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Backtalk with Tavis Smiley.

As one of black America's biggest multimedia brands, Tavis Smiley hosts a talk show on PBS, has authored nine books (with another three due out this year), and developed a series of empowerment conferences.

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, Smiley was raised in Kokomo, Indiana. His father was a master sergeant in the Air Force and his mother was a minister.

Smiley rose to prominence as host of BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley. The show became so popular that when the network suddenly terminated his contract in 2001, it sparked mass viewer protests. Since those tempestuous times, Smiley has forged a miniconglomerate, The Smiley Group, and become the first African American to host his own show on National Public Radio. (He left NPR in 2004.) BLACK ENTERPRISE recently talked to Smiley about the influence of the media, hip-hop, and black leadership.

With so much questionable programming on television, why should anyone pay attention?

While there has been an increase in the amount of junk we see on television, there is also an increase in the number of outlets that provide education and empowerment. Given that we live in a world where we're trying to navigate serious issues and need to engage in serious dialogue about those issues, television, when it's used correctly, can be a medium that allows Americans to be introduced to each other. In a best-practiced situation, when we're interested in broadcast and not narrowcast, television can do good.

What has television lost over the years?

I think good conversation is a lost art as a result of television, because a lot of people asking the questions don't really care about the answers. They have to get you in and out in four minutes. It's a quick conversation. We live in a world where people are much more concerned about monologue than dialogue. As a result, people aren't interested in being genuine listeners. And what makes up part of a good conversation is being a good listener. You have to care about what the other person is saying. That doesn't mean you have to agree, but you are empowered by listening. It's a particular challenge for African American people but a uniquely different challenge in part because there aren't enough people in the country who are interested in listening to what we have to say to begin with.

What do you think about the global influence of hip-hop culture?

I think it's a viable art form. I am concerned about the direction it's going in now. I don't believe that every lyric from every song that comes out of hip-hop culture needs to be socially redemptive. Marvin Gaye sung "What's Going On?" but he also sang "Let's Get It On." That said, I don't know that I hear enough consciousness coming out of music these days. And certainly there are people doing that. There are a lot of people out there who are conscious in their musical commentary, but I wonder if the genre isn't being hijacked by certain people who are moving it in another direction.

When you say hijacked, are you speaking of the commercial aspect?

It's too commercial. It has gotten away from what it started out as. If Chuck D. was right when he said that hip-hop music is like CNN for black people, then I would ask what is the message? It can't be get rich or die trying. That's what concerns me.

What do you think of today's black political leadership?

Cornel West, who is the big brother I've never had, said to me one time, 'You can't lead the people if you don't love the people, and you can't save the people if you won't serve the people.' And I don't want to make a generic indictment of leadership, but the reality is that if you were to ask people of today's generation who they think loves them and who serves them, the conversation would dry up.

You once ran for a local office In California. Will you run for elective office again?

I would never say never, but to use a sports metaphor, I'm in the zone right now. I'm doing the best I can with what I have right where I am. That may change at some point, but I don't see it in my future at the moment.
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Author:Meeks, Kenneth
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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