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THE PHILOSOPHER OF THE HIP HOP GENERATION: Author Bakari Kitwana talks to AfroToronto.com

26 Nov 2005

Why do white kids love Hip Hop? Many have asked the question; perhaps not openly for fear of being labeled or being attacked by the political correctness machine or the proponents of a blind “We-are-the-world” attitude. Toronto after all is forever described as a culturally diverse city and inclusiveness if you listened to the politicians, flows in our blood as Canadians. So discussing one segment of the population’s strong interest in an art form rooted in another’s culture is a clear taboo.

In the U.S., the question has generated a lot of discussion, primarily since the advent of Eminen who was viewed as a lyrical genius rescuing the art form by some, while others saw in him the flag bearer of an invasion that would soon make Hip Hop go the way of Rock ‘n Roll and other musical genres.

 

Bakari Kitwana is a former Executive Editor at The Source and the author of The Hip Hop Generation, a book that is used in many Hip Hop courses at many colleges across the U.S. He has also lectured extensively on Hip Hop and Black youth culture. His work has been published in the Village Voice, The Source, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Nation. His new book is appropriately titled: “Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: wankstas, wiggers, wannabes and the new reality of race in America .”

Bakari Kitwana spoke to AfroToronto.com from his home base in Westlake, Ohio .

AfroToronto.com: Why did you deem it necessary to tackle this subject of white kids and Hip Hop?

Bakari Kitwana: It’s important for various reasons. One, you have these racial dynamics that have been part of the American scene for a long time and are still unresolved. And because you have this growing audience for Hip Hop, it’s given the history of American race relations an opportunity that is almost impossible to ignore: this white audience with this black musical form, what does that mean? It begs the question: is it cultural appropriation? What is it? I just thought it would be a compelling conversation.

AfroToronto.com: In the book, as part of the reasons you raise for the interest of White kids in Hip Hop, you mention that in the early days, in the 80’s it was a rebellion, almost an association with a social movement. These days that does not seem to be the case. Most kids seem to be simple consumers of mainstream culture. Do you view that as a positive thing?

 

Bakari Kitwana: I think it’s complicated. I think it’s too easy to make the assumption that people are simply listening to music as entertainment and that’s it. One of the things I talk about in the book is economics as a major variable. Because of the way globalization is evolving, it’s not just black people who are left behind, it’s poor people, regardless of race who are left behind. Here in America you have white kids who feel left out of mainstream American life. They feel that American society isn’t offering them options as it once did.So if you see young people engaging in Hip Hop in Palestine or in South Africa, in Bolivia or in Cuba, it’s young people who are dealing with economic issues and see Hip Hop as a way of providing an alternative to the answers being provided by mainstream societal governments.

AfroToronto.com: In terms of Hip Hop becoming mainstream, why do you think that the songs or the artists that have more of a political message, that have more in-depth songs do not see the light of day while the 50-Cent and others like him continue to dominate the charts?

Bakari Kitwana: That’s a good question. I think an audience has been nurtured for it. Part of what these artists are selling is the American dream. I think America has been very successful at selling to people the idea of consumerism, this idea of identifying with products. But I do think that there is a political critique that comes with 50-Cent. If you listen to the CD, “Get Rich or die Tryin’” he talks about it. He also does in his new book, From Pieces to Weight. I mean this is a guy who dropped out of high school because he could make

author and cultural critic Bakari Kitwana

 

... more money selling drugs. He wanted material things that his grand parents couldn’t buy him. Also here in America you have an education system that is not working too well for most people. So what’s the point of staying in school when you can get the same job at Wal-Mart with a Grade 7 education that you can with a High School diploma and even if you graduate High School, without money, you can’t go to college anyway. So a lot of people are identifying with 50-cent on that level. He’s a folk hero.  He’s a person who has defied the odds. He’s the embodiment of the American dream and the American dream is to have a lot of money. This is the success of American indoctrination, to make people associate success with wealth.

AfroToronto.com: In the book, you talk about Hip Hop being a subset of Black American youth culture. What about the idea of people associating 50-Cent and other artists like him with Black American youth? Internationally that does not necessarily present the most positive of images. What is your take on that aspect of it?

Bakari Kitwana: I think it’s complicated. And that’s why a book like this one is important. There are no simple answers; the answers are always very layered. This is the power of Hip Hop. This is why it’s being taught in college campuses [across the U.S. ] But I think it’s problematic that many people are getting their image of what Black Americans are from these videos. Donald Bogle wrote a book called Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films which talked about the negative images of African-Americans in cinema. Ithink to a certain extent it’s the same thing that these videos are doing. But also at the same time you also get a lot more. The same way 50-Cent or Jay-Z represents a stereotype, they also represent what I call a Hip Hop Generation Sensibility in terms of their analysis.

AfroToronto.com: In what sense?

Bakari Kitwana: Well, look at the response from Hurricane Katrina. I mean Puffy and Jay-Z came out and donated $1 million dollars. Where was the response of the older generation? That’s what I am talking about in terms of the different ways of looking at the world. The dirty laundry is definitely put out there but I think it’s a different way of looking at the problems that are plaguing African Americans and poor people. This is a generation that is saying life is full of contradictions but we are going to deal with the contradictions while the older generation simply refuses to recognize the contradictions.

AfroToronto.com: What is your position on the perennial debate around Hip Hop being a subset of Black culture?

Bakari Kitwana: My position is that Hip Hop emerged out of the South Bronx from people coming from different places in the Caribbean, Trinidad, Jamaica and so on. So right there, you have an international orientation from the beginning. But I think the emergence from the South Bronx is an important element; one because it is the belly of the beast. That’s a critical component. But in terms of the language and the culture, for me it’s Black English!  I mean, I understand globalization bringing all these people together in the South Bronx as a driving impetus to the creation of Hip Hop. Without the business institutions of white America , Hip Hop would not exist. But these were business people [like Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam] who were engaging in Hip Hop for the purpose of making money. But in terms of the culture as it existed in the South Bronx and was extended to Queens and other parts of the city, that was Black people.

AfroToronto.com: What is necessary in your view for Hip Hop not to go the way of Rock ‘n Roll?

Bakari Kitwana: I think we need a healthy conversation around race and Hip Hop. Right now I have a tour that I’ve planned for 15 cities. This is an extension of the work that we did with the National Hip Hop Political Convention, which I felt needed to be more multi-racial. We have a Native American, we have Raquel Rivera who is Puerto-Rican [author of New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone], we also have Billy Wimsatt [author of Bomb the Suburbs], Adam Mansback who wrote Angry Black White Boy and more. We want to give people a language to dissect race in Hip Hop. That’s what the tour is about and that’s what the book is about.



"
Why White Kids Love Hip Hop" is available in bookstores around the city and online at www.amazon.ca.


Eloi Minka is one of the founders of AfroToronto.com.

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