Power to The Generation of Hip-Hop
The car that hip-hop author Bakari Kitwana is riding in
cuts north from Montauk Highway onto Sag Harbor Turnpike and vaults the
railroad tracks that divide Bridgehampton's tony neighborhoods from their
poorer cousin, where young men shift furtively on some street corners.
"Stop here," says Kitwana, a bespectacled, athletic 35-year-old, who earned
his chops as a leading hip-hop intellectual by writing two books and serving
as national affairs editor for Source magazine. "I'm sure I'll know somebody."
Sure enough, he does. Though Kitwana left the East End in his rearview
mirror when he graduated from Bridgehampton High School in 1984, people on the
street still know him.
Up saunters Charles Manning, 22, wearing emblems of the hip-hop generation
- wide-legged jeans, heavy boots and a chain draped from his neck. The
conversation settles on guys Kitwana hasn't spoken to in a while.
"What about Ju-baby?" Kitwana asks.
"Ju-baby's in jail."
"Where's he at?"
"He's in Riverhead."
It is this sort of experience - that of an educated, accomplished author
very much at ease on the streets of black America that has allowed Kitwana to
become a cogent narrator of the hip-hop subculture, a subculture that is
helping to shape a whole generation of African-Americans.
In his latest book,"The Hip Hop Generation" (BasicCivitas Books, $24),
Kitwana says hip-hop culture reflects a disillusionment among the first
generation of black people born after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, who see
themselves growing up amid the shards of America's broken promise of equal
In the lyrics of rap music - often full of rage, swagger, money, lust and
misogyny - young black people are defining the world as they see it, Kitwana
says, a world that rejects the authority of the white power structure, and even
that of older African-Americans.
At the same time, Kitwana says, there are signs of a growing social
consciousness among at least a fraction of the hip-hop generation, who see in
their music and entrepreneurial spirit a power to force social change in ways
their parents' generation never could.
"It's empowering for young black people to have a voice in a society where
they didn't have a voice before, when nobody, not even older black people, was
listening," Kitwana says.
Kitwana, whose other book, "The Rap on Gangsta Rap," was published in 1994,
says there are ample reasons for disillusionment among African-American men
born between 1965 and 1984 - the cohort he defines as the creators of hip-hop
Steeped in America's glorification of material goods, yet impeded on the
pathway to the middle class by the export of low- skilled jobs, Kitwana says,
African-American youths feel cheated because whites still enjoy a better chance
of attending quality schools and securing higher-paying jobs needed to pay for
this glorified lifestyle.
Daunted by the prospect of trying to purchase $20,000 cars and $250,000
houses on $6-per-hour wages, it's not surprising that so much of hip-hop
culture glorifies entrepreneurship, Kitwana says.
For some, including Harlem-born Sean Combs, this entrepreneurship has
brought great riches through hip-hop's biggest exponent - rap music. For
countless others, an at-all-costs determination to realize the American dream
has led them to the underground economy of drug sales.
"In the 1980s and 1990s, many hip-hop generationers quickly realized a
40-hour-a-week, minimum-wage job wouldn't meet their basic needs," Kitwana
writes in his new book. "That many of us would take our chances in the informal
economy is not surprising, hence the mass appeal enjoyed by rap lyrics that
described a gritty underworld....Increasingly, young whites and other American
racial and ethnic groups living in pockets of poverty in suburban and rural
communities are identifying with it for the same reason."
Kitwana, who was born Kevin Dance, is familiar with this broken promise.
His father had to drop out of the second grade in North Carolina to help
support his family by picking sweet potatoes.
His parents moved north to work potato fields in Bridgehampton, lured by
the promise of better schools and fairer treatment. But the world Kitwana grew
up in was a segregated one, with white families living south of the railroad
tracks and largely abandoning the public school system, while black farmhands
and domestics were segregated to the north.
"I saw people with a great deal of wealth, with expensive homes and a lush
lifestyle, but I didn't experience it," Kitwana says. "I wondered what on earth
they could do to make all this money."
But Kitwana does not let young black people off the hook, saying that
hip-hop's frequent nihilistic bitterness and objectification of women place a
generation at risk of missing opportunities for a brighter future.
Still, he says, hip-hop culture and rap music have afforded young black
people levels of visibility and empowerment never before achieved, and which
show signs of bringing social change.
"It's given young black people a voice," he says, "and has created an
alternative to the underground economy."
By Martin Evans