Spike Lee is among those upset about Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner’s recent controversial choice to leave women and Black musicians out of his new book The Masters.
During a wide-ranging interview with Lee at the 2023 New Yorker Festival on Saturday, New Yorker editor David Remnick recalled how a few weeks ago the pair were talking and Lee was “exercised” about the Wenner controversy.
“It is just emblematic of how often Black people, brown people, colored people are overlooked for their genius, for their skill, hard work,” Lee said during the New Yorker Festival talk.
When reminded that Wenner had explained these omissions, in an interview with The New York Times that seemed to kickstart the backlash against the Rolling Stone co-founder, by saying that no female or Black artists were “articulate” enough to be included, Lee suggested that may have been particularly what he was irritated about.
“Whoa! There you go,” Lee said when Remnick recapped the “articulate” excuse.
“Think about all of the people you left out,” Lee continued. “I mean Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, they didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll.”
In the Times interview, when asked about his selection process, after Wenner noted in the intro to The Masters that female and Black performers weren’t in his zeitgeist, Wenner said, “When I was referring to the zeitgeist, I was referring to Black performers, not to the female performers, OK? Just to get that accurate. The selection was not a deliberate selection. It was kind of intuitive over the years; it just fell together that way. The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them. Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”
When The Times‘ David Marchese, who formerly worked for Rolling Stone, suggested that perhaps Joni Mitchell could have been included, Wenner said, “It’s not that they’re not creative geniuses. It’s not that they’re inarticulate, although, go have a deep conversation with Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. Please, be my guest. You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did. The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock. Of Black artists — you know, Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as ‘masters,’ the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.”
He said he could have “for public relations sake” included one Black and female artist “that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism.”
The day after the interview, Wenner was removed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation board of directors and he apologized for his remarks.
“In my interview with The New York Times, I made comments that diminished the contributions, genius, and impact of Black and women artists and I apologize wholeheartedly for those remarks,” he said in a statement given to The Hollywood Reporter. “The Masters is a collection of interviews I’ve done over the years that seemed to me to best represent an idea of rock ‘n’ roll’s impact on my world; they were not meant to represent the whole of music and its diverse and important originators but to reflect the high points of my career and interviews I felt illustrated the breadth and experience in that career. They don’t reflect my appreciation and admiration for myriad totemic, world-changing artists whose music and ideas I revere and will celebrate and promote as long as I live. I totally understand the inflammatory nature of badly chosen words and deeply apologize and accept the consequences.”
Elsewhere during Lee and Remnick’s hour-long chat, the filmmaker gave audience members at New York City’s Webster Hall, just a few hints about his upcoming Colin Kaepernick docuseries for ESPN.
Lee said the project, which he says will be a five-part series, is “taking a long time,” because “the story keeps going.”
The Oscar-winning writer-director says he currently has hundreds of hours of footage of interviews, including with Remnick, who shared his unease with being interviewed for 30-45 minutes with a camera that seemed like it was two-and-a-half feet from his face.
“You were great,” Lee said.
Remnick: “We’ll see.”
The Kaepernick project was announced in February 2022 as part of the former NFL quarterback and activist’s first-look deal with ESPN parent company Disney.
The series, which Lee is directing and producing, is expected to feature Kaepernick telling his own, first person account of his life story, including his childhood as the mixed-race son of white adoptive parents; his football success in high school, college and with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers; and the controversy that preceded his exit from the 49ers and alleged blackballing from the league after he took a knee during the National Anthem to protest racism and police brutality.
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