The "hip-hop generation" has the potential to bring about historic political and social change in America, says Bakari Kitwana ’88, ’90 (MA), ’90W (MAT), a maturing face in the leadership of young African-Americans who came of age with the explosively popular music.
By Jeffrey Marsh
When Chuck D. of the influential hip-hop group Public Enemy declared that rap music was the "black CNN," he called attention to the music that so effectively communicated the conditions under which many African-American youth live. More than a decade later—and more than a quarter century after the genre’s birth in the urban centers of New York City and elsewhere—the rhythmic music with its rhyming lyrics has become a worldwide popular culture phenomenon.
But to Bakari Kitwana ’88, ’90 (MA), ’90W (MAT), who as editor of the influential music magazine The Source first coined the phrase "the hip-hop generation," the true power of hip-hip —its potential to unite young people to press for enduring political and social change—has yet to be tapped.
"Before hip-hop emerged as a commercial commodity, young African-Americans of this generation did not have a national voice and no place in American culture where they could see the discussion of issues of concern to them," Kitwana says.
"In the landscape of what shaped our generation and touched everyone, nothing has been felt more definitively than hip-hop."
In his 2002 book, The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, Kitwana explores the state of that generation, which he defines as African-Americans born between 1965 and 1984. He uses rap music as the starting point for a larger social analysis of the post-civil rights era.
That analysis, Kitwana argues, begins with a distressingly long list of issues confronting American society: On average, young black people—and in particular, African-American men—face higher rates of unemployment, fewer opportunities in education, and are more likely to spend time in jail or prison. They also are more likely to contend with police brutality and are more likely to be murdered.
All are issues, Kitwana says, that often find expression through hip-hop music, giving young African-Americans a social awareness that, combined with the galvanizing success of rap music, has the potential to effect monumental change.
"We have to be able to envision where we want to go and how far society can go," he says. "These are very basic and simple goals, but they just have not been on the agenda."
Hip-hop—the term is interchangeable with rap, Kitwana says—is, "the most explosive and inclusive pop culture invention since the birth of rock and roll in the 1950s," according to curators of an exhibition at Cleveland’s Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that detailed the music’s influence.
While raunchy vocalists 2 Live Crew and controversial "Cop Killer" singer Ice-T may have garnered mainstream notoriety for rap, other musicians, like Public Enemy and Jay-Z, have made their marks by singing about issues affecting a wide range of African-American youth.
Along with the music, other elements—breakdancing, deejaying, and graffiti art—have come to encompass hip-hop culture and helped define a subset of black youth culture, Kitwana says.
"As rap music became more of a commercial commodity, it has developed a common attitude, verbal language, body language, and become more of a pop culture phenomenon," Kitwana says.
Kitwana, who changed his name from Kelvin Dance after graduating from Rochester, established a reputation as a cultural analyst early in his career. A former editor of Chicago publisher Third World Press, his first book, 1994’s The Rap on Gangsta Rap, cast a critical eye on the popular musical genre.
Haki Madhubuti, poet and publisher of Third World Press, says Kitwana has the potential to take a key role in the leadership of his generation.
"In any type of cultural movement that has any serious statements to make, its participants have to take ownership. That’s what Bakari has done," Madhubuti says. "He’s a scholar and a serious thinker, and that comes through very clearly in his book."
William Lee ’88, chief of staff for New Jersey Senator Sharp James and author of his own book, From the Underground: Hip-Hop as an Agent of Social Change (published under the name Hashim Shomari), says Kitwana’s book is the most detailed analysis of hip-hop ever.
"Even though it’s titled The Hip-Hop Generation, very little is about the music or the cultural aesthetic," Lee says. "It looks at the potential of the post-civil rights generation in terms of building a political movement to address concerns. The book is a thorough examination of the factors that influence young African-Americans."
Kitwana, who The Village Voice calls "One of America’s leading hip-hop intellectuals," says he wanted the book to analyze more than music.
"There’s not much written on hip-hop that’s critical," he says. "Most is too heavily academic or only celebrity biography. I think because of that a lot of people who are not into hip-hop don’t see the big picture."
In conversation, Kitwana is engaging, with a big, bomming laugh. But he gets very serious when discussing the plight of young African-Americans. He’s optimistic that a greater awareness, coupled with a unifying cultural theme such as hip-hop, will bring about change.
"There is a culturally accepted phenomenon of accepting something that’s unacceptable," Kitwana says. "You see that in education, you see that in the rising rates of incarceration. You see that in the creation of new jobs that are service sector and don’t pay kids a living wage. These are the outrages that will make a political movement in our lifetime."
Growing up in the Long Island area, Kitwana has seen his own share of the poverty and injustices that helped direct him toward activism. As a student at Rochester, he remembers rarely making the trip back and forth from New York City to the University without being stopped by police, often because his color and race fit a certain profile.
At Rochester, Kitwana first began to discover his skills as a leader. The vice president of the Black Student Union and president of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Kitwana marched in protests to urge the University to divest itself of holdings in companies doing business in South Africa, and he edited the Black Student Union newsletter, the Grapevine. He remembers making up for a limited selection of courses dedicated to African-American studies by holding informal study groups with friends on campus.
Paul Burgett, vice president and general secretary of the University and former dean of students, remembers Kitwana as a dominant presence on campus who possessed a bright, energetic smile.
"One very forceful element of his thinking that has stayed with me is his insistence on real power sharing with young people," Burgett says. "Bakari is a vibrant exponent of the power, intelligence, and goodness of young Americans—particularly young, black Americans—for whom he so passionately advocates."
Originally a mechanical engineering major, Kitwana read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Timeand became enthralled with writing and the power of language, prompting his switch to English as a major. He met Madhubuti at a book signing in Rochester and actively pursued a job at the Third World Press following graduation. Impressed by Kitwana’s drive, Madhubuti hired him, and some pegged Kitwana as Madhubuti’s likely successor.
"They had been publishing books by people like Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonya Sanchez, people I had read and admired, but I discovered that their target audience was older," Kitwana says. "I began to be concerned about being relevant to my own generation, and I sought out where I could work in a way that would reach that generation."
In the early ’90s, Kitwana took over as editor of The Source and introduced a political sensibility to the otherwise music-focused magazine. As editor, Kitwana took umbrage with the classification of young black youth—the magazine’s core readership—as "black Generation X-ers." It was then that he coined "hip-hop generation" and made the term part of The Source’s style.
"One thing that’s important as you begin to understand more of what black culture is about and the distinctiveness of African-American culture is not defining the black experience in reference to the white experience," he says.
His focus on political issues provided a broad framework, and he quit the magazine in 1999 to work on the The Hip-Hop Generation full time.
Kitwana hopes the book will spark a national dialogue on African-American youth. That discussion, Kitwana says, could lay the groundwork for a movement that could be more effective than the civil rights movement of the ’60s.
Although he attributes many major achievements to the leaders of the civil rights era, he argues that organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League "formed in an earlier generation" are not doing enough for young people.
The bureaucratic accretion that comes with financial- and political-based organizations has created an environment in which developing new and younger leadership is not in those groups’ best interest, Kitwana says.
"The conversation is starting to shift, and they’re realizing it, but they’re still going too slowly," he says. "Part of the reason why is that a lot of guys have gotten comfortable in their leadership. That leadership has become a business.
"One of the biggest problems we face as a generation is that the older generation is not nurturing the emergence of leadership. So a lot of the younger activists are not waiting anymore."
Lee says that’s why Kitwana’s book is important.
"One of the most exciting things about his book is that it has galvanized many in our generation to come together and have this dialogue at a broader level," Lee says. "There’s always activism, but there’s not always a movement. We need to make sure people know each other and talk to each other. It’s taking our generation a little longer to get together."
Kitwana points to many organizations that have already made great strides in unifying members of the generation. Some, like Chicago’s Hip-Hop Political Action Committee, are relatively young but have a commitment to change.
There’s also grassroots efforts: groups of young people who are brought together by common culture who use parties and recreational activities as a means to voice their dissatisfaction. Hip-hop clubs and gatherings are popular on college campuses, Kitwana says, and there is a growing spoken word movement—highlighted on programs like Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam—that are becoming increasingly important.
"You see the most avid groups starting up in areas where you’d never expect them," he says. "Those kids in the hinterlands. . . . There is the real power of hip-hop, much more so than the commercial manifestation of hip-hop."
However, not all manifestations are positive, Kitwana says. Critics often have blasted attempts to claim a cultural connection for hip-hop because of the strongly misogynistic and hate-filled lyrics of some popular artists. Kitwana concedes that these musicians can be seen as detrimental in some contexts but notes that listeners are able to discern the valid points from the hateful.
"Rap music has given a lot, but it’s also brought some negativism," he says. "One thing about the kids of this generation, they are more comfortable living with life’s contradictions. Kids see the negative stuff put out there, but they also see the political messages, and they’re able to discern between the two."
Kitwana, 35, now lives in the Cleveland area with wife Monique Jacques-Kitwana and 4-year-old son Akindele. He’s working on a follow-up to The Hip-Hop Generation, and in the long term, he hopes to start his own magazine to focus on political issues from a multicultural perspective.
In continuing his role as a hip-hop intellectual, Kitwana says the music and the culture have given African-American youth not only a sense of unity but something to strive for.
"Hip-hop has created a national infrastructure," Kitwana says. "Now you have local hip-hop collectives across the country and people getting together in the name of hip-hop.
"More and more, you see young people who are activists tapping into those collectives to bring attention to different political issues. That is the impact hip-hop has."
Jeffrey Marsh is associate editor of Rochester Review.
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