YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Groping to Find a Voice for a Lost Generation

Author crusades for a forum to address the issues facing the hip-hop culture


Of late, no matter where author Bakari Kitwana lands, everybody wants to hang--"See a show. Check out some rap," he says, laughing his big laugh as we roll through sluggish midday traffic in search of a solid vegetarian meal--a feat, even in this land of fitness and health, that's a bit more challenging than happening on a good party. "I don't really hang out much," he continues, "I mean, I'm 35. Married. Have a 4 year-old son. I have a lot more concerns than hangin'."

Which is the axis upon which Kitwana's new book turns. "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture" (Basic Civitas Books) isn't about music, in the sense that it isn't a critique or exploration of what's charting or in heavy rotation underground. Instead, it tracks the subculture of African American youths who have been marked indelibly by a fast-moving, "goin' for mine" global economy that inspired the music, and the music that has inspired the thriving multivoiced subculture.

Their concerns, the crisis of Kitwana's subtitle, have long been broadcast in rap lyrics: street violence, high incarceration rates, tension between the sexes, lags in education, generational rifts. And they have become the defining issues confronting a post-civil rights generation of blacks who were supposed to inherit much more.

"This Republican I know would say: 'Man, that struggle is over. Over,' " Kitwana says. "And I thought: Over? I was interested in where we fit. What we could do. And the older generation has not been training us for when they're gone to a different plane. "

Kitwana's "we"--the hip-hop nation, African American youths born between 1965 and 1984--doesn't fit with Gen-Xers shaped by grunge and the tech bubble's boom and bust. Nor does this group see its immediate cultural touchstones as Martin and Malcolm--who some seem to know best through samples sprinkled into conscious (political/message music) rap. "Most know [the civil rights movement] as integrationist or nationalist. Either Martin or Malcolm. But there is so much more. A lot of the book is my personal journey and how we--this generation--define the struggle," he explains. "Part of the power of hip-hop is that the average kid feels his voice matters. You don't need an instrument. Or fancy clothes. But you get heard."

No National Organization

Touching down in L.A. for a few days on his grass-roots, spread-the-word tour, Kitwana has been sussing out collectives and activists around the country who are pressing for change from the ground up. "People don't know what's all happening because we don't have a national organization to help take it to the next level."

Kitwana, who was born on the early end of the hip-hop generation, grew up in Long Island during an era when hip-hop didn't have a name. "It was just the music that was played at a party. And the rapper, well, he was the DJ's boy who was carryin' in the [record] crates."

Kitwana was moved as much by party culture as he was by the need to rally against antigang legislation and racial profiling. And, by the time he'd enrolled at the University of Rochester (N.Y.), where he moved from mechanical engineering to English and education--he had become a committed student activist seeking models, in the streets and on the page, that might provide some solutions.

Ultimately, activism led him to a job as editor at Third World Press, where he worked for its founder, Haki Madhubuti, poet, essayist and publisher, a major influence in the Black Arts Movement of the late '60s and '70s. That put him in conversations with the elders--Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks and Kalamu ya Salaam--whose books he was reading, or who gathered in the offices. He was immersed in the history of the black-power movement, and the idea of building a committed political and social base. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency were key themes--but weren't often discussed outside the context of the civil-rights or black-power eras.

"I was working on important books. I was engaged in this community in Chicago," Kitwana says. "But I could see that our generation wasn't involved. And I knew that we weren't reading those books."

He wanted to organize his peers, and he realized that to do it, he'd need a platform besides traditional publishing. His 1994 book "The Rap on Gangsta Rap" (Third World Press) had opened a door to a different audience, so he tugged at his connections. And after a major reshuffling at the Source magazine--envisioned as hip-hop's one-stop for the 411 on music and culture--he ended up first as editorial director and eventually national affairs editor. Plain and simple, "I wanted to bring politics to the Source."

Rap Raises Issues

Los Angeles Times Articles