Bakari Kitwana: Interview

Bakari Kitwana
The Hip-Hop Generation: African American Youth in Crisis
by Thabiti Lewis

The May 2002 issue of Black Enterprise Magazine published the first part of a four part series that examines the global economy of hip-hop in the areas of music, fashion, sports and the film industries. The goal of this series was to reveal—over the course of four issues—the power of hip-hop in shaping advertising campaigns and directing consumer purchases. The very existence of a four-part study of hip-hop’s influence in the areas of music, fashion, film and sports speaks volumes regarding its prevalence in the lives of Americas and the world’s youth culture. The reality is that hip-hop, in 2 001, boasted sales of nearly 90 million and over 100 million in 2000. What is most interesting is that amid all the hoopla about hip-hop’s economic success one author has settled on analyzing the hip-hop generation and the sociopolitical forces shaping it. Bakari Kitwana’s timely book, The Hip Hop Generation: the Crisis in African American Youth in Crisis, unlike other authors on rap music from James Spadey and Tricia Rose to Greg Tate and Nelson George, does more than record the history and trends of the music but offers an analysis of the obstacles facing this post-civil rights generation, namely their racial, social, political and economic struggles. The text is divided into two parts that include eight short chapters ranging from an introduction and definition of the new black youth culture to race wars, activism in the hip-hop generation and the challenge of rap. Perhaps the strongest chapters are those entitled “Young, Don’t Give a Fuc* and Black,” “The New Black Youth Culture,” and “The Politics of the Hip-Hop Generation.” The latter was especially engaging because it illuminated the internal horrors Black on Black violent crime and underground economies as well as the age-old conundrum that has plagued the Black community of Old Guard leadership eschewing the youth and the legitimacy of their concerns. However, the lengthy discussion on “Gangsta” films entitled, “Young, Don’t Give a Fuc* and Black” is a must read for here Kitwana takes the films to task for promoting negative behavior and cultivating skewed social views. His discussion of films seems to capture the essence of the hip-hop generation he suggests is in crisis.

Kitwana’s arrival at this point stems from his experiences as a teenager in New York when rap was first gaining a firm footing, his undergraduate years as a student/activist at the University of Rochester (where we first met) and from his tenure as editorial director of Third World Press, where he enjoyed a close relationship with his friend and mentor Haki Madhubuti. While at Third World Press he published The Rap on Gangsta Rap, which along with a stint as executive editor and then political editor with the hip-hop magazine, The Source led to the publication of The Hip Hop Generation. It seems his varied experiences from grassroots to corporate have balanced his perspectives quite well, as is evidenced by the quality of The Hip-Hop Generation.

In the introduction to The Hip-Hop Generation, Kitwana states that his examination of the hip-hop generation (those born between 1965-1984) “is an attempt to jump-start the dialogue necessary to change our current course.” Among the most important topics of dialogue in Kitwana’s book are: how high incarceration rates effect Black lives, why unemployment rates of young Blacks is double that of their white counterparts, what it means to come of age in first generation of post-civil rights America, and what issues are the focal this generation’s activism and political agenda. He is equally critical of the older civil rights generation, which is ironic because they were equally critical of their elders for also failing to allow the youth to build on their political and social gains.

Although Kitwana is to be commended for his attempt to critically examine sexism and misogyny, at times he seems to mistaken some genuine male bonding for anti-female behavior when he says, “America has so vilified young Black men that we’ve circled the wagons, excluding all others, including Black women,” which he attributes to gang, prison and street culture. The weakness in this argument lie is the very natural reality of male bonding that is healthy and socialized via activities outside of the prisons or gangs which are not the only reality for all Black males. Also, this discussion lacks the force of some of his other chapters due to a surprisingly imbalanced commentary that completely omits male perspective on the subject (except for the misguided antics of Tupac and Tyson whom he correctly critiques). Nonetheless, what is important about his discussion of sexism and misogyny is that does not omit the relevance of feminist perspectives and the problems of sexism and misogyny in the hip-hop generation. I recently chatted with Bakari about his book and his view of the state of things for the hip-hop generation.


TL: In some of your recent interviews you have been critical of Russell Simmons and his political aspirations. Weren’t you among those in the planning room when Simmons, David Mays and other head hip-hop honchos convened the initial press conference. Are you still in the mix, so to speak and if not why?

BK: He [Simmons] doesn’t want to deal with young activists who haven’t “done” something or don’t have money. Thus, they deal with Al Sharpton, Jessie [Jackson], Ben Chavis. They don’t understand that this is not a time for grandstanding; this is a new movement. Ben [Chavis] knows the history of SNCC [Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee], which the elders helped get off the ground, yet he failed to tell Russell and them, “I can help you but you need to start your own group.” The civil rights generation just did not do enough to help us build political organizations. They have to ask themselves what they did to contribute to the current generation.

TL: What I find interesting is that impresario Russell Simmons, whom you critique in your book, is on the periphery of the age range for those included in the hip-hop generation, yet he has managed to position himself in the center of the political force of this generation. How is that possible and does it mean that he is an exception or that his political direction has validity?

BK: It’s important to me any antagonism with Russell is played down. We need to build
an organization and a movement and it can’t be done with too much attention focused on petty differences. My differences with Russell aren’t personal and
emphasizing them makes it seem like we have personal beef, which we don’t.
It’s a difference of stategy and tactic. I’m sure we’ll have an opportunity
to work together down the road and I don’t want anything I say to be construed
as “hatin” or to be used to block that. Also, I have older brothers who are Russells age which makes it easy for me to see the delineations—what he thinks is important differs [from the hip-hop generation]. Look at his stuff and read between the lines and there is no consciousness at all.

TL: Someone may ask, what makes Bakari Kitwana the person to intellectualize about hip-hop, much less crave out who gets into or excluded from the hip-hop Generation? I am from St. Louis and went to college in New York, as you well know, and let me tell you people were constantly challenging the validity of my claim to rap music and hip-hop culture because I was not from the East coast, although now we have the Nelly’s, Hot Boys, Master P’s and other regional successes. Still, the younger heads might contend that you are on the cusp of the very generation you delineate, that your Hamptons origins instead of NYC proper pushes you out of the box.

BK: This book expresses how rap and its generation speak to the realities of what we grew up with, how the music touches on major social and political issues they faced. However, the truth is (in response to my being from outside New York City) that EPMD, Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, Keith Murray, and A Tribe Called Quest are just a sampling of those from Long Island whose contributions to rap are indisputable. (add his other stuff)

TL: I think it is fantastic that you move yourself out of the role of “leader” but into the role of participant seeking solutions towards moving the political, economic and race struggles of this generation forward. Why not take this book and shout: “Here, I have the answer; read this and you know will know what to do?”  I only say this because the book addresses numerous pressing issues that impact youth and elders in contemporary society.
BK: I want my book to spark a dialogue. I want to be part of the solution. I’m a writer and theorist and hope that I can contribute something to the conversation around hip-hop that has for too long needed to go to another level. I want folks to start thinking about the issues differently. Stopping the thinking that hip-hop as a musical form is all this generation is about is a big first step. We need to take another giant step forward in terms of social change and hip-hop provides a unique opportunity. However if we expect it to come via rap lyrics alone, we’re mistaking ourselves.

Any of the existing groups could play that role. For example, old school Black Panthers instead of arguing with the New Black Panthers could help them get the organization off the ground and not make the same mistakes they did. But this can’t be done by preaching, talking down to young heads or repeatedly telling us how many miles old heads walked to school barefoot. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, NAACP and countless other local and regional groups could do the same as SCLC did.

TL: Judging from these comments is appears that a new political focus was the impetus for your book? It seems to me that your critique of these components of  Black politics derives primarily from study of the civil rights movement and for that matter, your involvement in Black Power institutions. Would it be safe to make such assumptions?

BK: The hip-hop generation has new things to say about politics in the 21st century. This book came about largely because the civil rights and Black power movements’ message needed to be redefined for our generation [hip-hop]. They have failed to incorporate our issues to make those institutions more relevant, like NAACP, Operation PUSH and Urban League.

Thabiti Lewis is an assistant professor of English at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. He teaches twentieth century American and African American literature and popular culture. He is currently working on a collection of essays that examine race and sport in contemporary American culture, tentatively entitled: New Jack Athletes.