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Kanye: 'Complete Awesomeness' Or Completely Overrated?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. Now, it's time for our weekly visit to the barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week our writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, with us back in Washington D.C. Also here in Washington, Paul Butler. He's a law professor at Georgetown University. Fernando Vila is the director of programming for Fusion, that's an ABC/Univision venture, with us from Miami. And Michael Skolnik is the editor-in-chief of Global Grind, with us from New York. Take it, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?


PAUL BUTLER: What's up?

SKOLNIK: What's going on?

FERNANDO VILA: What's up, Jimi? How are you, man?

IZRAEL: Prince Paul.

BUTLER: Love that name as long as everybody gets the hip-hop reference.

IZRAEL: And they won't. Fernando, how you living? All right?

VILA: Not bad man. Not bad.

IZRAEL: OK, well, all right, well, before we get deep, deep, deep into some topics, I want to take a quick hit on last night's game. It was return of the three kings, return of the three kings minus two. Bosh, Wade, and LeBron James brought the Heat back last night, Michel.

MARTIN: You're doing really well with your arithmetic, Jimi. I'm so proud.

IZRAEL: Oh, gosh.

MARTIN: Game four of the NBA finals, the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs 109-93. Fans have been asking for the return of King James and we saw it last night. This is what he said after the game.


LEBRON JAMES: We was desperate. Can't afford to go down 3-1 and then come here for game five. So, you know, we was desperate. That's all I got to say. We showed character once again.

IZRAEL: You know, Michel, I think they were desperate.

MARTIN: King Jimi. You think they were desperate?

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think they were desperate. Thank you for that tape, Michel. You know, LeBron has a reputation for folding under pressure. You know, Scott Raab, Esquire writer, he noted that for his book. So it's been a recurring tableau to his NBA career. So this, in my opinion, is kind of a chance for him to overcome it. You know, he's either going to choke at the point, you know, or he's going to rise and, again, have that Neo moment. He's going to become a champion and...

MARTIN: Wait, sorry, doesn't he already have a championship? I'm sorry, he's got one more ring than I have. I mean, one more championship ring than I have, I mean, hello.

IZRAEL: Yeah, but that could have been a fluke. I mean, that, very easily, could've been a fluke.

SKOLNIK: Jimi, Jimi.

IZRAEL: I mean, he's best known as a choker, you know, maybe an all-night-toker. But, yo, this brother, you know, he's just not particularly good at the point. Fernando, my man.

MARTIN: Couldn't there be a little Cleveland "hateration" (ph) here. I think there's a little Cleveland "hateration" (ph).

IZRAEL: No hate the game. No hating the game. My man, go ahead.

VILA: He's won, like, a million MVPs. You know...

IZRAEL: Like a million?

VILA: Yeah, like, about a million, give or take, and he won the championship last year. He was unbelievable in that championship. And he's been carrying the Heat throughout the playoffs. I mean, you know, Wade and Bosh haven't been that great throughout the playoffs. They were great last night, but not - they haven't been playing at their usual level, in these past few weeks. And LeBron really has been, sort of, carrying them. So I reject that notion that he's a choker. I think it's based on a lot of, sort of, phobias about him.

IZRAEL: OK, well, Michael Skolnik...

SKOLNIK: I mean, I'm a Knicks fan, but, you know I got to show love to Bron-Bron and D. Wade. You know, I'm not - Chris Bosh, not so much. But, you know, last night was the Dwyane event. D. Wade showed up last night, that guy's a true champion. That guy knows when crunch time is crunch time. He showed up last night and carried that team last night. Bron-Bron can't be stopped. I mean, at any given time, that man cannot be stopped. He, by far, is the best player in the league and game five is going to be critical. You know, game five is, you know, give or take who wins that game, that's who's going to win the NBA Championship.

IZRAEL: Paul Butler, on the record.

BUTLER: Tim Duncan is the man. He's representing for us old heads. So, you know, he gets tired.

VILA: Man, he's got two inch vertical.

BUTLER: He shows up every other game, so he's a little sleepy last night, I understand that. At game five, he'll be back and San Antonio will bring it home.

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: Jimi, I'm sorry, did I mention, again, that Jimi's from Cleveland? "Hateration" (ph) involved. Just thought I'd share that little detail about that.


VILA: Boo.

IZRAEL: Whatever.


IZRAEL: All right, well, let's move on. Attorneys in the George Zimmerman trial were grilling potential jurors all week. Yesterday, the judge said the jury will be sequestered. Michael Skolnik, you were actually in the courtroom this week. Can you describe the scene?

SKOLNIK: Yeah, I went down there for the first few days. As some of you know, I sit on the Board of Directors of the Trayvon Martin Foundation and have been very close to the family over the past 16 months. You know, it was emotional. It was tense. There was protesters and supporters outside. There was every member of every media station from around the country - had a truck there and was inside the courtroom. I think for the family, it's just remarkable to watch them, with their poise and their grace and their humanity, you know, sit in that courtroom and hear the things being said about their son.

Yesterday, one of the potential jurors, E81, said that Trayvon's father wasn't present during his life and that he was a bad kid and that he deserved, you know, to be killed somewhat. And just, you know, to watch their reaction - to keep the poise and the grace and the humanity throughout this whole thing was remarkable. They're an incredible, incredible family. And to sit in that courtroom and just listen to these jurors, you know, talk about what they know, what they potentially know, what they think - is very, very difficult for them. But they're holding up, they're doing well.

Zimmerman's wife was there the whole week. She has a bodyguard with him. And, you know, George was very calm and collected. I walked by him a few times in the hallway, which was, you know, kind of bizarre and weird. But, you know, he's been, you know, very - sort of calm through this whole thing. And it looks like they'll pick a jury by the end of next week, hopefully, and this case will go to opening arguments about a week and a half from now.

IZRAEL: Paul Butler. Well, you're a former federal prosecutor. What do you think of the way things are going so far?

BUTLER: I think that we have to understand that none of the lawyers in this case want objective jurors. As a prosecutor, you want people who are going to send Mr. Zimmerman to jail. So you're thinking about everything that matters, including race. And here, it's a little different from what a prosecutor usually looks at. Here, if you're a prosecutor, you want black jurors. You want people who are going to understand that even though Trayvon was no choir boy - that's coming out now, he had all these pictures of weed and involvement in fights on his cell phone. That's true of lots of victims, and it still doesn't mean that somebody has the right to fire on them when they're on the street. So I think African-Americans are going to be more sympathetic to that than non-African-Americans.

MARTIN: Is that appropriate though, Paul? For people to be seeking out to - I mean, if it was the other way, when a prosecutor's trying to bar blacks from a jury - that would be considered - that's a constitutional challenge, right? You can challenge that, the findings. Is it - what about if it's the other way?

BUTLER: It's technically illegal. But this is the barbershop, right, so we're keeping it real. And since race matters and since prosecutors want to win their case, they have to look at race. I mean, you know, you can disguise it. Sometimes the law lets prosecutors, and defense attorneys, a lot of leeway. So you don't say it's race. But keeping it real, it's important, it matters.

IZRAEL: Fernando, is there any tension down your way between brown and black folks?

VILA: Between brown and black? I mean, you know, I don't see it specifically due to this case. You know, I think, like, the family of Trayvon has been very eloquent in sort of calling for a peaceful proceeding and for nothing to happen. I mean, I think that - I mean, I think race obviously plays a huge role in this case. But I can't see tensions boiling over in the way they did with Rodney King or Arthur McDuffie down here in Miami, back in the '80s.

MARTIN: Yeah, can I ask you, Fernando, though - you know how a lot of times there are parallel conversations going on. I mean, there are people having different conversations depending on where they see themselves in that story. And I was just curious, kind of in the Latino twitterverse, for example, or the bilingual twitterverse, or something, are the conversations different than the ones that people are seeing in, like, the so-called mainstream media? The general audience media? Or even the black media?

VILA: You know, George Zimmerman is technically, you know, a white Hispanic - these things are always very difficult to, you know - these issues of identity in the Hispanic community are always very difficult to parse through. But I haven't seen, like, overwhelming Hispanic support for George Zimmerman because he is Hispanic, that's not - that just hasn't been happening. You know, it's - his Hispanic identity is largely based on, sort of, you know, on his lineage, not so much his culture, if that makes any sense.

MARTIN: It does, it does but his brother has made a point of pointing up that lineage in the wake of this trial. In fact, he was on our program, among a number of others, making a point of emphasizing that lineage. And that's why I was interested in how people are responding to that.

VILA: Yeah, I mean, I don't think it's really sort of made a large effect in the Hispanic - in how the Hispanic community views him. I just haven't seen that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly visit to the barbershop. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, law professor Paul Butler, journalist Michael Skolnik, and Fernando Vila. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel, OK. So Kanye West, a.k.a. Yeezy, a.k.a...


IZRAEL: ...That other dude, is dropping a new album next week, called "Yeezus." He gave a kind of bizarre interview to The New York Times. He says he's an anti-celebrity. His music comes from a place of being anti- huh, how about that Michel?

MARTIN: You thought it was bizarre? I thought it was just - I thought it was brilliant.


MARTIN: I feel like if we did not have Kanye, we would have to invent him.


MARTIN: Because he takes the place - he has the place that, you know, that the black prizefighters used to take in our society. Of just saying the most crazy things, demanding that you look at them, and being just so in love with themselves that you can't turn away and it's just - it's riveting. It's theater, it's like, to me, it's like theater everyday.

IZRAEL: OK, OK. I like Yeezy because, you know, he feels as if he has to take his respect in a very ferocious way. And so far, he hasn't done a Terence Trent D'Arby. I mean, he hasn't overpromised and underdelivered. You know, he hasn't failed flat, you know.

SKOLNIK: Jimi, you're going after Bron-Bron and now you're going after Kanye.

IZRAEL: No, wait a second.



IZRAEL: You're not listening...

MARTIN: Cleveland, too?

IZRAEL: You're not listening, you're not listening. I said I'm down with him because he has not failed yet. I'm down with him because, you know, he's taken his respect.

SKOLNIK: He got eight albums.



MARTIN: Let me just quote from the article.

IZRAEL: Sure, go ahead.

MARTIN: Remember this is about - remember when he grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift a few years ago at the MTV Music Awards?

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: He said it's because Beyonce was robbed of best female video. He apologized back then, but then he says in the interview - he said sorry because he gave in to peer pressure. Quote, it's only led me to complete awesomeness at all times, it's only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness - beauty, truth, awesomeness.

IZRAEL: I respect his...

MARTIN: That's all that is.

IZRAEL: ...I respect his swagger. Paul Butler, Prince Paul, what's your take on Kanye?

BUTLER: So this is the Andy Warhol of hip-hop.


BUTLER: He's super commercial. He's a marketer - it's no coincidence that we're talking about him on NPR the week before his album comes out. But he bridges, in the same way that Andy Warhol did, high art and pop culture. I mean, he said crazy stuff in this interview, but he also referenced making his album by going to the Louvre five times. He talked about architecture and design. When was the last time you read that in a hip-hop interview? You know, he's just - he's a genius.

IZRAEL: I agree. He's the Andy Warhol - but he could fall flat, any moment he'll be the Mark Castabi. Yo, Mike Skolnik.

SKOLNIK: Man, I mean, I think, here's one thing I think we don't talk about Kanye enough. I think Kanye has offered us and given us so many gifts that are actually political. And talked about issues in our communities that most people don't talk about, yet he also talks about gold diggers and things that, you know, are just pop culture and commercial. I mean, he gave us "Jesus Walks," he gave us "No Church in the Wild," he gave us, you know, "Made in America," and then he gave us this record "New Slaves." And in the record he's talking about private prisons and how private prisons are, you know, have teamed up with the DEA and trying to lock everybody up. I mean, this is a guy - yeah, he walks around and says how great he is and how awesome he is. But he's also pushing a lot of buttons. He goes on national television and does "New Slaves" on national television, straight into the camera and says, white America, deal with it.

IZRAEL: This is - he's like a Pentecostal preacher with a sampler. I totally...

SKOLNIK: I like that.

IZRAEL: .. I totally - I am down with him.

MARTIN: Oh my God.

IZRAEL: So let's move on. You know, this happened earlier in the week and I'm still scratching my head. Chad Ochocinco, is he still an American? Chad Ochocinco Johnson, he's behind bars, what happened?

MARTIN: Well, OK. I know, it's a puzzling story. He was in court for a probation violation. A plea deal was on the table, until the judge asked him if he was happy with his lawyer. He said yes. And then he tapped him on the butt, you know, in the way you would if you were on the field, right. And then the judge was not pleased. Here's a clip.


KATHLEEN MCHUGH: This isn't a joke.

CHAD OCHOCINCO: I didn't do it as a joke.

MCHUGH: Everybody in the courtroom was laughing. I'm not accepting these plea negotiations.

IZRAEL: Ochocinco.

MARTIN: He got 30 days for that.

IZRAEL: Man, oh man. Was this a judicial overreach? Or should Johnson have known better? Paul Butler, what do you say?

BUTLER: I say this judge needs to get a life in times. I mean, come on. It was funny. It was, Ocho was respectful to the judge throughout. He called her, your honor, and yes, ma'am, and he does this one thing, and this does more to undermine the integrity of the judicial process and people's confidence in judges than anything that Mr. Ochocinco did.

IZRAEL: Fernando, I heard you're angry about your former Dolphins player.

VILA: Yeah, and local Miami boy. He - you know, the judge kind of also said, you know, you should thank your attorney. He was great throughout, you know. And so it was a strange thing. I mean 30 days in jail, I mean, that's a long time. I mean, you know, I wouldn't want to do 30 days in jail and to do that just over a butt slap. I mean, it seems like the most ridiculous thing. Especially, you know - he's been - I mean, the amount of butts Chad Johnson has slapped in his career, and his life, probably is in the, you know, in the tens of thousands. So it's almost like, you know, a natural reaction for him. It's just a very, very bizarre thing.

MARTIN: But do you think - I mean he's already on probation though, for head-butting his former wife, with whom he was married for, like what, 10 minutes or something like that. Evelyn Lozado, who is of course famous from "The Basketball Wives." I mean, do you just feel he should've shown better judgment? Or do you think that - I don't know, do you think it was just a huge overreaction?

VILA: If the judge would have given him 30 days for violating his probation, then that would have been fine. But it seemed clear that the judge was willing to accept this plea deal and then changed her mind when she saw the butt slap. You know, it's - she was on the path to accept the plea deal and then changed her mind. And it just seems very, very strange.

MARTIN: I just wonder if this is like one of those diversity things. Where person in one world - it's like this person in the other world is, like, an alien to them and they don't feel that - do you know what I'm saying? I mean, it just feels like this weird cultures colliding moment. Where - I mean, I wasn't there, so maybe she felt he was clowning...


MARTIN: ...Maybe she thought he was clowning the whole time and wasn't taking the courtroom environment seriously? I don't know.

IZRAEL: The takeaway here is definitely judges do not respect a butt slap and a smile. You know, you got to keep it moving. Don't be slapping butts in court. What's wrong with you anyway?

BUTLER: Especially when a black man does it, I mean, let's be real.

IZRAEL: Bingo. Dead giveaway.

MARTIN: You really think so, Paul?

BUTLER: Yeah, I mean, it's of a piece with the ways that every problem that, you know, kind of disciplinary thing that a black boy or man does - there's a criminal response. So it's not that different from when kids in school do stuff - if it's a white kid, she goes to the principal's office - if it's a black kid, they call the police.

IZRAEL: Right, wow.


VILA: If the court hadn't had laughed, you know, the bailiff was laughing, everyone was laughing. If the court hadn't laughed, would the judge have reacted the same?

MARTIN: Go ahead, Michael.

SKOLNIK: I think it makes a bigger mockery of the justice system. I think by the judge doing that, we laugh at her. Like, really, you're going to give him 30 days for slapping the man's butt?

BUTLER: Exactly.

SKOLNIK: Give him 30 days for hitting his girlfriend in the head - his wife in the head. Thirty years for hitting his wife in the head. Thirty days for slapping a man in the butt?

IZRAEL: And Charlie Sheen is walking around free. There is no justice in America.


MARTIN: Speaking of this, quick hit on this, Michael Skolnik - Tim Tebow, former Jets player, will now don a Patriots' jersey. And I just thought since you're up in New York...

SKOLNIK: Yeah, you know, I mean, Tim Tebow just is not an NFL quarterback. He shouldn't be in the league as a quarterback. If he puts on a few more pounds, he could be a tight end. But he's like a Geno Torretta, he's a Cade McNown - good college quarterback. He just doesn't have the arm strength. He's a marketing tool. Like, if you want to sell jerseys to folks who go to church, like OK, you know, put him on your team. If you want to win some football games, you know, leave him off the roster.

MARTIN: Oh, harsh, harsh. Jimi, you agree with that?

IZRAEL: He's not on the Browns, he doesn't exist to me.

MARTIN: OK, we'll leave it at that. Jimi Izrael's a writer and culture critic. He's adjunct professor of Film and Social Media at Cuyahoga Community College, with us on our D.C. studios, along with Paul Butler, law professor at Georgetown University. From our bureau in New York, Michael Skolnick, editor-in-chief of Global Grind, and Fernando Vila is director of programming for Fusion, an ABC/Univision venture, with us from member station in WLRN in Miami. Thank you all so much.

IZRAEL: Thank you fellows.




MARTIN: Remember, if you can't get enough barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's leave out on some Kanye. And let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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