by Bakari Kitwana
BasicCivitas Books, 256 pp., $24.00
What is hip hop culture? Are African American youth in a state of crisis? Is hip hop worldwide in a state of crisis? The answers vary according to who one asks.
A Civil Rights era old guardsman may consider hip hop nothing but a bunch a rump-shakin' rickety rack asking no real questions about the future beyond, 'Where the party at?' A "true head" born and bred on Public Enemy's brand of conscious old school may mourn the day hip hop died burying with it The Dope Emcee. Youngsters spoon fed this diluted new millennium milieu of recycled classics could justifiably respond by slurping up an fm dial's worth of Jah Rule's gruff grunts and Ashanti's paper thin sopranos like a fruity pop hop blend ... I mean, whatever happened to emcees who just had the juice?
Remove the dizzying spin of Sprewell rims, the voluptuous video vixens, the brothers boasting platinum fronts, the white boys camouflaging low-cuts beneath their hoodies to reveal what Bakari Kitwana calls in The Hip Hop Generation, "the crisis in African-American culture." And, according to Kitwana, former editor of The Source magazine, hip hop is the culprit.
Kitwana adds social and cultural liability to the graffiti writing, breakdancing and emceeing elements of hip hop, and a seamless mixtape the combo does not make. Kitwana argues that hip hop and its crisis--both of which he unapologetically approaches as "a Black thing"--revolve around seven major issues: "education, unemployment and workers rights, reparations, economic infrastructure in urban communities, youth poverty and disease, anti-youth legislation, and foreign policy." The deficit of direct action concerning these issues may be the result of a lack of definitive purpose amongst emerging Black leaders. Kitwana makes mention of hip hop mogul Russell Simmons who has by and large taken on the sole responsibility of defining the political agenda of "hip hop generationers." By enlisting assistance from choice Democrats, Simmons leaves the grassroots sector of hip hop activists holding Al Sharpton's half-empty box of Dark & Lovely (like they ain't got nothing better to do). In the midst of voter apathy, the high rates of Black male imprisonment, and the obsessive pursuit of "the new American dream," Kitwana resolves, "in their attempt to fulfill their generation's own political goals, many Black baby boomers lost sight of the significance of the emerging generation." He goes on to charge phat cats like Simmons with spearheading the sacrifice of a yet-solidified hip hop platform similar to the forfeit Jesse Jackson made when he ditched his original concept of forming a third political party (post-1984 Presidential election), opting instead to "deliver votes and legitimacy to Democrats."
Kitwana falls short of accusing select Civil Rights era activists of dismissing any social gains prior to and beyond the Civil Rights Movement. He sites institutions like the NAACP for being "out of sync with the hip hop generation" and for confronting the symptoms, not the disease, as with its 1999 boycott of South Carolina for displaying the Confederate flag--an issue that sits on the outskirts of long-established abuses of power and reinforcement of -isms by white (and Black) leadership. Thwarting efforts to develop mobilization strategies different from those of hip hop's foreparents leaves the seven aforementioned discrepancies for hip hoppers alone to reconcile.
What Kitwana most convincingly does in The Hip Hop Generation is challenge those born between 1965 and 1984 to wear their bargaining power with the same confidence as a pair of squeaky-fresh sneaks. He shouts out the work of "Hip Hop Minister" Conrad Muhammad and CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), measurably successful gatherings like the Million Man March, and campaigns to free Mumia Abu Jamal, Sundiata Acoli and other "prisoners of war." He also recognizes the work of activist crews organizing in the name of hip hop, i.e. the National Coalition of Black Women, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, LISTEN, Inc., and events like The Black August Collective, a hip hop hook-up of Cuban and NY City artists and activists.
The Hip Hop Generation is destined to be a supplemental read on Hip Hop 101 syllabi as institutions of higher learning incorporate hip hop into their social studies. Challenging, debatable, and overwhelming to digest, Kitwana, with the striking surety of a battle emcee, provokes a change in questioning from "what is hip hop culture?" to "what do we mean by politicizing the hip hop generation?"
In answering this question, a hip hop optimist may quote the Mother of Grassroots Organizing Ella Baker's adamant claim that "strong people don't need strong leaders."...Or Black Arts Movement freethinker Larry Neal's assertion that "all the major activities that were directed towards the question of liberation... spring from an ethos, a group spirit. ..." Or they may site the straightforward declaration of Dead Prez : "It's bigger than hip hop..."
Or maybe when approaching the question, "what do we mean by politicizing the hip hop generation?" someone will find a measure of hope in quoting...you.