Morehouse prof Marc Lamont Hill tackles pop culture on ‘VH1 Live!’ Sunday nights

Marc Lamont Hill

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Sunday, July 24, 2016

Marc Lamont Hill can talk about Stevie J and Joseline of “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta” with as much dexterity as cop shootings and Black Lives Matter.

The Morehouse University professor of African-American Studies regularly pops in as a regular expert on CNN about serious issues such as race and politics but is now the host of a new New York-based  weekly chat show on VH1 called “VH1 Live!” The show is clearly modeled after Andy Cohen‘s “Watch What Happens Live” on Bravo, which began as a weekly show and became so popular, it’s now on five days a week. (Last year, VH1 experimented with a “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta” post-show out of Atlanta featuring V-103’s Big Tigger but the network wanted something broader.)

The first episode of “VH1 Live!” last Sunday was very heavy on cross-promotion regarding VH1 shows. The first two guests two guests were “Basketball Wives L.A.” cast member Shaunie O’Neal and “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta” star Stevie J. Topics included “VH1 Hip Hop Honors” as well as their respective reality shows. (You can view the first episode here on demand from Sunday, July 17.)

The set is designed like a brightly-lit late-night lounge, with a well-dressed, well-coifed audience, a DJ and low-slung purple nightclub-style chairs.

This past Sunday, Hill offers a fair amount of skepticism about Stevie J never cheating. “I’ve never been caught!” Stevie J protested with his signature grin. “I’m the good guy!”

Hill’s best line of the night was directed at Stevie J, who claimed to be married to Joseline but later denied it. “Blink twice if you’re married!” Hill asked and Stevie kept his eyes wide open.

“I am geeked out about this show,” Hill said before the debut. “It’s a natural extension of what I’ve been doing. It’s pop culture focused. My goal is to make smart pop culture TV.”

He defends “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta.” “The cast is so compelling,” he said. “I know people like Joseline. I know people like Stevie J. I know K Michelle. I relate to these characters. I love how bold they are. I love how they paly in and out of the TV and social media world. You’re watching them on TV and they’re tweeting about stuff behind the scenes. I feel connected with them as people.”

Asked about how “ratchet” some of the VH1 shows like “Love and Hip Hop” can be, he rejected the term “ratchet.” He calls that term “classist,” used by people who think they’re “above” the drama. “In the 1930s, jazz was considered ratchet,” he said. “Mozart was. Coltrane was. It’s all about your lens. It doesn’t mean I’m not critical of things they say. I will say if something is a bad look and that this is not good for us.”

“The network,” he added, “wants a funny, smart show but also an honest show.”

While he knows whether Joseline is pregnant or not is hardly important in the grand scheme of things, he said life is about balance. “I think self care is critical,” Hill said. “To not consume trauma 24/7, to not always be engaged in this stuff. I don’t think I’m alone in my views. People work all day. They manage tough lives. They are literally trying not to get shot by the police. They want to have some fun and laugh.”

His favorite current artists are Rihanna (“She’s not a perfect vocalist but a perfect pop culture figure – like Madonna.”), Drake (“I have jumped on the Drake bandwagon. I’ve been impressed with what he’s been doing the last few years.”), YG (“He’s super dope. He makes great music.”) and Kendrick Lamar (“He’s amazing. And his crew is talented. They don’t get enough attention.”).

At the same time, he treasures old-school rap and hip-hop, reveling in “VH1 Hip Hop Honors” and teaching about NAS and Jay-Z. “I’ve become that get-off-the-lawn guy. I feel proud.”

On the more serious topic of Black Lives Matter, he said many white Americans are offended because they don’t want to face reality. “We don’t like to acknowledge race or gender or sexuality or class. We want everyone to think they’re middle class. We have not come to terms with the toughest issues. It’s the weakest part of our character. This isn’t a kumbaya liberal everything-is-going-to-be-okay movement. It won’t get get better until people struggle and fight. I’m encouraged the next generation is getting active and trying to understand the world. They’re doing impressive, courageous work. We can only live in a world where all live matter if we aren’t afraid when people say black lives matter.”

As for Donald Trump, “he’s what we deserve. This is what  happens when we keep appealing to xenophobia and the cheap seats. Intellectually, we keep playing to the lowest common denominator. Someone then comes in and masterfully does that and takes over a party. It’s scary times.”

But ultimately, Hill is an optimist at heart.

“I can’t help but believe this current moment will yield something good,” Hill said. “I can’t help but think we can get past this. I do get frustrated but I’m a prisoner of hope. We can always have fun and laugh and dance and share our joy. I’m trying to do all that.”

Hill splits time between New York and Atlanta. Ironically, he attended Morehouse 18 years earlier but dropped out during freshman year after too much partying and lack of focus. He eventually graduated Temple University and received a PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

At Morehouse, Hill now teaches a course on pop culture and hip hop and another on the Black Lives Matter movement as well as an intro to African-American studies.

He feels empathy for his students today who have attitudes that mirrored his in the 1990s. “You think you’ve got the world figured out,” he said. “You have all the answers. There’s also an earnestness to it, too. My goal when I’m there is to be the professor to them that I never had when I was there. They may have been there. I just didn’t encounter them.”

TV PREVIEW

“VH1 Live!” 10 p.m. Sundays, VH1

 

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