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The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture
Bakari Kitwana
New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2002.
$24.00, 256 pages, ISBN 0465029787 (hardback).

Joycelyn A. Wilson
University of Georgia

In The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, Bakari Kitwana, former Executive Editor of The Source, examines the culture of Hip-Hop as it relates to the issues directly challenging the social experiences of young African Americans. The Hip Hop Generation is not historical in nature in that it does not chronicle Hip Hop culture from its beginnings as an entity of American popular culture. Instead Kitwana’s context of Hip Hop serves two purposes: (1) to focus on the critical situations of Hip Hop generationers and (2) to telescope six forces as a way of examining the generationers’ socio-political and socio-cultural place and space.

Kitwana defines the hip-hop generation as those African American and Latino youth born between 1965 and 1984. For those generationers who fall on the cusp of the Civil Rights/Black Nationalist movement, he writes, “Essentially [this generation] gave birth to the hip-hop movement that came to define the hip-hop generation, even though they are not technically hip-hop generationers.” The Russell Simmons, Melle Mels, Run-DMCs, and Afrika Bambaataas are referred to as the “bridge generation.” Kitwana clarifies in the same paragraph that each sub-group between 1965 and 1984 have similar but different interpretations of hip-hop and may feel more ownership of the culture than those who are younger and more “inexperienced” in the culture. For example, “Older hip-hop generationers may find a rapper like KRS-One or LL Cool J to be more representative of their idea of hip-hop than someone younger, who may see their hip-hop truths in, say, the Hot Boys or Lil Bow Wow.” Herein lies a major gap in Kitwana’s analysis that may cause one to ask in what category Lil Bow Wow or Lil Wayne or even Lil Romeo falls if individuals “share a crystal clear understanding of coming of age in an era of post-segregation and global economics,” as Kitwana states.

Lil Bow Wow, Bow Wow in the present state, was born after 1984. So was Lil Romeo, the son of Master P. So was my 18 year-old cousin who lives by Tupac Shakur and Lil Jon. Does that mean they are not hip-hop generationers or are they hip-hop second-generationers? And if so, what separates them from the first generation and the second generation? How is Bow Wow’s experience different or similar to that of his mentor, Jermaine Dupri? Kitwana falls short of addressing this question.

The Rap on Gangsta Rap (1994) is an earlier exploration that allowed Kitwana to develop ideas about the hip-hop generation as a unique and original culture of Black youth separate from those that represent generations before. Since publication of The Rap on Gangsta Rap and via observations, interviews, personal memories, and years of journalistic reporting for The Source, Kitwana has spent most of the latter part of his career dialoguing about the forces that gave birth to the hip-hop generation and continue to be a direct influence on the molding of young African Americans’ worldview. In a nutshell, The Hip Hop Generation is a philosophical quest into the minds of young blacks and how they negotiate black culture.

Kitwana’s social critique is divided into three parts. Kitwana’s argument in the introduction speaks to the great disparities and inequalities that give rise to the negative situations African American youth directly and indirectly confront daily. Disparities in healthcare, education, employment opportunities, and housing are only a few. Many of these issues were to be addressed and dealt with during the Civil Rights movement. Instead they get “lost in contemporary popular discussion, media reports, and public policy.” African American youth have persistently been deemed the problem. This is reason number one why the dialogue regarding these issues is continuously marginalized. Another reason, Kitwana suggests, is the praising of the Civil Rights movement as eradicator of racism and inequality. Reason three focuses on the celebration of anti-intellectualism and ignorance in film, commercials, sitcoms, and music that focus on the African American youth. In order to “fix” these problems, Kitwana argues that clarity must be given to the hip-hop generation and how they view the world within the context of their world.

Part 1, "The New Crises in African American Culture," is divided into five chapters: (1) The New Black Youth Culture: The Emergence of the Hip Hop Generation; (2) America’s Outcasts: The Employment Crisis; (3) Race War: Policing, Incarceration, and the Containment of Black Youth; (4) Where Did Our Love Go?: The New War of the Sexes; and (5) Young, Don’t Give a Fuck, and Black: Black Gangster Films. All of these chapters attempt to address six phenomena he argues are consistently detrimental to the worldview of young African American youth: (a) the interdependency between popular culture and urban youth; (b) globalization; (c) the persisted existence of institutionalized segregation in federal policy; (d) the media’s representation of urban youth culture; (e) the overall shift in the quality of life of these groups, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s; and (f) public policy—particularly policy that has racial and socioeconomic implications (i.e. policies on criminal justice). Here is the gap.

Kitwana lays out all of these crises situations that contribute to the demise of the African American youth. After which he asks, “Why has the response to the monumental problems been so limited?” and proceeds to argue that the generational breakdown between the hip hop generation and those before are a reason why many Black youth are in detrimental social positions. While that may be true, the breakdown of the African American community and all of its institutions (schools, family, churches, etc) is the major crises African American youth face today. This issue should have been first on Kitwana’s list as well as a subject that warrants a more detailed analysis since this gap or breakdown in and of itself influences the worldview of hip hop generationers first, foremost, and in a major way. Lacking in this part of the book is a chapter that examines the breakdown of the socialization agents that make for a strong African American community. Could it be that the reason why these social forces suggested by Kitwana are so unfavorable is because they are not counteracted with solid community ties within the African American community?

In chapter one, for example, Kitwana sets a tone for those characteristics that define the new black youth culture. The death of Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Biggie” Wallace are two monumental portraits that give color to the picture Kitwana draws. “Both rappers…were hip hop generationers…and who came of age in the eighties and nineties and who share a specific set of values and attitudes…about family, relationships, child rearing, career, racial identity, race relations, and politics.” According to Kitwana, “these views make up a complex worldview that has not been concretely defined,” but were first expressed in the critiques of mid to late-1980s artists such as NWA and Queen Latifah, among others. Kitwana’s main argument in this chapter is that the hip-hop generation, for some reason, has gotten so far from the socialization practices of Black youth during the 1920s, 1930s, and so forth. Even during the 1960s youth turned to community institutions for guidance and direction. The hip-hop generation, in Kitwana’s assessment, is more likely to be more concerned with achieving financial wealth and marrying late. As a matter of fact, “For us,” Kitwana argues, “achieving wealth, by any means necessary, is more important that most anything else.” He goes on to argue that “central to our identity is a severe sense of alienation between the sexes…and we are more likely to be open to family arrangements other than the traditional American family.” Kitwana furthers his argument by imperatively claiming the importance of distinguishing the hip hop generation’s worldview from all other youth culture worldviews that have preceded hip hop culture—even though there are parallels threaded through each. More is to be said about these ideas regarding socialization practices within the African American family/community unit.

In the second half of Kitwana’s book, appropriately called "Confronting the Crises in African American Culture," ideas of activism and political consciousness are addressed as possible solutions to this crisis. Taking responsibility is an integral step towards addressing many of the issues displayed in Part 1 of the book. All the more reason why Kitwana’s list of factors should not have been nestled amongst each other, as if the community divisions are not as imperative if not more than any of the other social forces. In chapter seven Kitwana calls for the construction for a political agenda while chapter eight challenges rap music to be a cultural phenomenon and movement as well as a political force.



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