Generation Vexed 

Can hip-hop attitude be harnessed as a political force?

Page 5 of 9

In a phone interview, Kitwana defines the hip-hop generation as African Americans born between 1965 and 1984, which in his view roughly represents the tail end of the civil-rights movement and start of hip-hop's saturation of mainstream consciousness. Whether nonblacks also can be considered part of the hip-hop generation is "a question of semantics," he says, yet Kitwana is well aware of the genre's broader appeal; his upcoming book, he notes, will be titled, Why White Kids Love Rap.

In his eyes, this wider audience -- which makes up the difference between the 9.5 million African Americans that fit his definition and the estimated 40 to 45 million consumers of hip-hop music and related products -- represents a potential political force that needn't be limited to young folks. "There are people who are well into their forties who are influenced by hip-hop," Kitwana says.

Behind the urgency of this recent drive for political empowerment, Kitwana says, are worsening conditions for young African Americans in education, employment, incarceration, and criminal justice. All are familiar themes in rap music, he notes, from East Coast to West, indie to major-label artists. Take crime: "Most hip-hop generationers," the author remarks, "know someone -- a friend, family, relative, an associate -- who's caught up in the criminal justice system."

He cites comparative stats to back up his point: The total prison population in the country was around 200,000 circa 1970 compared with roughly 2 million -- almost half of them black -- in 2000, Kitwana says. Additionally, the Department of Justice has reported that the number of incarcerated Americans grew more than 300 percent between 1980 and 2000. As of 2003, according to the DOJ, almost 5 percent of all black men in this country were in prison, compared to less than 1 percent of white men. And while African Americans make up just 12 percent of the United States population, 47 percent of all people in jail are black, according to a 2002 report authored by Illinois Congressman Danny Davis. These numbers reflect an alarming racial disparity in the criminal justice system, which incidentally presents yet another barrier to hip-hop political empowerment, since former felons are barred from voting in some states.

The cycle of incarceration and the perception of black neighborhoods as high-crime areas, Kitwana says, raise other major issues, including racial profiling and what he calls "paramilitary policing in the communities of people of color."

But just as important in his view are access to education and living-wage jobs. "For our parents' generation, if you were working-class and you had a job, that job afforded you the ability to buy a home, to take your family on vacation, to have a car or two," the author says. "For our generation, if you're working-class and you have a job, that job doesn't afford you the ability to do any of that. You don't have a job with benefits."

The living-wage issue is so key that were any politician willing to tackle it, "they could get the hip-hop vote," Kitwana notes. Of course, if the hip-hop voting bloc he envisions were to mobilize in significant numbers, it could force politicians to heed its agenda -- provided it had one. Hip-hop artists have articulated a political agenda in their lyrics, but nothing has been laid out in concrete terms, the author points out. "You do have to connect the dots," he says.

That's why hip-hop luminaries have gotten involved with voter registration, and also why Kitwana helped organize next week's National Hip Hop Political Convention. "If people around the country who are of the hip-hop generation feel we need a national organization, then we should collectively build one," he says. "At the very least, we need to be networking nationally."

Historically, one of the biggest barriers to hip-hop politicking has been the community's own do-it-yourself ethic. The young organizers started from scratch, with little help from their predecessors in the civil rights movement. Kitwana speaks of a "huge" generation gap -- an ideological conflict, if you will, between the followers of Dr. King and the disciples of Tupac. "Some of the older people are so disconnected from the young people, they have no idea what hip-hop is," Kitwana remarks, a couple of weeks before Bill Cosby made his recent statements attacking black parents for spending too much on their kids' sneakers and calling the kids "knuckleheads" who don't speak proper English.

But Kitwana thinks the hip-hop generation is at least partially responsible for the generation gap. "To some degree, it's been our own fault." There was an expectation, he relates, that the civil rights generation would "bring us into their organizations, bring us into the leadership. Then, when that didn't happen, we got really frustrated by their inability to articulate our issues."

If closing the generation gap is a challenge, getting the hip-hop rank and file to participate in the system may prove an even bigger one. Consider that it's nearly impossible for a typical resident of Richmond, East Oakland, or Bayview-Hunters Point to relate on a personal level with an Ivy League scion like John Kerry, and vice versa.

Just talk to Lil' Larry, who was standing outside the Kucinich rally at the Ashkenaz. Dressed in a Raiders jersey and baggy jeans, the self-described "underground rapper from East Oakland" didn't look much like a guy with political leanings, but looks can be deceiving. "I think hip-hop and politics go hand in hand," he opined. Reason being, "rappers are talking about what's going on."

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