Campus / News / March 4, 2009

Hip-hop’s evolution in race and politics

Journalist, activist, and political analyst Bakari Kitwana spoke last Wednesday about hip-hop as a cultural movement and how race affects politics. Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality [ABLE] invited him to speak as a part of Black History Month.

Kitwana explained how political movements evolved out of hip-hop and cultural movements and how hip-hop laid the foundation for political movements in the 1980s.

“Hip-hop is more than music; it has to be understood as a cultural movement,” he said.

Kitwana explained that hip-hop grew out of socioeconomic shifts. It happens when “young people growing up on hip-hop decide they can use [a] cultural movement to change politics.”

Kitwana believes that the “racial politics that media articulates do not reflect racial politics in America.”

His discussion of race also got into current events. He talked about how “people lost their minds” when Attorney General Eric Holder called us a nation of cowards because we are afraid to talk about race.

“We need to always talk about what is going on,” Kitwana said.

Kitwana talked about a response he wrote to the recent comic in The New York Post depicting a chimpanzee shot by a police officer, who said, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”

While some believe that this comic was simply about a monkey, denying a link to race or Obama, Kitwana said, “I don’t know, but I don’t remember chimps talking about stimulus packages.”

Kitwana’s response received heaps of hate mail. Some people argued that George Bush was often compared to a monkey, but Kitwana said, “George W. Bush isn’t part of a race that has a history of being compared to the monkey family in a racist way.”

Kitwana also focused on the last two presidential elections to explain how hip-hop can affect politics.

“2004 was a bigger deal in terms of youth voting than 2008 because there was a larger change from before 2004 to 2004 than 2004 to 2008,” said Kitwana. Similarly Kitwana believes that Eminem’s song and video “Mosh” from 2004 was more politically effective than a video like Will.i.am’s “Black President” from 2008. He believes that “young people played an important role in this election and should call on Congress and make the president live up to his promises…young people set the example and the others followed,” he said.

“Generations are fictional, but it’s important to discuss these age groups,” Kitwana said. Some have critiqued Kitwana’s generation as not experiencing anything that the previous have not. One such critic is Bill Cosby, who believes the generation needs to stop complaining, pull themselves up and get three jobs like the generations before them.

However, Kitwana points out that, “We were the first generation to experience increased incarceration and first generation to see job availability going downhill, having to turn to service jobs at factories and fast food restaurants.”

Another difference is that “this generation is the first generation where hip-hop is mainstream for everyone.” In 1986 and 1987, there was not a movement, not a national, unified culture. When hip-hop listeners went to school, “they looked at us like we stepped off a spaceship,” said Kitwana. He said now kids can walk around with their pants below their knees and no one really looks twice.

Kitwana ended his talk by addressing the negative side of hip-hop: it has forgotten to evolve morally. He said, “Where hip-hop is dropping the ball is to incorporate morality. We need to define and articulate a moral center of hip-hop. We need to look at how we treat women.” In response to the overuse of the n-word in hip-hop he said, “The n-word is a symbol of white supremacy.”

However, he does not feel that the glorification of violence in hip-hop is a problem because it does not retain much significance. “It’s been done for so long its not taken as serious as it used to; it’s a cliché now.”

Social chair of ABLE, sophomore Chris Mahone, introduced Kitwana and was very excited to bring him to Knox. He knew some of Kitwana’s books were used in black history classes at Knox and that Kitwana was known here. To contact Kitwana, Mahone went to Kitwana’s website and contacted his agent after looking at some past lectures.

“We had three great events earlier this month. This was the biggest event and had a great turnout,” Mahone said. “The talk went great; I think he did a hell of a job.”

As soon as the talk was over, a crowd of people rushed to speak with Kitwana. Galesburg High School student Diego came to hear and talk to Kitwana about hip-hop and its political aspects. Diego said, “The talk was very educational. I’m a big hip-hop fan and he educated me about the political side of hip-hop.”

Q and A with Bakari Kitwana

What is your responsibility to the public as a journalist and activist?

“One is to do research, make sure facts are right, and really investigate.”

Do you prefer older rap which is thought to be more socially conscious?

“People always think the grass used to be greener. It’s human nature to be nostalgic about what was.” Kitwana said that socially conscious music is still around, it is just not publicized, so people are forced to look for it.

What current artists do you consider to be thoughtful?

“Blitz the Ambassador–best around right now. K’naan, Invincible. K’naan is signed to a major label but Blitz the Ambassador and Invincible are on independent labels.”

Who are your role models?

“Depends on the medium.” Kitwani said he likes The Post- American World by Fareed Zakaria. “I like Noam Chomsky just because of how he isn’t afraid to say what he thinks, and how he writes.” His all-time role models are James Arthur Baldwin, Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez.

Who are your favorite artists from any time period?

The Notorious B.I.G., RaQuan, RZA from WuTang Clan, Scarface from The Geto Boys, Mos Def, Chuck D from Public Enemy, Ice Cube. Kitwana liked Lil’ Wayne’s song Georgia Bush and 50 Cent’s 21 Questions; “50 Cent is crazy but that song was brilliant.”

Who is the most interesting person you have ever interviewed?

“Jay-Z was beyond my expectations…Lauryn Hill was good, but not beyond my expectations.”

How can music get back to its roots?

“It doesn’t need to. There is a lot out there, but it is not celebrated in the mainstream.”

Can becoming mainstream worsen a band?

“It can have a negative effect…the industry is competing with itself. When you get into the industry, it changes you. The person that signed you owns what you make; he owns you and controls you.”

How do you feel about the way mainstream hip-hop and rap glorify violence and living in bad conditions?

“It’s been done for so long its not taken as serious as it used to. It’s a cliché now.”

Jennifer Lloyd


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