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Bakari Kitwana, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America (New York: BasicCivitas, 2005, $23.00, 222 pages, ISBN 0-465-03746-1)—Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University


"When hip-hop made its way out west," says California native Kyle Stewart, 41, who grew up in the 1980s with punk rock music, "I made what I felt was a natural progression into hip-hop. Like punk, hip-hop was counterculture. It gave youth a voice to tell the truth and exposed the ills of society, especially racism and our hypocritical government. Also, the beats were infectious" [26-27].

It is telling that this hip-hop aficionado concludes his reminiscence by focusing on the beat of the music. Hip-hop has always been about the beat: that infectious, occasionally tribal, driving rhythm that commands its listener to sit up and pay attention, if not make an immediate pilgrimage to the nearest dance floor. To reiterate, hip-hop has always been about the beat. But that is not all the music is about. Indeed, the beat, more often than not, is what pulls the listener in. What keeps the listener's attention is, to invoke Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the message, the (generally) political discourse spit over the beat. Thus while the beat grows more and more infectious, the message grows more and more intense giving rise to a culture. It is in the marriage of the two that hip-hop has emerged as a force of political change and promise.

In Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America, Bakari Kitwana identifies hip-hop as the force that it is, stressing how hip-hop culture is the predominant culture in evidence today; a culture that has captured the attention (and disposable income) of the cultural power-brokers, young white males. Kitwana's analysis incorporates considerations of education, class, health, and a host of related social concerns. The aim of the text is good and promising. Unfortunately, the execution falters from time to time. Of major concern to this reviewer are the numerous instances wherein the argument only skims the surface, collapsing far too much into a throwaway sentence or two.

One of Kitwana's central tenets is the difference between "old racial politics" and "new racial politics." In his conception, the difference is largely temporal with everything old having happened prior to the advent of hip-hop in the late 1970s. The civil rights movement, therefore, would be a marker of the old, whereas the 1990s Afrocentric movement (as evidenced in the music of hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Arrested Development, as well as in clothing lines Cross Colours and F.U.B.U.) are new markers. But are "old racial politics" really old? There's never really a moment in the text when Kitwana stops to consider not only how the old has informed the new, but how the old retains a (strangle) hold on existing racial politics, praxis, and phenomenology. In fact, it would be interesting to gauge how the cultural appropriation, if that is what it is, of hip-hop by whites is reflective of the origins of the NAACP. In the organization's early days, following the Niagara Convention, the NAACP depended on the support, economic amongst other forms, of white individuals, particularly Jewish individuals. In the same way, some of hip-hop's early supporters in clubs and house parties, as well as at record labels, radio stations and music magazines, were Jewish men e.g. Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen, both legendarily major stakeholders in the production and maintenance of hip-hop. The presence of Jewish individuals at the helm of hip-hop production and maintenance continues to this very day what with Scott Storch now being one of the most sought after record producers today, in the same league as the Neptunes and Dr. Dre. An expanded version of Kitwana's thesis about who hip-hop speaks to and why might have parsed out the significance of this intercultural connection, how it differed at the beginning of the twentieth entury, and what it means now at the beginning of the twenty-first.

Early on in Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, Kitwana refers to an interview he conducted with an A&R [6]. How many readers not familiar with the recording industry will recognize that an A&R (Artist and Repertoire) is engaged with the grooming and maturation process of an artist? This is an issue of audience; Kitwana seems to be writing for a specific group of insiders, individuals who know the terms deployed and need no clarification of those terms. A similar case in point occurs later on the same page when Kitwana writes that he and the A&R "chopped it up" [ibid]. Is it really correct to presume that the average reader will recognize this as a way of saying that they discussed something? In a similar vein, he later draws light to the "impact the Five Percent Nation [has had] on hip-hop" [49]. The reader deserves an explanation of the significance of this group, particularly its key presence in the US penal system where it offers inspiration to countless incarcerated individuals; individuals "the system" is prone to abandon outright. As an aside, the appeal of the Five Percenters is, for all intents and purposes, worldwide. In April 2005, this reviewer encountered an individual in Krakow, Poland who noted that he had been imprisoned in New Jersey for several years prior to being deported from the United States. Amongst other anecdotes he recounted to me was one detailing the continued influence of the Five Percent Nation in his life, and how it is much more than a "cult" for many incarcerated individuals. In sum, if Kitwana expects his reader to follow, not to mention appreciate, his argument, it is imperative that he clarify these "little details" that he inserts without explanation.

The lack of clarity is also an issue when Kitwana alludes to conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly's malaise in learning that "the ten best-selling artists of Billboard's weekly Top 100 list were black" [50-51]. Kitwana does nothing to inform his reader of the major importance of Billboard magazine, its status as the music industry's Bible. Contrast this to a latter discussion of music tracking system Soundscan, wherein he offers an intricately detailed explanation of why this system is so important and revered [83].

One concern that might have readers scratching their heads is the fact that Latino and Asian individuals are mentioned every now and again, but in Kitwana's idea of America, things are largely black and white. That is a mistake; one that results in an extremely limited focus and assessment. Another head-scratching conundrum is his decision to omit a Works Cited or References section; this despite his inclusion of occasional directions to the reader à la "See MEE Productions 1992 Report, Reaching the Hip Hop Production" [15]. Why Kitwana wants his reader to undertake the detective work of searching for source material is a mystery.

In the opening pages of the text, Kitwana writes, "Given the way the culture is being absorbed by young people around the globe, these movements may be the catalysts necessary to jump-start an international human rights movement in this generation, a movement with the potential to parallel if not surpass yesterday's civil rights successes" [11]. This statement interests this reviewer for two reasons. First, because it is one of many instances in the text wherein Kitwana locates the potentiality of hip-hop squarely in the (corpo)reality of "youth." With rap and hip-hop exploding onto the cultural scene in the late 1970s, there are individuals who have been indoctrinated with the art form for nearly thirty years. If these individuals were "youth" in the late 1970s, they certainly are not now. Thus Kitwana's supposition that hip-hop is especially for "youth" seems misguided, if not offensive. The statement is also of note due to the rights discourse embedded within. Kitwana speaks of the possibility of an "international human rights movement" then glosses it with "yesterday's civil rights successes." Such a gloss is revealing in that the US is probably the only country in the world that heralds "civil rights" in contradistinction to "human rights." In this reviewer's estimation, human rights—rights given by virtue of existing as a human—are far more appealing than civil rights—rights given by law or political dictate. Kitwana seems to know this, but, again, does not explain the difference. In this way, as well as in the titular focus of the "New Reality of Race in America" (my emphasis), the argument is truncated.

One of the more obvious exclusions Kitwana leaves intact can be found in one of his chapter sub-headings: "Do White Boys Want to be Black?" [13]. Like many forms of mainstream music, hip-hop has rightly been accused of being dominated by men. While it is hard to expect Kitwana to speak to every single issue hip-hop gives rise to, this is one of the most predominant ones that constantly gets swept under the rug by male hip-hop aficionados. To speak of an international human rights movement, as he does in the aforementioned excerpt, and how hip-hop might spur such an event, and not address how 51% of the world's population is maligned and marginalized through hip-hop, is, drawing on the title of a song by female hip-hopper Ashanti, foolish.

Admittedly, Kitwana knows his topic inside and out. As former executive editor of The Source, the nation's leading music magazine, Kitwana is personally acquainted with many of the "hip-hop heads" he writes about in this text, the producers as well as the consumers. He has also authored two prior works on the topic, The Rap on Gangsta Rap and The Hip-Hop Generation. His knowledge is undeniable as is his interest in the topic. This is not, however, meant to imply that the text does not have its head-wagging moments. Consider: in a brief discussion of the history of music video, Kitwana credits Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video with sparking the commodification of a lifestyle [41]. Arguably, it was an earlier video, Jackson's "Billie Jean", that should be credited, especially since it is well-documented that this was the video that broke MTV's color barrier. To clarify, prior to the release of this clip, MTV absolutely refused to play videos by black artists. "Billie Jean" is, thus, legendary—far more so than "Thriller"—and the video's legendary status extends to Kitwana's concern of cultural consumption.

Kitwana does address the titular interrogatory at length. Part of his response relies on the common sense (but nonetheless well-articulated in the text) argument of numbers logic. He writes, "According the [sic] 1990 census, there were roughly 35 million white teens in the United States as compared to 7 million Black teens" [85]. Based on this logic, it is not surprising that hip-hop is purchased more by young white men than by black men. Another node of his argument involves access to the Internet. There is an oft-deployed cultural assumption that blacks do not access the Internet nearly as much as their white counterparts. Kitwana addresses this here, noting how downloading of music and file sharing has cut into record industry profits, thereby becoming another way for hip-hop to be coded as a largely white entity in this cultural moment. In his assessment, the idea of the digital divide is "overhyped", and he offers the following statistic to bolster his argument: "In 2003, 43 percent of Blacks used the Internet, compared to 60 percent of whites, according to Cyber Dialogue" [90]. The numbers are of interest, as they do not signal the crisis that the digital divide is often coded as. However, this is another instance wherein Kitwana leaves his reader hanging. In order to glean further information on the Cyber Dialogue survey, the reader has to seek out additional information—e.g. data on the number of individuals polled—for herself or himself as he offers nothing in the way of source material save the title of the survey.

One particularly insightful way of addressing the title concern is by addressing issues of mobility. In discussing Soundscan's practice of gleaning data on the purchasing habits of consumers by tracking sales in "their neighborhoods", Kitwana notes, "sales post[ed] in a predominately white, affluent suburb do not always indicate that affluent whites are the only ones buying, especially when significant Black and Latino populations live in close proximity" [93]. In other words, as communities grow closer and closer together, there is much more opportunity for cross-cultural interaction. The lines that divide, then, become less clearly-drawn and recognized.

Towards the end of Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, Kitwana writes, "white youth's love for hip-hop, more often than not, extends beyond music and pop culture to the political arena" [169]. For Kitwana, one of the preeminent commentators on hip-hop culture, to say this is noteworthy. What he is doing is giving credit (or, in hip-hop discourse, "props") to those who recognize and act on the political potentialities of hip-hop as a cultural power. What follows then is an intriguing discussion of the coalition-building that is a hallmark of hip-hop, a coalition-building that is not limited solely to Blacks, as Kitwana acknowledges, or to Americans, as he does not. In speaking to the extant coalition-building, he does not shy away from pointing out shortcomings: "While white hip-hop activists clamor over organizing the swing state hip-hop vote in the hood in cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, young whites in the Appalachian hills of southern Ohio and rural towns like Elyria and Lorain, Ohio, were left unregistered and unorganized. The question [is] "How is the potential hip-hop voting bloc being nurtured in these areas?"" [199].

Kitwana's overarching thesis might best be realized in this longer passage extracted from the middle of the text:


In the absence of social intervention in the lives of abandoned young people, hip-hop has filled the void. And indeed if hip-hop is a culture—and it is—it has created a political, spiritual and economic philosophy that reinforces its right to exist. Consequently we see young Blacks making a connection to the larger society most effectively when hip-hop is the bridge. Where the Black church is failing to reach young people, enter hip-hop ministries to bridge the gap. Where prisons have become the final solution for American youth and have failed to rehabilitate them, hip-hop there has become an answer, as a locale for some artists to jump-start their careers, moving them from the underground economy to the mainstream one [100].

Here, he speaks to what hip-hop could be if it were to fully recognize its potential and influence. This ideology is reinforced when he observes, "hip-hop [has] its own magazines, television programs, film, videos in regular rotation on MTV and BET and prominent appearances from the Grammy Awards to the Super Bowl halftime show. It's become woven into the fabric of American popular culture" [69]. The limiting reference to American popular culture alone notwithstanding, this reviewer certainly agrees. As previously acknowledged, hip-hop is a veritable force. Whether it is recognized as such—indeed, whether it taps into its own power in order to launch the international human rights movement that Kitwana and many others desire—remains to be seen.

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