Growing up Hip Hop

The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture
By Bakari Kitwana. Basic Books, 230 pages, $24.00

At a meeting I attended several years ago, a man who did not look all that much younger than me turned in my direction and announced that my generation had made a mess out of race relations and social justice. It was time, he said, for people like me to get out of the way and let his generation take over. As I was not yet 40 years old, I found myself so intent on defending my youth that I never did discover exactly what he meant.

A little more than a year ago, at a town meeting on race held in Birmingham, Alabama, a mostly middle-aged crowd jammed into the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church had been the scene of a firebombing in 1963 that killed four young girls. Many of the evening's speakers discussed the horrors of racist violence. Ananda Lewis, a television talk-show host in her late twenties, surveyed the crowd and said how she had been moved by a tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. She acknowledged the powerful symbolism of the church. Then she spoke of her generation's experiences and viewpoints. As important as the church and the institute may be, they are not the icons of her generation. If we want to capture the attention of younger blacks, she said, we need to update our images.

Bakari Kitwana's The Hip Hop Generation gives us a glimpse into the thinking behind such observations. Kitwana, a former editor at The Source, a magazine of black youth culture, seeks to "get at the heart of the worldview of the hip-hop generation," by which he means the age group born between 1965 and 1984.

The hip-hop generation, Kitwana argues, grew up with the promise -- and broken promises -- of the civil rights movement all around. For while it is the first generation to grow up in a United States desegregated by law, it has also seen the reality of continued, persistent segregation. "The illusion of integration allows for some access, while countless roadblocks persist in critical areas where Blacks continue to be discriminated against in often subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways," he writes.

The hip-hop generation is the first to come of age in the new era of globalization. It is a generation shaped by a war on drugs, which many say is synonymous with a war on young male African Americans. And it is the first generation in which black youths have had extensive influence on the mainstream culture. "Whereas previously the voices of young Blacks had been locked out of the global age's public square, the mainstreaming of rap music now gave Black youth more visibility and a broader platform than we had ever enjoyed before," Kitwana notes.

Kitwana starts by examining what he calls the new crises in African-American culture. In what is the more detailed and compelling part of the book, he depicts a generation coping with high rates of imprisonment, police brutality, and increased friction between the sexes. Noting that police brutality in the African-American community is nothing new, he argues that it has reached levels not seen before. "Far more than any other generation, the hip-hop generation was the one for which Blackness became synonymous with drugs and crimeÂ….This mentality, along with the crack explosion and the decline of decent-paying low-skilled jobs, helped to usher in a style of policing that targeted Black urban communities and that went hand in hand with police brutality," he writes.

The result is that his generation is living with soaring rates of incarceration and a corrosive belief that injustice wins out over justice. The demonization and criminalization of young black men has caused a rift between the genders. "Adding to the tension, many hip-hop generation men resent young Black women because they believe that Black women are not penalized for being Black and therefore have it easier than Black men," he writes.

The second section of the book is on "confronting the crises." Describing emerging black leadership, Kitwana details the ways in which the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation differ. Unlike the older generation, he writes, his has no broad national movement but rather a wide range of issues and causes.

Here a sense of hopefulness comes through. Kitwana gives brief descriptions of 15 activists working across the country, focusing on those who are innovative and are putting issues into "historical and political context." Among those profiled are: Ras Baraka, a community activist in Newark, New Jersey (and the son of poet Amiri Baraka); Donna Frisby, executive director for Philadelphia Inner-City Games and co-chair of Black Youth Vote at the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation; Jesse Jackson Jr., the Illinois congressman; and Tonya McClary, a community organizer and consultant with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

While Kitwana's book offers a useful glimpse into black youth culture and politics, it is at times just that, a glimpse -- enough to know there is something there, but not enough to know what to make of it. In many ways it reads like a memoir written by someone clearly in the first half of his life. You can't help think how much more interesting his writing will be after he has had a few more experiences and developed the language with which to describe them.

In his chapter on the politics of the hip-hop generation, Kitwana lays out seven main issues at the core of his generation's political agenda: education, employment and workers rights, reparations for slavery, economic infrastructure in urban communities, youth poverty and disease, anti-youth legislation, and foreign policy. Unfortunately here, as in other places in the book, Kitwana is content to give each issue a few paragraphs, leaving the reader with only a superficial understanding of how these concerns differ from those of other generations.

About employment and workers' rights, he writes: "The hip-hop generation, more than any other demographic sector, can attest to the economic crisis faced by American workers as high-paying manufacturing jobs exit the country in search of cheaper labor. Hip-Hop generationers would support economic policies that would encourage the retention and creation of jobs for working-class Americans that allowed them to afford homes, cars, vacations, health care, and safe and effective child care."

The lack of depth is noteworthy because, while Kitwana begins the chapter by acknowledging that the hip-hop generation's political agenda "has yet to be articulated holistically," he goes on to criticize the "old guard Black leadership" for failing to address these concerns. Though he may have had a case to make, his cursory description gives those outside his generation little to work with and ultimately undermines his argument.

Despite its flaws, The Hip Hop Generation gives insight into the circumstances that have shaped the lives of those growing up in the wake of the civil rights movement. And Kitwana calls for all of us, across the many societal fault lines, to come together and work on the issues facing the young. "Although conditions facing young Blacks in today's America are cause for concern and, yes, sadness," he writes, "there is much hope and great possibility if we now, before it is too late, together, Americans old and young, across race and gender, with criticism, insight and concern, rise to the challenge."