WHAT’S NEXT WITH BAKARI KITWANA
For the second installment of “What’s Next,” Amanda D. King’s column on what’s next in arts, culture, media, and politics, King spoke to Bakari Kitwana, cultural critic, writer, and pioneering voice in both the scholarship of hip-hop, as well as hip-hop political engagement. In the conversation, Kitwana breaks down hip-hop as the first major generational impulse that came into existence following the ‘60s and ‘70s Black Power Movement. He talks about hip-hop’s role as a political organizing tool that for decades has helped to shift the national discourse towards anti-racism and why it’s America’s most popular, and yet exploited, music genre.
Amanda D. King: I am inspired by the ways in which you effortlessly blend hip-hop, activism, and scholarship in your work. Can you tell me about your practice?
Bakari Kitwana: I consider myself a writer and activist. My primary interest is in writing about hip-hop as a political movement. I never really considered myself a scholar. But oddly enough as I’ve written my books, most notably, The Hip-Hop Generation, people within the academy found it to be useful. My work is taught in universities across academic disciplines including Anthropology, Black Studies, Literature, Political Science and Sociology. Although I’ve been pulled into the academic world, my work has always been for marginalized people and I try to write books that are accessible and empowering for them.
King: Would you say that you use hip-hop as an organizing tool for Black Power?
Kitwana: I agree with the late historian and speechwriter for Dr. King, Vincent Harding, that there is a distinctive political worldview, which each generation articulates as its impulse. For my generation it was hip-hop, and that’s why I wrote The Hip-Hop Generation. I never define hip-hop as solely music. I’ve always defined hip-hop as a worldview, and a generational impulse that intersects art and activism and continues a centuries-long tradition of Black political struggle.
My organization Rap Sessions, which I founded in 2005, is an example of how I use hip-hop as an organizing tool. I modeled it after the Institute of the Black World, a think tank led by Black Studies pioneer Vincent Harding, that brought together people from the around world to speak and engage at the intersection of arts, activism, and scholarship to further the Black Power Movement in the late ‘60s. Rap Sessions brings together hip-hop activists, scholars, and artists to engage in—difficult dialogues facing the hip-hop and millennial generations, jumpstarts crucial local debate across US cities, and articulates a vision for where we need to go from here.
Music is an essential tool of Black political struggle. The songs of Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Gil Scott-Heron, and Rakim have inspired generations of activists.
Right now, we’re in a unique moment in the coronavirus pandemic, Trump presidency, and aftermath of the George Floyd protests when Black people, especially creatives, should be using everything at our disposal to transform this country. We have the ear of the world and should be using our talents to advance a giant step in social change; anything else is doing our people a disservice.
King: In 2018, Nielsen reported that hip-hop surpassed rock as the most popular music genre in the United States; what are your thoughts on this, and what do you think contributed to the shift?
Kitwana: I think there are some positive and negative contributions to this shift. The positive is that our culture continues to drive and influence society. It’s innovative, exciting, and allows people to see greater possibility in themselves. It is empowering for people to witness how Black folk carry ourselves, and the way we do what we do. Across race, young people feel the way hip-hop empowers Black youth and say, “Man, what’s special about me?” and “I, too, can center and lift my unique voice and identity.” Megan Thee Stallion came into the industry in 2017/2018 and in less than three years has completely transformed it. Young people especially connect with hip-hop. I can still remember how empowering it was for me as a teenager to see Rakim at seventeen years old touring with Run DMC and LL Cool J.
The rise and ease of music streaming, as opposed to people buying albums, has also positively contributed to this shift. The negative contributions to this shift are that the music industry has become even more a trap for Black artists. After about a decade of digital streaming, record executives realized how to consolidate their power to gain more sales and profits through 360 deals, contracts that allow a record label to receive a percentage of the earnings from all of an artist’s activities including live performances, merchandise, and endorsements. These deals further diminish the power and revenue of artists, which is what Kanye West has been talking about on Twitter and what Black people have always known about the music industry. It models a plantation system and is likened to a sharecropping deal.
King: In 2016, Amandla Stenberg, the star of the film, The Hate U Give, inspired by Tupac Shakur’s T-H-U-G-L-I-F-E Mantra, an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody” asked, “What if America loved Black people as much as Black culture?” I want to ask you the same question.
Kitwana: Black America is seeing a little bit of the love now in terms Americans across the board from corporations to everyday people recognizing the importance of our voices and everyday struggle with systems of white supremacy and oppression. The problem is that it’s not penetrating lawmakers, government and institutional structures. Survey responses on the importance and righteousness of Black Lives Matter during the Ferguson uprising in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown by a white Ferguson police officer were relatively insignificant among white people. Those responses flipped in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers—and for the first time a majority was agreeing that racism is a problem diminishing life outcomes for Blacks. Over 2,000 cities around the US held protests in response and many of the protesters for the first time included whites.
The idea that Black people are celebrated culturally, but then otherwise our issues are ignored, is so deeply ingrained in American culture. James Brown used to say, “You can’t put soul in a bottle.” Chuck D referred to the commercialization of hip-hop as white record executives attempting to put soul in a bottle. When we talk about hip-hop and power, it’s the combination of what they have put in the bottle, and what they haven’t. There’s a lot of power within hip-hop that’s not in that bottle. What’s in the bottle is often the history of American racism and stereotypes about Black people and our inhumanity. The hyper-sexualization of Black women, the hyper-criminalization of Black men. These stereotypes permeate popular culture and help racism to continue to reinvent itself. White Americans far and wide were impacted by George Floyd’s murder, opening a window of opportunity for substantive change in its aftermath.
King: After a grand jury didn’t charge police officers for the murder of Breonna Taylor, hip-hop artists were speaking more openly about violence against Black women not only by the state, but society at large. Do you think intersectionality, the term coined by Ohio native Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the various ways in which race and gender compound themselves and create obstacles for Black women, has finally reached hip-hop?
Kitwana: This question of intersectionality is bigger than hip-hop, and I worry if academic theory is the most viable language to use in helping everyday people recognize the humanity, leadership, and intellect of Black women. In the history of Black political struggle, so many Black women have been alongside Black men at the forefront of our movements. As Black men, we have to study the history of Black feminism to understand what women mean when they’re talking about being oppressed differently. To that end, Black feminism is an essential part of any political education for Black men, including hip-hop artists and activists. At the same time, we’re in a political movement moment in the streets in which the language and gender politics of academia can be alienating for ordinary people. We’ve tried to combat this disconnect at Rap Sessions by always insisting that a gender consciousness is not optional.
King: What’s distinct about this region’s hip-hop culture?
Kitwana: The different places around the country that have been able to create a homegrown hip-hop industry have been led by artists who solidified a local identity and lifted it up. When you think about artists coming out of the South, especially Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston, all of them had something in common: they built local labels. They nurtured a local sound, and they didn’t cave to what was happening in New York and LA. I feel like the Midwest just hasn’t done that. What happens in cities like Cleveland and Chicago is that artists make it and leave. It’s going to take an artist that blows up and doesn’t leave to define Cleveland’s local identity. One of the good things that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony did was shoutout Cleveland, but some of them left because they were getting pulled back into what they came out of. As a result, that local hip-hop identity got lost, and since then there hasn’t been a continuous evolution.
King: It sounds like a geography issue as well as a resource issue.
Kitwana: I feel like Detroit developed a strong local hip-hop identity. Slum Village, Invincible, Big Sean, and Eminem all put Detroit on the hip-hop map. Detroit is a historic Black music city. Cleveland was a major music stop in the ‘60s, but the depopulation of Cleveland, the disruption of industry, globalization of the economy, and the movement of jobs overseas, have impacted the cultural life of Cleveland. Whereas if you look at Atlanta and Houston, their population and industry has increased.
King: How are you currently using hip-hop to influence political shifts towards anti-racism?
Kitwana: I recently launched a new effort, The Hip-Hop Political Education Summit, which builds on the work I’ve been doing at the intersection of hip-hop and politics for the last twenty-five years—such as being editor of The Source magazine in the ‘90s, the co-founder of the 2004 Hip-Hop Political Convention, and serving on the national organizing committee for the Black Youth Project’s inaugural convening in 2013 that led to the creation of BYP100. In September, we had over 60,000 people attend the virtually-produced inaugural event, The Hip-Hop Political Education Summit on Voter Suppression, that placed leading hip-hop voices in conversation with voting rights experts to talk about what I call “the new danger facing the Black community,” which is the elimination of rights we already have like the right to vote. For years, hip-hop has articulated that voting is not the end-all, be-all. With the Summit on voter suppression, we raised the alarm that it’s a tool in our arsenal which we can’t relinquish. Even the Panthers participated in electoral politics. And even today, outside the United States, Black folks in political formations who are Marxist, or socialist, are using the political power at their disposal. For us to sit on the sidelines diminishes our power.
King: What’s Next?
Kitwana: Promoting a new anthology I’m co-editor of, released this past spring 2020, called Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government For the People (co-edited with Andrew Gumbel, David Orr and Bill Becker) and a virtual conversation series around the book in which we are talking about issues like voter suppression, the future of the Supreme Court and the Department of State, reparations, money in politics, and more. Some of these moral crises emerged with the Trump presidency, but most have been allowed to co-exist with this democracy for too long. Episodes are aired online on Thursdays at stateofamericandemocracy.org.