Baratunde Thurston

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Baratunde Thurston is a comedian and bestselling author of the book How To Be Black. In his Guest DJ set, he tells us how Beethoven opened his ears, the Sarafina! soundtrack opened his mind and how his heart led him to Nirvana. Baratunde will be the closing speaker at the TED conference in Vancouver this March and will be co-hosting a Slate podcast called Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race starting in April.

For More:


1. Beethoven - "Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op 21, IV: Adagio"
2. Sarafina! Soundtrack - "Freedom Is Coming Tomorrow"
3. Nirvana - "All Apologies"
4. Tupac - "Changes"
5. Oscar D'Leon - "Mi Mujer Es Una Bomba"

Anthony Valadez: Hi I’m Anthony Valadez, and I am here with Baratunde Thurston, comedian and bestselling author of the book How To Be Black. He served as digital director of The Onion for five years, and is the CEO of digital content company Cultivated Wit.

Today, we are here to talk about five songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Baratunde, how are you?

Baratunde Thurston: I am so good, and so happy to be in the studios of KCRW! This is life right here!

AV: What is your first pick?

BT: My first pick, is Beethoven's "Symphony #1", it’s the finale, sort of, movement for the adagio, and it’s classical! Beethoven, clearly, and when I think about inspiring music…I grew up in a musical household. My sister played the oboe and the French horn in a youth orchestra. I played the bass and the suzuki violin in a youth orchestra.

AV: Wow!

BT: My mother played guitar and sang at night clubs, so I don’t do much with music now, and our whole family doesn’t either, but it was part of my foundation.

And I remember this song. And I can remember, like if I’m listening to it, I can remember the bass parts. I don’t even know how to play the bass anymore, but it trained my ear, classical music.

I mean this was an orchestra that was all black, pretty much. Like Black and Latino kids, it was the DC Youth Orchestra program, which was designed to get young kids of color from the hood into classical music - and it worked.

Song: Beethoven - "Symphony #1 in C Major"

AV: That was Beethoven with "Symphony #1 in C Major," what’s next for us?

BT: Next up is from a soundtrack from a musical. A live play musical called, Sarafina! and the song is called, “Freedom Is Coming Tomorrow” and I remember seeing this live at a theatre in DC where I grew up.

AV: And what is it about this song that resonates with you?

BT: So my mother was a very politically active woman, my name is Baratunde because of her politics. It’s based on a Nigerian name Babatunde.

She was in the Black Power movement. I found letters of hers corresponding with civil rights leaders, she was very much in the struggle. I had to memorize all the nations of Africa when I was a little kid and we would go to marches and rallies and all these black cultural events.

She took me to see this play about apartheid, and this was a play about the power of music in the freedom struggle, which is very much parallel to the 1960’s struggle in the US, but there’s just so much rhythm and spice in the South African freedom songs and the student-lead movement to combat apartheid.

And there’s just something really… I think this is like the soundtrack to the revolution in our household.

Song: Sarafina! -- “Freedom Is Coming Tomorrow”

AV: It sounds like this track planted the seeds of music inspiration, did it also plant the seeds of political inspiration?

BT: Absolutely, like I said, we had this… I mean I saw Nelson Mandela when he came to DC after he was freed from prison he came to the DC convention center.

I certainly adopted… like my identity was forged politically in part, and heavily culturally, so this song takes me back to a particular event. I would play this on my little Sony Walkman, the whole soundtrack on loop. There was a rhythm to the politics and music like this that definitely inspired my perspective.

AV: Well, let’s take a listen maybe we can inspire some future political leaders with this track.

BT: Yeah, hit it.

AV: "Freedom Is Coming" off the Sarafina! soundtrack.

AV: That was "Freedom Is Coming" off the Sarafina! soundtrack selected by Baratunde Thurston, part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. I’m having a ball, what’s next?

BT: Now for something completely different. Now we’re going to Nirvana.

The song is "All Apologies" and I was not raised to be a fan of Nirvana.

That was white people music, and this was the first -- actually after Beethoven, I can’t really say it was the first– but it was a jarring departure from what I was expected and used to. I was a R&B, hip-hop kid for the most part in terms of like hanging out with my friends but, when I was in high school in DC, I actually had a crush on a girl, and she got me interested in Nirvana.

I would not have been interested in this "alt rock" thing, grunge – it was weird, electric guitar, like what’s going on with all this, there’s no bass… it just felt really really foreign BUT she felt really, really fine so I was like, "OK, if I get into the music she’s into, she will obviously get into me…"

AV: That’s how we think.

BT: Yeah, that’s game, so what happened was, I was obsessed with the news at the time, and Kurt Cobain committed suicide. So he emerged into my life through the NBC Nightly News. I remember watching the story at home, and so I got interested because of the girl, and because he was on my news program.

I bought this album on cassette, and this was the first song that I think I really connected with, I knew all the words. And it didn’t really get me the girl, but we forged a really close friendship, and it opened my cultural ears to something that I wasn’t really quote unquote supposed to be into.

Song: Nirvana – “All Apologies”

AV: That was Nirvana with "All Apologies". What’s next?

BT: Next up, Tupac!

Well I had to get some hip-hop in here, and I’ve chosen the track “Changes” because it’s one of his more political tracks.

This isn’t a gangster track so much. This is like a clarion call from the hood. He’s talking about police brutality, he’s talking about Black Panthers, and those are familiar themes that I think, especially today, you can hear echoes of songs like this so relevant in the Eric Garners, in the Tamir Rices and all of the police violence that still affects so many of our communities. He called it.

Song: Tupac – “Changes”

BT: Also here’s what I loved about him, Tupac was one of the first to not just rap like there was, there was harmony, and melody going on in the way he rhymed, not just in the chorus.

AV: It was the cadence.

BT: Yeah, but it was still hard. Nobody accused him of like being this soft R&B hip-hop dude.

AV: He wasn’t Drake.

BT: No, no, this... he was like, proto-hardcore Drake. I mean, "thug life" was tattooed on his body, so he represented that life in a very strong way and other ways, but there was just something really melodic about his delivery.

And that softness around this hardcore thug edge, it just made the message resonate more for me.

AV: Could you relate to that duality of Tupac? In a sense of him, you mentioned, being hardcore, thug life, but then this was a voice of consciousness.

BT: Yeah and I think, you know, obviously I was a hardcore gangster -- not at all -- BUT the duality is something I’ve definitely lived. And I think growing up in the house I did, to the mother I have, but also going to private schools, majority white communities, having grown up in a neighborhood that was ravaged by crack cocaine, and some violence, but then going off to Harvard University. You’re containing multiple worlds within your consciousness.

AV: So, what’s the last song you brought for us today?

BT: The next track is Oscar de Leon, "Mi Mujer Es Una Bomba" and I chose this track because it affected my life in a time when I realized I could dance.

I didn’t grow up dancing, I was like a kid on the wall. I was very shy, I didn’t know how to approach women, I just knew the two step.

AV: How old were you?

BT: When I found this song I was just out of college, I was 21 or 22 years old, I just got my driver’s license, I was living in Boston, and I would rent cars to be able to drive them. I didn’t own a car yet and I would go to the Boston Logan Airport, and rent a car for like the weekend, and then hit the salsa club, with the top down blasting this.

AV: Wow.

BT: And my good friend Greg, Greg Selben, sadly I also chose this because Greg committed suicide a few years ago, and he was a salsero. This Jewish kid from Illinois, just outside of Chicago could move, and it used to upset me, I’m like how does this white boy dance better than me? But I learned from Greg and he got me this Oscar de Leon CD for my 21st birthday.

So this is kind of in honor of Gregg and his life, it’s also in honor of my own discovery of the forms of expression that I really connect with. I’m not a professional dancer, by any means, but I’d like to say whatever side of the Mississippi I’m on, I’m probably the best dancer.

Song: Oscar De Leon – “Mi Mujer Es Una Bomba"

AV: That was Oscar De Leon with "Mi Mujer Es Una Bomba" selected by Thurston, Mr. Thurston, Baratunde Thurston, thank you so much sir.

BT: Thank you so much Anthony, a pleasure to be here.