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Social media lit up Tuesday with the Kennedy Center’s announcement that it had appointed Q-Tip as its first-ever artistic director of hip-hop culture. Aging hip-hop heads who came of age listening to The Low End Theory (myself included) celebrated the tribute to one of the greats of the genre. But as validation goes, the Kennedy Center needs Q-Tip a lot more than Q-Tip needs the Kennedy Center.
Despite his vague mandate to “curate” hip-hop programming (which the Center has done on its own in the past, such as 2014’s One Mic festival), it’s unclear what the Center expects to get out of him beyond the publicity boost. The two other artists named alongside Q-Tip as their new “artistic partners,” opera singer Renée Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, underscore the contradiction of these honorary gigs. Ostensibly, they’re there to push the Center’s boundaries. In practice, the only artists who get the honor are those who have achieved elder statesman status, well past the point in their careers when they were pushing any boundaries themselves.
Classical institutions like the Kennedy Center—the Center does a lot of things, including jazz, theater, and dance, but it is the home of the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera—are forever trying to latch onto more popular genres to shore up their cultural relevance. Sometimes they succeed, as with the NSO’s well-received concert last year with Kendrick Lamar. Other times they fall on their face. Usually it’s the latter.
Classical crossover has a lame reputation for a reason. It should create something new by bringing out the best of each genre, but instead mashes them together in an awkward and forced manner. See, for example, the NSO’s previous hip-hop concert with Nas, in which the orchestra sat still for most of it, including for “Hate Me Now,” the one song that actually has an orchestral loop (from Carmina Burana). It takes a real vision for a classical institution to present pop music without sounding corny as hell. And most institutions that try don’t have a vision beyond the novelty value of seeing an MC rhyme over a backing orchestra, and selling lots of tickets.
It’s also doubtful how much cultural relevance actually rubs off. The Kendrick Lamar concert was a success because it was the rare collaboration with an artist who’s still at the top of the charts. More often than that, you get a nostalgia show like Nas, or something worse, like the Grammys’ Lang Lang performance with Metallica, a band whose transition from rock gods to sad joke was famously documented in a film. For classical artists, such collaborations serve as a window into what they imagine the kids are listening to nowadays, and a confirmation of how out of touch they are. For pop artists, going classical serves as a reliable marker of being officially past your prime.
If the Kennedy Center is serious about hip-hop programming, a guy like Q-Tip, whose ’90s heyday as a performer is behind him but who remains active as a producer, could be valuable in drawing younger talent to the concert hall. But if it’s a producer they want, there are plenty who are equally active—9th Wonder, Flying Lotus, hell, even Kanye West—who could curate some truly weird, boundary-pushing programming.
But weird isn’t what the Kennedy Center wants. They want the street cred, the ticket sales, and they want to reassure their subscribers and donors that they’re keeping with the times without scaring any of them off. Witness another cross-genre mashup, the recent “KC Jukebox” show “curated” by another artistic partner, Mason Bates aka DJ Masonic, a rising-star classical-EDM composer who was named the Kennedy Center’s first ever composer-in-residence; the show was billed as an innovative rave/cocktail party/art installation, but turned out to be a pretty standard chamber music recital. Or exceptions that prove the rule: 2012’s concert with avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton, which provoked, according to our jazz critic Michael J. West, 48 walkouts; the Center’s jazz programming has been noticeably tamer since.
As for the Center’s newly announced hip-hop programming, so far it’s pretty spare and skews heavily toward children’s entertainment; the only performer with any profile is DJ Spooky, a D.C. native who frequently collaborates with classical artists and whom the Center probably didn’t need Q-Tip’s help to book. In the end though, it doesn’t really matter as long as he attracts any different demographic to the great marble shoebox, which for the Kennedy Center is a pretty low bar. Because even if the heads he draws are paunchy, balding, and in their 30s and 40s, that’s still 30 years below the average audience they have now.