Hearing his own words read aloud, Bakari Kitwana flashes a brilliant smile that momentarily belies his bespectacled, professorial visage. “Those are the final lines from the last chapter,” acknowledges Kitwana, author of the briskly-selling The Hip Hop Generation and a former political editor for hip hop magazine The Source. On break from speaking engagements, the 36-year-old writer sits at a table with folded hands in a room at Chicago’s Third World Press, where he once worked.
Kitwana’s eyes narrow. “We have a good deal of local activism going on around the country,” he says, noting “an emerging group” of moneyed athletes, political figures and entertainers partial to hip hop culture—exemplified by such individuals as NBA star Allen Iversen, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and producer/artist Sean “P. Diddy” Combs —who could “serve as a financial influence by contributing to political campaigns in much the same way that the Hollywood industry has been effective in years past.” Unfortunately for now, says Kitwana, “these components are all separate.”
Kitwana’s invitation to America’s black youth—his “generation” roughly refers to those born between 1965 and 1984, inside and outside of the hip hop industry—effectively sets the tone for the next chapter in hip hop activism. It’s a chapter already being written.
In New York, a media boycott labeled the “Turn Off the Radio” campaign is underway. Chuck D of Public Enemy, rap duo Dead Prez and the New York-based National Leadership Alliance have joined with several artists and community leaders to target media entities that allegedly disparage blacks. Each Thursday, for a 12-hour block, participants refrain from listening to radio and TV stations that broadcast a disproportionate share of offensive material.
Also in New York, top artists gathered at a “Hip Hop State of Emergency” forum to address negative media portrayals and draw attention to an increase in FBI surveillance measures and police investigations of artists. (For more on this, see Salim Muwakkil’s “Hip Hop Hysteria” in the January 20 issue of In These Times, and The Source magazine’s March issue titled “Hip Hop Under Attack.”)
In California’s Bay Area, radio station KMEL-FM—a former local vehicle gobbled up by the massive Clear Channel Communications network—found itself the target of a recent study conducted by the Youth Media Council, a group promoting accountability in media. According to the study, which monitored three weeks of programming at the station, KMEL’s non-music content was dominated by crime, drugs and violence that blamed youths while locking local youth leaders and their perspectives out. Talks between the station and the Community Coalition for Media Accountability—a larger group that includes the Youth Media Council—are ongoing. “Folks usually don’t relate to hip hop as a medium for challenging media,” says Malkia Cyril, the Council’s director. “But I think we’ve played a significant role in instituting this practice.”
There’s been a proliferation of college forums discussing the intersection of hip hop and activism, including the recent week-long “Global Flows” conference at Duke University, which brought together such figures as Davey D, a DJ and journalist, and Minister Paul Scott, an outspoken critic of the violence, materialism and misogyny in commercial hip hop. In March, the Bay Area was the setting for “Constant Elevation,” a forum devoted to aligning hip hop activists and causes with potential philanthropic supporters. One of the more established forums includes the annual “Hip Hop as a Movement Conference” held last month at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In Philadelphia, 30-year-old Will Mega —a local activist and a former member of the New Black Panther Party who, four years ago, made national news as a contestant on the reality show Big Brother—is attempting to galvanize that city’s hip hop generation around his bid for a seat on the City Council.
A number of national speaking tours are underway as well, including the “Speak Truth to Power Tour,” which touts such figures as rap artist Boots Riley of The Coup and writer and radio personality Rosa Clemente. The tour is addressing issues ranging from the “war on terror” to reparations for slavery.
During the conflict with Iraq, anti-war sentiment was plentiful, although the mainstream media steered clear of the numerous anti-war songs, poems, concerts and messages of such artists as Mos Def, Saul Williams, Michael Franti, Paris and KRS One.
“Historically, all movements have developed from the youth,” says T.J. Crawford, head of the Chicago Hip Hop Political Action Committee and city manager of Rolling Out UrbanStyle Weekly, an African-American magazine serving 19 cities across the nation. “Nowadays, hip hop is the culture we’re celebrating, so it naturally becomes the latest vehicle for youth empowerment.”
“It was mostly young people that made up the civil rights movement,” agrees Clemente, who promotes hip hop culture “as a tool of resistance.” The New York-based activist devised the “Speak Truth to Power Tour” as a vehicle for young voices of color to oppose war, highlight the plight of domestic political prisoners, and promote self-determination.
But as Clemente and Crawford both know, mass movements also have historically developed out of an emerging collective consciousness. The question for the hip hop generation is whether it has attained a level of consciousness that will demand and facilitate economic and political empowerment on a national level. “I think the key thing to remember when it comes to politicizing the hip hop generation, is that this generation, by nature, is already political,” says Kitwana. “They’ve been politicized by the public policies of the ’80s and ’90s. You don’t have to tell a hip hop kid that police brutality is an issue when he’s probably gotten knocked upside the head by a cop before.”
“Activism is why hip hop came about,” says Davey D. For the past eight years, the Oakland-based DJ has operated one of the largest Web sites on hip hop and politics in the nation, Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner (www.daveyd.com). He explains that the culture “was a reaction to the economic and social conditions” of the ’70s, and that many of its pioneers “had an activist mindset.” He cites the example of legendary artist Afrika Bambaataa, who used hip hop culture as a way of stemming gang violence in his Bronx neighborhood.
For almost three decades, hip hoppers have steered attention and money to causes both local and national. While local efforts—like Bambaataa’s anti-gang violence mission, and even the much-maligned MC Hammer’s work with finding jobs for ex-inmates—have often flown under the radar, several national efforts have received significant press.
Rush Communications CEO and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons convened Rap the Vote 2000, an initiative geared at increasing the electoral participation and civic activism of the hip hop community. Though poorly planned and less than successful, it did not deter Simmons’ newfound penchant for politics. In 2001, he brought together rap artists, music executives and a host of community leaders, activists and political figures for a hip hop summit in New York City. From this forum emerged the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) which immediately gained prominence by joining with the United Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for Quality Education to protest proposed cuts to the city’s education budget. A number of prominent artists including P. Diddy, LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Chuck D and Alicia Keys took to the streets with more than 100,000 students, parents and teachers to successfully oppose $1.2 billion in cuts to an already inadequate schools budget.
In February, Simmons and HSAN officially joined the anti-war movement by throwing its support behind Musicians United To Win Without War, an all-star segment of the national Win Without War coalition. And in April, HSAN and the NAACP drew 15,000 people to Detroit to take part in a hip hop summit that pledged to register 20 million new voters over the next five years.
Combined with steadily-increasing youth activism in communities across the country, these notable developments have further fed awareness of—and among—the hip hop generation.
Groups like Black August Hip Hop Collective, the Third Eye Movement and LISTEN are tackling an array of issues like the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, and the erosion of civil liberties. Multi-issue activists like Tamara Jones organize youth in several cities and through a number of organizations around AIDS awareness, police brutality and gay and lesbian rights. In Kitwana’s The Hip Hop Generation, Jones challenges single-minded, sexist and homophobic representations in hip hop and its corresponding politics by emphasizing that “many in the post-civil rights era recognize the limits of a race-only politics and realize that we can’t talk about black liberation without race, class, gender, sexual identity or immigrant issues.”
Given this active environment, it appears to be a ripe time for this generation to rise to the national challenge. But for Davey D, the challenge is not necessarily to organize on a national level, but to remain active locally while communicating these efforts to counterparts in other regions. “All hip hop is local,” he says. “Each community has its own collective psychology.”
While agreeing that links between local communities need to increase, Kitwana sees it differently. “Because we live in this high-tech information age, what is considered to be the public square has changed.” He identifies this square as “the means by which information gets communicated and becomes a part of national culture,” while clarifying that—unlike the previous role of local black churches and other civil rights-era institutions—culture is now transmitted through media. “If a hip hop political movement remains local, it’s not going to have the same effect.” Kitwana insists that further activism is spurred when people feel they are part of something larger. “If it’s seen as a national movement, the possibilities for change are endless.”
T.J. Crawford gives merit to both views. “Across the country, we are struggling with a lot of the same issues,” he says. “But the only way we can connect these efforts nationally is through the strength of our local communities. You can’t put out a national call without having firm local foundations that allow for the call to be heard and the effort sustained.”
But whether local or national, Kitwana, Crawford and Davey D all agree that empowering the hip hop generation is a necessary and ongoing chapter in a story far from finished. “We are living in an exciting and historical moment,” says Rosa Clemente. “Our children will judge us by how we partake in it.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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