Left of Black Web Series Now Appearing at The Root TV

Host Mark Anthony Neal waxes cool on how the series is black studies for a “mobile Diaspora.”

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TR: When did you know that you had a passion for black American music and wanted to study it critically?

MAN: My passion for black American music comes directly from my daddy. Music was his haven—his space of recovery, the place that helped him navigate the long hours he spent working the 60-75 hours a week he often put in. My first life lessons were really sitting there on Sunday mornings watching him as he listened to the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Jimmy Smith and Bobby “Blue” Bland. The desire to study black music came much later when I thought about being a music journalist like Greg Tate, Joan Morgan and Nelson George in the late ‘80s, before deciding on an academic career. Yet, my dad, who passed five years ago, remains my critical guide—still measure what I like by whether my dad would have liked it. Dad would have dug Gregory Porter and J. Cole.

TR: With initiatives like Nas’ Harvard Fellowship, your working alongside 9th Wonder and GZA’s work with science education, did you always envision that black music, particularly urban music, and the academia would become bedfellows, as they are increasingly becoming?

MAN: I entered grad school 20 years ago at a moment when so many questions where being asked of black scholars and academics about black culture, particularly hip-hop. This was in the aftermath of the post-Rodney King unrest in Los Angeles, where rap music seemed the clear soundtrack. As things like cultural studies and popular music studies began to get a foothold in college curriculums, it was just natural for urban music and the academy to be connected.

When I think of the work of my Duke colleague Wahneema Lubiano or other scholars like Tricia Rose, Todd Boyd and Michael Eric Dyson, the idea of the Nasir Jones Fellowship at Harvard or Dr. Dre’s [Andre Young] $70 million gift to USC or the Sampling Soul course that 9th Wonder and I have taught the past few years, and the brilliant work that Christopher Emdin and Martha Diaz are doing around Hip-Hop ED—it just seems like a natural progression. I suspect that one day soon Jay Z  and Steve Stoute will offer a course on building urban brands at the Wharton School or Tuck School and no one will blink an eye.

TR: You’ve been hosting the Left of Black webcasts for three years now. Any moments stick out in your head? Favorite guests? Unexpected moments? What can The Root TV viewers look forward to?

MAN: We’re now in the fourth season of Left of Black, have shot more than 100 episodes, and I remember virtually every show. One moment that still stands out is when Randall Robinson joined us in-studio talking about Haiti and the influence of Harry Belafonte. My favorite guest was perhaps newly minted MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weems, who also joined us in-studio, and just disarmed me with her charm and—how should I put this—winsomeness. My favorite show featured the vocalist Lizz Wright and filmmaker Julie Dash [Daughters of the Dust]. Though Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry have been on the show, in my mind having Ms. Wright and Ms. Dash on the show announced that we had arrived.

I can say the same about when dream hampton joined us or when I’ve had the opportunity to just cut up on-screen with Bomani Jones, Marc Lamont Hill and Kiese Laymon. My favorite moment, though, came away from the studio, when a dude just putting in his shift at KFC stopped me to tell me how much he dug the show. Think my dad would have dug Left of Black also.

A Left of Black episode appears every Friday on The Root TV.