Power to The Generation of Hip-Hop

Bakari Kitwana writes of rights, rap and segregation
Name of Publication: 
May 22, 2002

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."

"Where's Feaster?"

"Feaster's upstate."

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