The Hip-Hop Generation's Own Black History

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was the summer of 1986, I had just finished watching a Rob Base and DJ Easy Roc video, and I bet $40 with my father over the impact of hip-hop culture. He said it was a fad that would disappear from the black music scene like disco. I argued that rap music -- and more importantly hip hop culture -- would stick around for years to come.

Sixteen years later, Rob Base and DJ Easy Roc are hip-hop afterthoughts, and I still have not collected on my bet. But hip-hop culture and the generation that grew up listening to its music have not faded away. This group is now a pivotal force within the black community -- blacks born between 1965 and 1984 make up over 18 million of the 33 million blacks in the United States.

While much of Black History Month has focused on the past, maybe it should focus a little more on the black history that's currently being shaped by the hip-hop generation. As its members enter our nation's universities, the halls of corporate America and government positions, the hip hop generation has a chance to significantly change the black community.

The passing of the torch has caused friction and the creation of a visible generation gap within the black community. This gap can be seen in the differences the hip-hop generation has with older blacks when it comes to leadership, goals and values. Older blacks often complain of younger blacks' outlook on social values, clothing, hair, music, lifestyle, family, race and career. Meanwhile, young blacks often see their parents' views as old-fashioned and say they feel misunderstood by seniors who lecture more than listen. They are also weary of the current black leadership, which often talks about civil rights victories and a past that they feel has no bearing on today. And the generations have ongoing disputes over rap lyrics (dismissed as "obscenity" by many older blacks) and in the casual use of the "N-word" as a term of endearment.

"The black generation gap is a hard reality that has become increasingly apparent," said Bakari Kitwana, author of the soon to be published book, "The Hip-Hop Generation: Crisis in African-American Culture." "The best analogy is the emergence of the hippie of the 1960's, which represented a radical break from mainstream white American culture."

The hip-hop gap also emerges politically, according to a recent Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies study, "Diverging Generations: The Transformation of African-American Policy Views." The study found that younger blacks adults (age 18 to 25) were six times more likely (24 percent versus four percent) than those aged 51 to 64 to say that the lack of good candidates is a reason not to vote. And they are eight times (32 percent versus four percent) more likely to say that politicians do not keep promises.

These trends played out dramatically in the November 2001 Detroit mayoral race, which pitted 31-year-old state senator Kwame Kilpatrick against 69-year-old Detroit City Council head Gil Hill. During the race, Hill made it a point to comment on Kilpatrick's age, stating that voters should want "an experienced driver at wheel, not someone with a learners permit."

While Hill eventually lost to Kilpatrick, he put his finger on an attitude prevalent with many older blacks across the county -- contempt for the young upstart.

"You have always had a different worldview coming from the younger generation and the older generation," said Hashim Shomari, author of "From Da UnderGround: Hip Hop Culture as an Agent of Social Change." "The main issue right now is that the older generation is not passing the baton of leadership off to the younger generation. And the younger generation does not want to take the advice that the older generation has to offer."

This leads to what Harold Cruse described, in his 1960's nominal work "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual," as the "lack of a historical continuity" within the black community.

"Rather than learn the lessons from our parents, we make the same mistakes they made," said Shamori. "The conflict between the older and the younger generation has lead to this phenomena."

The hip-hop generation -- the first generation of blacks that grew up in a post-segregated society -- did not have to face state sponsored segregation and discrimination. It is a generation that has been able to benefit from the fruits of the civil rights struggles of the past and take advantage of the opportunities that many of their parents could not. While they cheer such social progress, some in the older generation also harbor resentment against youth whom they perceive as not having lived up to challenges that they once did.

In reality, the hip-hop generation has struggled with many of its own challenges and opportunities. If it is to succeed in those fights, it will need the wisdom and guidance of the older generation. To make that happen, both sides of the gap must mend fences, acknowledge their past errors and foster dialogue between the generations.

Lee Hubbard writes on hip-hop, national and urban affairs. He is a recent contributor to AlterNet.org's new book After 911: Solutions for a Saner World, and he can be reached by e-mail at superle@hotmail.com for any comments.

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