Man on a Mission: Bakari Kitwana says hip-hop is the next political movement

He appears to be a high-powered businessman, perhaps in the financial sector–black-suited, armed with a busily ringing Blackberry and headset, accessorized with an immaculately shaven head and stylish rimless glasses. Laughter rolls out of his mouth, booming and golden like a sentry’s horn, whenever he stumbles upon a pithy way to explain a theory from his life’s work to a layman. For example: “People complain about MTV and commercial hip-hop, but to me, that’s not even hip-hop. It’s like hip-hop looking at itself in a funny mirror at the carnival.” Wait, what?

This dapper man is no securities trader, but Bakari Kitwana, hip-hop political theorist and acclaimed author of “The Hip-Hop Generation” and “Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop.” He’s beginning his year-long residency at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, which will culminate in a Spring Quarter political science class on “Politics and Hip-Hop” and a talk from an as-yet-unnamed “famous person” (not-so-surprising hint: it will very likely be a top-selling hip-hop artist). His appointment to this post is evidence that the central message of Kitwana’s works is beginning to take hold in the minds of the intelligentsia: that, whether you like it or not, hip-hop is a very real and powerful social movement, meriting a place for its study in the halls of academia. Not only does it deserve respect as a field, but it’s an intellectually compelling one–it’s all uncharted territory, and the soil is interdisciplinary and rich, incorporating political science, economics, sociology, history, urban studies, race and gender studies, literary and musical criticism. All that’s lacking are some pioneering farmers to come and till it, and Kitwana has blazed the trail.

Kitwana’s path to being a fixture on the nationwide university circuit–crossing state lines five times in one week–and to being a professor at a globally renowned school is a winding one, cutting through publishing jobs and an editorship at “The Source” magazine. It all began with potatoes. Kitwana’s parents were migrant workers in the white potato industry in the 1950s, rotating between Elizabeth City, North Carolina and Long Island. In 1955, they simply stayed in Long Island, settling in Bridgehampton–“the other Hamptons,” as Kitwana wryly puts it. The fortuitous existence of white potatoes on Long Island produced a set of circumstances that differentiated his childhood from those of most children of working-class families in New York. Far from the inner city, Long Island produced a huge tax base for the public school system, but his school was ninety-five to ninety-eight percent black at the time. He went to an all-black church. And he was close enough to New York City to soak up urban influences–a Brooklyn-based sister provided him a springboard to witness the birth and evolution of hip-hop in the city. Kitwana witnessed the transition from DJ-centered music to MC-centered music–“People rapped sometimes, but that’s not why we went to shows; where we went on a Friday night depended on who was DJ-ing, and no one thought rap could ever be a career”–and the transition from neighborhood event-based performance (weddings, graduations, promotions, and so on) to the emergence of “gangsta rap” in the late 80s, a trend that Kitwana believes signaled the beginning of the commercialization of hip-hop. On N.W.A.’s unprecedented success, Kitwana says, “We heard people cuss before, but this violent language was a huge shift. [N.W.A] brought a Hollywood sensationalism to hip-hop; they were authentically raw, but were they authentically real?”

This proximity to hip-hop from its prenatal stages gives Kitwana a uniquely authentic perspective to analyze hip-hop as a social movement. He shuns the title of “hip-hop historian,” denying that he has the most viable point of view on its history; the true chroniclers with a sense of stylistic shifts and monumental periods are DJs, in his opinion. Instead, he prefers to go by the title of hip-hop political theorist. “I analyze the economic and political evolutions of hip-hop,” says Kitwana. His first foray into the field was in 1994 when he was at Chicago’s Third World Press. They released his “Rap on Gangsta Rap,” a “critical review” of “the ways Black culture, male-female relationships, sexism, white supremacy (racism), and gun violence converge in this controversial music form,” according to the Press. After receiving a torrent of encouragement, Bakari says, “I realized I was in my element. This is stuff that I know that nobody else knew at the time. Mainstream media was beginning to report on hip-hop and the impact on politics within hip-hop, and they were quoting academics who didn’t know what they were talking about at all.” Another impetus to continue with this sort of study was the desire to “bring political focus to the younger generation, who lacked a language to discuss this sort of thing.” This led him away from Third World Press, who he felt focused more on the older generation, and to a then-young magazine that you may have heard of: “The Source.” “The Source’s” tagline is “Hip-Hop News, Culture, and Politics,” and Kitwana introduced the third element of that list to the magazine by starting their National Affairs section. Although he ended up becoming Executive Editor, Kitwana recalls constantly having to defend his dedication to uniting hip-hop and politics during planning meetings: “People would always be asking me, ‘Why should this be in the magazine? What does politics have to do with hip-hop?’” Thinking about this so much caused him to make a “bold move” and leave “the Source” to write “The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture.” The gamble paid off–“The Hip-Hop Generation” is now taught as a textbook on one hundred different campuses.

Catapulted to the national stage by the success of “The Hip-Hop Generation,” Kitwana has completed many projects since then. These include his Rap Sessions, “community dialogue on hip-hop” that have covered “Race and Hip-Hop” and “Gender and Hip-Hop,” the latter of which was held at the UofC last year. This year’s talk will also be on campus and will be on “Hip-Hop and the Presidential Election.” He also co-founded the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention, modeled on the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana in 1972-1973; his convention attempted to formulate and endorse a national political agenda for the hip-hop generation spanning issues from gentrification and racial profiling (bad) to fair representation in the workplace and reparations (good). At the time, he was working on his most recent book, “Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes and the New Reality of Race in America.” The book reflects one of the most difficult challenges faced in the convention–how do you build a hip-hop political movement across race? Some groups did not find that a desirable goal, fearing co-option of the hip-hop movement by whites, and the New Black Panthers were incensed to the point of pulling out of the convention. Kitwana’s view is more practical: “Hip-hop as a cultural movement is multiracial, so the political movement should be as well.” The turnout to the convention was surprising in terms of its demographics–most attendees were between the ages of 19 and 22. “The dominant group had no basic civil engagement, no language for gender analysis or for race analysis, aside from the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality–there was a real void,” says Kitwana.

With a void there comes possibility. To illustrate the potential of hip-hop, he draws comparisons to the Christian Coalition, whose enormous success drew on a pre-existing communicative infrastructure between churches. Hip-hop has a similar structure of informal liaisons between performers, fans, DJs, promoters, venues, websites, and so on, and he who can tap it will be fruitful indeed. Kitwana acknowledges the present flaws in the world of hip-hop–most notably, the misogynist, materialist, violent tendencies of commercial hip-hop. However, he sees potential in their redemptive power, if the artists could be won over to the side of Good. “Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ sold 900,000 copies in one week,” he points out. “Any politician or author would kill for turnout like that.” The numbers are impressive: Jay-Z and 50 Cent have all sold 500,000 or more copies in their first week. “If Jay-Z went to a rally or supported a candidate, the political equation would change overnight,” Kitwana insists. That’s a big “if,” especially in the face of pressures from corporate backers to stay away from meaningful political action: “The media [portrayal of hip-hop] gets more and more mean-spirited the more political it gets,” he points out. In the end, Kitwana allows for a diplomatically-worded judgment: “I am…disappointed that [mainstream rappers] rap about crap, but dismissing them is a bad strategy.” His strategy, then, is not at all about dismissal and exclusion, but about coalitions and inclusion–all in the name of community transformation. And maybe along the way, people will learn that hip-hop is less scary and more intelligent than they may think.