A Generation At A Crossroad

people At a time when black youth culture was all but absent from America's cultural radar, Hip Hop began as a culture of, for, and by the poor inner city youth to cherish and enjoy.
Label me nostalgic, but at the age of 6 (1985 to be exact) I fell in love with hip hop. It possessed this intimate nature not only because I enjoyed it, but more importantly, it was me. It was the way I talked, walked, and viewed the world around me.

Much of hip hop's appeal lies in the fact that it is one of the greatest cultural connectors ever revealed to the world. Through melodic transmission it is a link to outside experiences and environments we would otherwise never be exposed to. For example, a kid walking down the street in Japan can listen to one of Jay-z's odes to street life and briefly catch a mental glimpse of what life is like in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn, NY. In the same fashion, a crew hanging out in the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side can travel three thousand miles in four minutes to link with their brothers and sisters on the West Coast.
On a broad level hip hop is the primary conveyor of the language, style, and lifestyles of black youth in America.

Although hip hop's position as a cultural power is secure, the real obstacles lie ahead. Given the rich historical tradition of black youth activism in America, what and how will this generation contribute? Hip hop activist Bakari Kitwana (former editor of The Source Magazine) examines this question in his important new book, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and The Crisis in African American Culture. In light of hip hop's success, Kitwana challenges this generation (a group he defines as born between 1965 and 1984) to seize this time to create positive and empowered spaces for African Americans.

He believes that hip hop's prosperity can be used as a tool for the creation of a political base that focuses on shedding light on the problems plaguing African Americans.

"Just as some record execs can give us a blueprint for blowin' up rap acts, the idea that our generation's activists hold about maximizing rap's potential for social change have been seasoned in their day to day work and experience."

Police brutality, educational disparity, and disproportionate unemployment rates have threatened Black life in America for far too long. Kitwana pleads with his generation to combat these injustices by stepping to the forefront of the Black community in the name of activism. In the words of black philosopher Frantz Fanon, Kitwana wants to see the hip hop generation, "speak and assume a culture and bear responsibility for a civilization."

There is a lopsided battle occurring to create more extensive dialogue amongst those in the hip hop generation. The two sectors Kitwana identifies as Grassroots and commercial hold disproportionate pieces of notoriety's pie. Commercial entities (popular artists, label heads, etc) are of course the overwhelming purveyors of hip hop's voice and image. As agents of social change, Kitwana believes that it is his Grassroots (activists and everyday hip hop kids) brethren that are often overlooked. Kitwana writes, "Just as some record execs can give us a blueprint for blowin' up rap acts, the idea that our generation's activists hold about maximizing rap's potential for social change have been seasoned in their day to day work and experience." As grassroots constituent himself, he envisions a unified front where hip hop activist and popular star alike come together to discuss and realize hip hop's potential to impact social change.

Theoretically, Kitwana's blueprint for social action is a viable one, but I wonder if the noise created by mainstream hip hop is too loud for our local hip hop community to be heard. Kitwana believes a unified front would challenge successful rap artists to pool their resources and influence to assist in community and economic revitalization efforts. In an era where the rap industry enjoys immense wealth and influence, this goal could very well be possible. The problem lies in the fact that the prosperity enjoyed by many of these figures has not inspired unification efforts, but instead has only marginalized the rest of the hip hop generation. I understand the hip hop industry is big business, but our most "successful" and visible faces in hip hop have lost touch with black youth. These figures look and talk like me. Some of them probably grew in my neighborhood. The sad part is they don't quite relate to me.


If a majority of the black faces readily connected to the hip hop generation are of poor socioeconomic backgrounds, then why are diamonds being dangled in their faces every two seconds? As another ex-drug dealer turned millionaire rap star rhymes about their love for foreign cars with a bottle of Crystal in one hand and a scantly clad woman in the other, many wide eyed youth look on convinced that this is the bright side of Black life.
Many rap artists are quick to say they keep it real amid their riches, but the truth is the product being presented fails horribly to reflect the lives and experiences of many in our hip hop generation. Literally speaking, "Jigga Man" and the numerous black youth bumping "Big Pimpin" remain worlds apart with no common ground for dialogue. This continues because us normal folk continue to feed the cash cow we call hip hop. We follow and support a multibillion industry the most times fails to consistently address the problems that face our generation.

For interviews with Bakari Kitwana and information regarding his new book and the hip hop generation, take a look at these links:

Hip Hop Nation
Interview With Bakari Kitwana
Generation H
From Sweatshop to Hip Hop
Hip hop Confronts War

Whether you're a famous rapper with his/her name in lights or one of countless black youth following this engaging movement, we are the hip hop generation. Rapper/activist Mos Def once asked himself the question, "What's happening with hip hop?" He answered back, "What's happening with us." With so few words he couldn't have been more accurate. I regret to admit that there is no us at this point. We exist as a community divided. It is difficult to see the path to Kitwana's plans for unification . Until this generation recognizes hip hop as this broad cultural movement, rather than an influential money maker Kitwana declares, "those who seek to tap into hip hop's potential to impact social change should not expect substantive progress."

Wiretap Summer Fellow Jason Patterson is a recent graduate of Bates College in Lewiston, ME. As part of his senior thesis, he briefly examined activism and its connection to Hip Hop.


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