Q&A: Tavis Smiley & Cornel West

Talkin' music, politics, and poverty with the hosts of Smiley & West.

Before Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West support their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifest, at the Neptune, the hosts of the public-radio show Smiley & West took a few minutes to chat with us about music and politics. A longer version of this conversation is available at seattleweekly.com/reverb.

SW: Are you listening to any good music these days?

West: Well, shoot, I like Bruce [Springsteen]'s Wrecking Ball, man. He's coming out strong, swinging, man, good God Almighty. Lord, lord, lord. But, no, I'm old-school, man. I listen to a lot of Curtis Mayfield, Temptations, and the Dramatics, every day.

In the introduction to your new book, you say that the new poor are the former middle class. You've both been critical of President Obama for not saying words like "poor" or "poverty" enough. He spent a great deal of political capital to get health care for everybody—helping people who didn't have health-care coverage from going bankrupt. Wasn't that a huge policy move and risk for the President, working against poverty?

Smiley: The argument that we make in the book is not that President Obama has done nothing. The argument that we make in the book is not that he has had an antipathy toward the poor, which Mr. Romney seems to have. We make it very clear that if the choice is Obama or Romney, we believe that Obama is a better choice. That's not a debate; we don't even waste time talking about that.

The larger question is whether or not there has been in this country any sort of real, authentic, sustained effort with the President using his bully pulpit to talk about the indifference toward the poor. Have we had a sustained effort in that regard since Lyndon Johnson? The answer is clearly no.

The book closes with a poverty manifesto of a dozen things that we think can, must, [and] ought to be done if we're going to reduce and eradicate poverty in this country. And it starts with a leader saying, "I am going to make lifting poor people up my legacy."

You say that what we need most is a leader who'll make this a priority. You said Obama would do a much better job than Romney. Dr. West, you interviewed Lupe Fiasco at the teen leadership conference that UCLA organized with the Tavis Smiley Foundation. He told the kids there: I don't vote, I'm not going to put people in office who pay off the bankers and let the school system fail, etc. Dr. West, you didn't challenge him on that point. Mr. Smiley, you came on and said, "What an amazing conversation that was." Is that the right message to send to teens, if what we need to fight poverty is a leader: to not vote?

West: No, but what I think Brother Tavis is telling you, though, brother, is that it's top-down and bottom-up. Top-down is, of course, to have a president who cares about working and poor people. Bottom-up is to create a movement that puts pressure on the president. And you have to have both. Lupe comes out of the Occupy movement, he comes from bottom-up. Tavis and I embrace both.

Lupe saying he doesn't vote—well, no, we disagree with that. But his major point was that the political system is broken. So for him that's not a major priority. He's got a right to that opinion.

Last question: If you could hear one last song before you died, what would it be?

West: I don't think I'd want to hear a song, actually. I'd want to hear a voice of a loved one.

Smiley: I was about to say I'd want to hear my mama's voice. Hearing my mother's voice is like music to my ears. If my mama could just say "I love you" one more time, that would be . . . "I love you, I'm proud of you," you know, "I don't regret having you."

I think men, period, but certainly black men, have a unique relationship with their mother. Having your mother's affirmation is like music to your ears. I've never heard a song sweeter than my mother telling me "I love you and I'm proud of you." That's the sweetest music I've ever heard.


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