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The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture

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One thing that has given me hope in a very grim year is the flourishing of youth activism. While bombardiers demolish schools abroad and choke their funding here, subjecting them to a slow living death, the movement continues to build.

Bakari Kitwana

Reviewed by Aaron Shuman

Monday, September 22 2003, 10:56 PM


One thing that has given me hope in a very grim year is the flourishing of youth activism. While bombardiers demolish schools abroad and choke their funding here, subjecting them to a slow living death, the movement continues to build. One sign of this is a growing body of literature that seeks to explain youth concerns and the distinct political forms they're taking, to people who won't believe the movement has arrived until it sings "We Shall Overcome" just as they once did.

In other words, there's a growing body of youth literature that seeks to address the generation gap in political dissent on its terms. For Bakari Kitwana, "the divide between the hip-hop generation and that of our parents (the civil rights/ Black power generation) is as vast as the one that separated white America in the 1960s, as radical white youth culture broke from the mainstream and swept across the country. Kitwana examines the paradox of late 20th century Black America, in which "the monumental achievement of our parents' generationas been established, while the "inalienable rights" and concrete gains of the civil rights era are rolled back. Neither these gains, nor an understanding of the role of slavery -- what others call the neo-slavery of prison -- in American life has been secured. Kitwana maps the ways in which times done changed, arguing our movement can't be our parents' movement, while attempting to narrow the gaps in understanding between them.

As former Executive Editor of hiphop Bible The Source, and former Editorial Director of Third World Press, Kitwana has an impressively holistic view of hiphop culture, that enables him to examine how it "both empowers and undermines Black America" without being an apologist or a hater. Equally well-versed in America's politics of cultural representation and "the Black cultural tradition of social activism." Kitwana is as capable a critic of the virtual reality that built the hype of Black criminality, as he is of the material reality that pushes Black people into the underground economy and punishes them disproportionately when it catches them there. Kitwana brings consistently original readings across discourses to restore the complexity of a people who too often live and die "between pop culture and news media reports."

So, for instance, while some decry the rise of gangsta rap as a phenomenon that could and should simply be excised from popular culture, Kitwana locates its rise in the politics of "gang affiliation" somewhere between the LAPD database that listed 50% of the city's Black men as gang members in the early 1990s, and contemporary reality that finds "nearly 50 percent of America's prison population is Black." Recognizing prison as a central American institution, through which much Black life passes, Kitwana argues "with so many Blacks entering and exiting prison, [its] influence is inescapable" and maps its disruptive impact on the Black family, gender relations, economic and political prospects, health and well-being, as well as hiphop and other media representations of Black youth.

Kitwana's takes are fresh, so that even when he seems off, his points are well worth thinking through -- as for instance, when he suggests that the sheer cost of mandatory minimum sentencing and the capture of increasing numbers of white youth in its dragnet may provoke changes in prosecution of the drug war. Writing before 9/11, Kitwana could not have foreseen a homeland security culture that depicts drugbuyers as providing material aid to terrorists and maintains government spending on police by any means necessary󩮣luding an evisceration of social spending that's surprised even those who no longer have reason to be surprised by such things. Yet if drug war chronicler Sasha Abramsky is correct with his latest,The Drug War Goes Up in Smoke, Kitwana may be prescient even here.

On that note, Kitwana's look at the U.S. military as "one of the few realistic roads to economic stability" or the hip-hop generation is crucial reading. Kitwana updates the plight of the Black soldier in WWII to the age of peacekeeping, where "inevitably, many struggle with the contradiction of fighting to secure democracy and free-market economics abroad, while they lack opportunities themselves at home, and neglected Black communities in center cities remain likened to war zones." Yet even as military budgets increase, and even though "military service compares somewhat favorably to other options available to young Black unskilled workers," many soldiers find themselves needing to take on additional jobs to get by.

Kitwana locates the distinct flavor of hiphop activism here󢥴ween the gains of previous generations, who integrated the armed forces and pulled government jobs, and the new realities and failed promise of post-segregation America, which require a go-it-yourself social entrepreneurship that creates economic as well as political opportunity. The hope to be found throughout this book is its suggestion that we are living through the kind of time that precedes a wave of social transformation, when the contradictions between fiction and reality grow too stark and too ridiculous to be maintained. Kitwana sees the potential for an incubating movement to grow into its own strength. For those familiar with the nuances of the battle cry "No justice, no peace," this offers hope enough to get by.

The Hip Hop Generation is available from Basic Civitas Books 

Copyright © 2003 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.
 

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