasm for West.
Center for African American Studies Chair Eddie Glaude opened the program and spoke of West’s contributions to the Princeton community.
“So many scholars have found footing in West’s imagination,” Glaude said. “He embodies what it means to be in love with the life of the mind. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of who Cornel is.”
Throughout the evening, West’s friends, students and colleagues offered their thoughts on what West had meant to them. Most shared personal anecdotes.
President Shirley Tilghman — whom Glaude referred to as “Sister President,” noting her commitment to the growth of CAAS — spoke of West’s love for music and the impact he has had on others. She shared an experience she once had while walking down the streets of Chicago with West.
“There were cars honking, passengers waving frantically out of windows, taxi drivers stopping to ask if we needed a ride. Passersby brought out their iPhones for pictures. Needless to say, I became the photographer,” she said.
Tilghman told West that Princeton is a better place because of the time he spent here.
“Cornel, you’re the man,” she said.
Blanchard followed Tilghman on stage and played songs from his album “Choices,” which features spoken-word quotations from West himself. Columbia University professor Farah Griffin then spoke of West’s ability to inspire others.
“Some people are born to soar. They fly high above us. Others are like a Coltrane solo. Note by note they open doors, create a path and take us along with them. Dr. West was born to soar, but not alone. We fly with him,” she said.
Creative writing professor emeritus Toni Morrison could not attend the event because of her book tour but sent Griffin a note to be read at the event.
“West’s place in Princeton is legend, but his place in our hearts and minds is permanent,” it read.
Videos interspersed between performances featured interviews with his students, slideshows of West at Princeton and a tribute from Bill Maher.
Angela Groves ’12 took the stage to offer a student’s perspective on West’s impact at Princeton. Groves took a freshman seminar taught by West and described him as “a professor who has changed my life.”
“From the very first day of class, he challenged us to think about who we would be from the womb to the tomb. That’s a daunting task for an 18-year-old,” she said.
Groves also introduced Fiasco, the night’s first surprise performer, calling him her “favorite hip-hop artist.”
Appearances by funk musician Bootsy Collins, Belafonte and Clinton also surprised West.
Bootsy Collins spoke about the time he invited West to come to his studio to work on a song with him.
“You don’t question a man of this type of genius,” he said. “You just let him work.”
Belafonte spoke of his interactions with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt and praised West for proving to him that America is still full of inspiring figures.
“Just when I’d thought the endangered species of renowned figures putting themselves in the cause to be in the service of those who needed our help was gone, in steps Cornel West, and he has touched my life in so many ways,” he said.
To end the evening, funk musician George Clinton took the stage to perform. The audience stood up and began dancing. Tilghman was grooving along in the front row and raised her hand when Clinton encouraged the audience to put their hands in the air.
In the process of being escorted up the stairs to join Clinton on stage, West decided to forego the stairs and instead hopped up on stage. He immediately began singing and dancing along to the music.
West closed the evening with thanks to the Princeton community.
“I was so blessed to be here at Princeton,” he said.
He also spoke of the importance of music in his life.
“This tonight isn’t just about entertainment. There’s love and freedom in that music ... What a tradition we have. This music. This love. This freedom. Let’s make it real for the next generation of children,” he said.
West added that, though he would be retiring from the faculty, he still intends to be a part of the Princeton Community.
“Keep the funk and love real,” he said in his closing remarks.