“The Hip-Hop Generation”: An Interview with Bakari Kitwana

This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50. 

Bakari Kitwana

This is an interview with Guy Emerson Mount, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Wake Forest University, and Bakari Kitwana, the internationally known cultural critic, journalist, activist, and thought leader in the area of hip-hop, youth culture, and Black political engagement. Kitwana is the Executive Director of Rap Sessions, which for the last fourteen years has conducted over 150 townhall meetings around the nation on difficult dialogues facing the hip-hop and millennial generations. His most recent book is the co-edited volume, Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People (The New Press, 2020).

Guy Emerson Mount (GEM): As we reflect on the last fifty years of what we now call Hip Hop, I was hoping we might begin with your take on how the history of Hip Hop is currently being narrated both within popular culture as well as within scholarly discourses. What do we get right and what do we get wrong about the origin story of Hip Hop?

Bakari Kitwana (BK): Hip-hop as a musical expression is relatively young. Its creation story and mythologies are routinely challenged, as its perceptions in popular culture meet the scrutiny of an emerging hip-hop scholarship. Some argue that the birth date is arbitrary. Others suggest that there are iterations of hip-hop that predate August 1973, including other musical forms and practices that hinted at hip-hop before hip-hop. All that aside, what the current Hip-Hop 50 celebrations across the country revel is that there are lots of takeaways from what has been achieved in this brief half century. The countless signed and unsigned artists, the many innovations and disruptions, the cross fertilization of Black diasporic youth cultures as they meet new technologies. There is lots to agree on and lots to debate fare beyond the origin story that answers the question, “What has 50 years of hip-hop history meant to the world?” Who is the greatest emcee of all time? Who’s on your top 10 list? What have different regions beyond the East and West coasts contributed to the hip-hop story? So, there is the debatable but there is also the indisputable: that hip-hop music emerged out of a cross cultural fertilization that impacted the American and world music scenes, that Black American vernacular was and remains central in its verbal expression; that DJ Kool Herc who hailed from Jamaica was one of its early innovators, that many emcees and djs came after, looked back at these earlier innovators and pioneers and attempted to build on their practices with varying degrees of success and depending on exposure captured the imagination of millions. And all of it has given us countless hours of music to listen to and lots of hip-hop history to reflect on. What we get wrong in the origin story, as is true of any history are the unsung. Let’s make sure we lift them up. 

GEM: How do you conceptualize Hip-Hop? What does it mean to you?

BK: First and foremost, I think of hip-hop as a Black generational phenomenon. It was a theoretical framework that placed our generation in conversation with others most seamlessly. This was particularly essential for a generation coming of age in the aftermath of the civil rights and Black Power movements. In my earlier years as a hip-hop writer, I sought out the pioneering practitioners who I also deemed theorists because of their careful thinking about what is hip-hop. It’s important to understand that not every practitioner makes a worthy theorist. However, there are important exceptions. DJ Kool Herc. Africa Bambaataa. KRS-One, Chuck D, Popmaster Fabel were among the voices that not only gave a great deal of thought to what they were doing and where it was coming from, but also carefully articulated what they saw. Of course, there were others, but in my mind, they were among the dominant theoreticians whose thinking about the question “what is hip-hop” created a knowledge center that spread out from there and was adopted as the gospel by many. Countless hip-hop fans to this day cite their theories about hip-hop, many without realizing their origin. Scholars like Tricia Rose, Mark Anthony Neal, Joan Morgan, Marcyliena Morgan, Dawn-Elissa Fischer, James Peterson, Raquel Rivera, among others, have documented some of these theories and solidified their preservation with the study of hip-hop in the academy and in their books and scholarly essays. Equally important are hip-hop arts practitioners who sit at intersection of art and academia. 9th Wonder, Bun B, Lupe Fiasco, Akua Naru immediately come to mind. But of course, there are others.

What hip-hop means to me? As someone preoccupied with the way American society and white supremacy suppresses Black folks as a general practice, hip-hop for me has always pointed to possibility within a specific generational moment for how we get free. Its emergence from and continued rootedness in the Black grassroots gives it special appeal and power to transform the world as we know it. We see hints of that as hip-hop meets high school education, academia, politics, entrepreneurship, etc, but in my estimation, despite hip-hop’s commercialization, to a large degree much of its revolutionary and transformative potential in this regard, remains off the radar. To that end, we are just getting started.  

GEM: What is the significance of the “Hip Hop Generation”?

BK: The Hip-Hop Generation is a term I added to our style guide at The Source magazine in 1995 when I was Editor-in-Chief. I felt that we needed a term through which to define ourselves, especially as the marketing industry and our haters bandied about terms like “lost generation,” “Black Generation Xers,” and others to define us. Also, at the time people in hip-hop circles were using terms like “hip-hop nation” “hip-hoppers,” “hip-hop community,” etc. Many young writers who wrote for us at The Source would use all the above. I though it made more sense to rally around one catch phrase. Because The Source was considered the Bible of hip-hop and in many ways was indeed the propaganda arm of defining the hip-hop worldview, it resonated beyond the staff. When I left The Source and published the book The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture in 2002, I settled on the term as the book title partly to help solidify hip-hop in history as a generation-specific, largely Black cultural phenomenon, in particular, Blacks born between 1965 and 1984, as many sociologists had defined previous generations as a 15–20-year period or age group. I was also thinking and writing a lot about what distinguished our generation from the Civil Rights and Black Power Era Generation. I believe we harness a degree of power in thinking of our selves politically as a distinctive generation. The historian Vincent Harding (both as an activist and scholar) had a significant impact how I thought about the role intellectual thought, scholarship and activism could play in Black social transformation. His Institute of the Black World was foundational in the way I evolved my organization Rap Sessions and his metaphor, the river, in his book There is a River helped me to make sense of how each generation of Black political activism informed the next. Because hip-hop was one of our primary influences, which was largely birth in Black communities, it made sense to me then, and still does now.   

GEM: How has Hip Hop influenced your life?

BK: Hip-Hop has been one of the primary influences in my life. I began writing about hip-hop in 1994 with the publication of my book The Rap on Gangsta Rap largely because I felt that scholars like Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker, while making some significant early contributions, were out of their generational depth when it came to spearheading conversations about hip-hop—albeit Dr. Gates’ defense of Too Live Crew in 1992 and his support  of Marcyliena Morgan’s vision for the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive at his Hutchin’s Center of African and African American Research were important hip-hop interventions. Growing up in Long Island, during my junior high school years (1976-1979), we were immersed in DJ party culture and saw the literal birth of emceeing in the parks, basement parties, etc. Rap artists rapping on records came later. By the time, I finished undergrad and graduate school the need for our generation to be the ones who set the tone for documenting the hip-hop journey was clear to me. After writing that book in 1994, hip-hop literally took me around the world and in many ways defined the trajectory of my adult life— lecturing at colleges, universities, high schools and community center in 48 of the 50 states; organizing with activists artists internationally in places like Germany, Brazil and Italy; teaching about the politics of hip-hop in political science courses at Kent State and the University of Chicago; organizing with politically hip-hop activism with countless grassroots organization across the country and through the network that collectively evolved the 2004 National Hip-Hop Political Convention. The fun part was interfacing with so many of the legendary hip-hop artists of our time from my work at the Source editing hundreds of articles on hip-hop to my own writing and countless public interviews of hip-hop artists over the years, including folks like DJ Kool Herc, Jay-Z, Boots Riley, Chuck D, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Bun B, Chance the Rapper, Rhymefest, Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Common, among others. Chopping it up with Donda West and Sheron Smith and Dr. Mahalia Hines, Dr Brenda Green (respectively the mothers of Kanye West, Yasiin Bey, Common and Talib Kweli) has also been essential to understanding the culture.      

GEM: Given the global commercialization and commodification of Hip Hop in recent years, is there anything truly revolutionary left in Hip Hop?  Do you think Hip Hop still functions collectively as an insurgent artistic and political movement? 

BK: Of course! One of the shortcomings of white supremacy’s universal dismissal of Blackness is that there is always lots left functioning beneath the radar within Black culture and by extension hip-hop. Even in spoon-feeding us a steady diet of materialism and consumption, there are still corners of hip-hop where artists haven’t forgotten our spirit and humanity, our sense of justice or our willingness to call America on its bullshit.

GEM: According to Sekou Cooke, every major cultural movement contains musical, dance, fashion, visual, and architectural elements.  While Hip Hop has always critiqued the built environment, a distinctive Hip-Hop architecture is emerging. Do you agree with this assessment? And if you were designing a home (or even an entire block) what would a Hip Hop architecture look like for you? 

BK: If there is such a thing as a hip-hop architecture, which on the surface sounds like a very academic and theoretical project to me, it would have to begin with those steeped in hip-hop culture pushing back on anti-humane approaches and the dehumanization of Black life by US capitalistic forces—rather than white elite city planners. If it doesn’t begin with centering Black youth culture and love for Black people and a critique of capitalism, then off the rip its suspect. This can often be a problem with hip-hop meets academia. David Harvey’s work, which is totally outside of hip-hop culture but complementary in its Let’s Get Free aesthetic, points to the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps Paradise Gray aka “Paradise the Architect” of the X-Clan is a better person to ask than me. I will say that Theaster Gates’ approach to reclaiming urban space for the people, particularly his work on the South Side of Chicago may be a good place to start. Theaster is not a hip-hop artist per se, but in our collaborations together at the University of Chicago and beyond it became clear to me that he is cut from the same cloth.

GEM: In 2006, Nas released an album entitled “Hip-Hop is Dead.” Almost twenty years later, how would you respond to this observation? Is Hip Hop “dead” (or dying)? And if so, why? 

BK: Most folks never really gave thorough investigation to what Nas meant by “Hip-Hop is Dead.” As one of the best to ever touch a microphone, Nas as an emcee gave us an incredible career is emblematic of the opposite: hip-hop could never be dead while he continues to put out great work that takes most years to fully absorb. His recent collaborations with Hit-Boy helped a new generation realize his genius, particularly, the art of emceeing which has taken a backseat when it comes to priorities “what is hip-hop” list among a new generation rap audience.

GEM: Where do you see Hip Hop going in the next 50 years?

BK: I am hopeful I will see hip-hop at 75, even as I admit, I have no idea what to expect it to look like—in the words of Maulana Karenga, “Our youth can be our fate or our future.” I’m less hopeful about personally witnessing hip-hop at 100. Hip-hop is here to stay. And even though my hope is that a new generation creates its own artistic and cultural and political impulses rather than relying on a corporate, commercial industry to lead. For now, as Chuck D says, “We are all screenagers,” a world spending more time looking at screens rather than embracing our God-given imaginations and each other in real life experiences. This is where hip-hop began. If we are lucky, we will all see a world enraptured beyond the screen, the money chase and instead reimaging the world. No serious thinker could imagine that a hip-hop of tomorrow (50 years from now) will be a carbon copy of hip-hop yesterday (1973). But we can and should expect it to be rooted in study and history, curated and crafted from the best of the genre and informed by the present and anticipating a future. Rakim found his voice rifling through in the music collection of his parents and channeling his inner John Coltrane. Nas sat at the feet of a jazz master, his father Olu Dara, and listened. Talib Kweli found John Henrik Clarke to be a necessary influence and sought him out. 9th wonder and D-Nice and others went digging through the crates to curate a musical legacy of spirituality, innovation and meaning. These variables must be present in a future hip-hop of meaning.

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Guy Emerson Mount

Guy Emerson Mount is an assistant professor of American History and African American Studies at Wake Forest University focusing on the intersection of Black transnationalism, Western modernity, and global empires. He earned his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2018 where he also served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Social Sciences. He joined the faculty at Wake Forest University after previously teaching at Auburn University. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.