Questlove caught up with Cornel West recently for a wide-ranging interview that broadly touched on what the two know best: politics and music. The interview gets right to the point, starting off with a question about collaborative versus individual leadership in the movement for justice:

QUESTLOVE: So you were teaching your class about the difference in social impact between Marcus Garvey and Du Bois. And what I took away was the question of whether we need a messiah figure to lead society, or can it be truly grassroots? I also wonder what good it will do today. Chuck D taught me a long time ago to aim really small. And everyone now has [Michael] Jordan-itis–everyone wants the star position. So where do you fall, on the question of how we can best move forward as a society, between the Moses-messiah figure, like Martin Luther King Jr. or, say, Occupy Wall Street, which really didn’t have a leader? 

CORNEL WEST: I take my fundamental cue from John Coltrane that says there must be a priority of integrity, honesty, decency, and mastery of craft. I take my second cue from [organizer and activist] Ella Baker that says, with that integrity, honesty, decency, master of craft, there must be an attempt to find, among everyday people, vision, voice, and modes of organizing and mobilizing that does not result in the messianic model, in the HNIC, the head negro in charge. This is where Martin King comes in, and the distinction we made in class between conspicuous charisma and service-oriented charisma. It’s possible to be highly charismatic the way John Coltrane was, and still de-center oneself, as he did, to allow for McCoy, and Elvin, and Reggie, and the others [who played with Coltrane] to lift their voices with tremendous power. Martin, at his best, was able to empower others, galvanize others and, through an integrity and humility, recognize he’s just another human being, not a messiah. At his worst, he was the Moses that everybody had to defer to. 

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