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PLAY THAT FUNKY MUSIC, WHITE BOY!

 

By Mark Anthony Neal

 

Friday, June 13, 2008.

 

Bakari Kitwana is of that generation of African Americans that became adults in the late 1980s as blight and economic depression overtook American inner cities and the fiery rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan and a cacophony of black nationalist rap (like Public Enemy and KRS-One) conspired to reclaim the legacy of 1960s-styled black power politics.

 

A child of hip-hop, Kitwana found his own political grounding working closely with author and critic Haki Madhubuti, eventually becoming the editorial director of Madhubuti's Third World Press. Kitwana later became executive editor of The Source, in what was arguably the "golden-era" of the magazine's political commentary.

 

With the publication of his book 'The Hip-Hop Generation' in 2002, Kitwana established himself as one of the most important commentators on race and hip-hop culture. His new book, 'Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes and the New Reality or Race in America' explores the telling reality that hip-hop perhaps represents the best chance for cross-racial political mobilization.

 

There's a lot of nostalgia these days for the era when groups like Public Enemy, X-Clan, and Boogie Down Productions seemed to be on everybody’s boom-box.

 

I think that there is a nostalgia that people have for what they call the golden era, which is why I hate the term. I used to say that the only thing that was golden about it, was that the marker of success was the album going gold (500, 000 units). If you look at the evolution of the hip-hop political movement you have to place people like Chuck D, KRS-One, X-Clan and others in that conversation, but at the same time if we are serious about politics, we have to acknowledge that the politics [those artists] were espousing, in those days, was a 1960s politics.

 

It was a mouthing of 60s rhetoric -- sound-bites from Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Khalid Muhammed and Farrakhan. We were in the midst of a holdover of the early 70s movement. Those early artists weren't yet articulating a hip-hop generation specific politics. Ironically enough, I think that it was NWA that was one of the first groups to start to articulate a hip-hop specific politics, even though they didn't frame it like that. I think that the evolution of a hip-hop politics in the music comes about haphazardly, not consciously.

 

So what does hip-hop specific politics look like?

 

The younger artists that we have emerging now are articulating more of a hip-hop specific politics -- people like Immortal Technique, Zion-I, even Jay Z. They are talking about the changes that we've gone through as a generation of young people. The fact is: These guys (artists like Eminem, Nas, Jay Z and 50 Cent) are high school dropouts, talking about their lives as young people who are locked out of the economy, who found another way to still make it in America. That is the economic political story of our generation.

 

What about those folk who are skeptical about the involvement of whites in a political movement in large part influenced by the conditions of black youth?

 

We can have a coalition in hip-hop, within a hip-hop political movement. I don't think that we have to compromise our politics and I think that we are far more sophisticated politically as African people in America than we were in the 60s. We came through Cointelpro (The FBI's counter intelligence program) and I think as a generation, we are getting involved in politics, getting our hands dirty at an older age. Whereas many of the people of the older generation were teenagers and many of them didn’t have college degrees. Now, we've had the advantage of sitting back and studying and reflecting and really thinking through the issues.

 

I also think that America hasn't created a space for young people, young African Americans, young people of color to move a political agenda in at least the last 20 years. Because of the cultural movement of hip-hop and the changing economics in this country over the last 10 years, hip-hop is affording us an opportunity, I think, to move an agenda across race.

 

I don't think that we give up a black-specific agenda, but if we can demonstrate success moving a cross-racial agenda, we can then use what we learn from that process to then tackle the black specific issues that white people may or may not be on-board with. But there are enough issues that are affecting our community -- education, jobs that pay a living wage and incarceration rates -- that if a [cross racial] agenda could address those issues alone, black people would dramatically benefit.

 

What happens when hip-hop is no longer in vogue, when white kids no longer love hip-hop?

 

We have a short window of time that we can move on [a hip-hop agenda], because I do think that the music is not going to be in vogue at the level that it is now at some point. But hip-hop has a way og changing the rules about everything. Maybe that window will be open for ten years. So much of hip-hop continues to reinvent itself and the stuff that reinvents itself is able to operate under the radar, whether its mixtapes or this thriving independent scene. Right now, the only thing keeping hip-hop alive are the legions of young people across the country who are taking the music back. They are doing really innovative things with it and almost saying we don't want a record deal.

 

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of four books including the recent New Black Man: Rethinking Masculinity. He is co-editor (with Murray Forman) of That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Apart from writing regularly for Vibe magazine, News One and Root, Neal often blogs at New Black Man.

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

 

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