April 3, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 13

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    Kitwana to lead exploration of politically mobilized youth of hip-hop generation

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Political analysts have the Obama phenomenon backward: It’s not the campaign of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama that is spurring interest in political participation among youth, explained Bakari Kitwana, a former editor of The Source magazine and the 2007-2008 Artist-in-Residence in the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. “Young voters have already been mobilizing. And Obama,” Kitwana argued, “just happens to be the beneficiary. Of all the candidates in the field, he’s the most ideal for the hip-hop generation.

    “People born within the hip-hop generation,” Kitwana explained, “have a different world view. They’re born in a post-segregation America, and their idea of the American dream is radically different from previous generations of Americans.”

    One of the country’s best-known “hip-hop intellectuals” and author of The Hip-Hop Generation and Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, Kitwana will discuss the role of hip-hop and its influence on politics—and what hip-hop voters love and loathe about Obama—in two forums during the next quarter.

    This week, he began teaching a class in the College called “Politics of the Hip-Hop Generation,” which aims to explain the distinct world view of the hip-hop generation. He also will join leading artists and analysts in “The Hip-Hop Generation: Race, Gender & the Vote,” a symposium scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 5, in Ida Noyes Hall.

    “It’s impossible to understand today’s global youth culture and contemporary constructions of race, gender and sexuality without insight into hip-hop,” said Waldo Johnson, Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration. “As such, it is essential that the University community seriously grapple with hip-hop culture’s relevance across disciplines. For years, Bakari Kitwana has been at the forefront of this inquiry. We’re excited to have him here.”

    In addition to Kitwana, the symposium will feature a diverse panel of activists, academics and recording artists, including rapper M1 (aka Mutulu Olugbala), one half of dead prez, the political rap group; Maya Rockeymoore, a former chief of staff to Congressman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and author of The Political Action Handbook: A How-to Guide for the Hip Hop Generation; Hyde Park native William Upski Wimsatt, co-founder of The League of Pissed Off Voters and co-editor of How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office; and Trinity College professor Vijay Prashad, author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.

    Among other issues, the discussion will examine the role of several national hip-hop organizations in the 2008 campaign, such as the Hip Hop Congress and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a voter registration effort created by Russell Simmons, producer of Def Jam Recordings and the Phat Farm clothing line.

    The centerpiece of Kitwana’s Race Center residency, though, is “The Politics of the Hip-Hop Generation,” a class that has attracted more than 150 students. But, Kitwana stressed, it’s not a music-driven class; it is integrating scholarly work in political science, black studies, film, critical race theory, essays on hip-hop culture and global economics.

    One of the books from the reading list is Steven Hiatt’s A Game as Old as Empire, which explains the function of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

    Kitwana argues that the emergence of hip-hop is directly linked to the rise of the urban underclass in the 1970s and the prison crisis that emerged that decade. “In 1970, there were approximately 200,000 Americans who were incarcerated. In 2000, that number had risen to more than 2 million. “You can’t understand the hip-hop generation without understanding global economics. It’s the negative aspects of global economic policy that have shaped public policy toward the hip-hop generation. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, prisons became the solution for many problems deemed specific to black youth.”

    Another goal of the class is to explain the history of gangsta rap. Kitwana will pair readings, such as E.A.R.L, the autobiography of rapper DMX, and Queens Reign Supreme, a chronicle of the rise of hip-hop in the southeastern section of Queens, N.Y., the origin of numerous rappers such as 50 Cent and Ja Rule, with sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy’s Black Picket Fences, a book about the black middle class.

    Kitwana is aiming to introduce students to the economic and sociological ingredients that have created a violent, gang-idolizing subculture alongside the youth political movement of our time.

    Though he previously taught classes on hip-hop at Kent State University, Kitwana’s experience at Chicago will be quite different. It’s the first time, Kitwana said he has had a chance to teach a class to the “post hip-hop generation.”

    Kitwana, who graduated from high school in 1984, grew up with hip-hop as an emerging art form. But students at the University have come of age with hip-hop as part of mainstream American popular culture.

    To illustrate just how mainstream and big business hip-hop has become, he cited multi-millionaire rapper/producer/entrepreneurs like Jay-Z and 50 Cent. “I’m really interested to hear the perspective of students who grew up with hip-hop, who didn’t know a world without it as part of the mainstream. I expect to learn from the students.”

    Kitwana said his residency at the Race Center already has made a big impact on his current work. “Most of my work is done in isolation,” he said. “It’s been an incredibly stimulating experience to be part of a community of scholars.”

    Specifically, he said, conversations with colleagues – such as Johnson, Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science and the College, Tracye Matthews, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and Betsy Sinclair, Assistant Professor in Political Science, have led him to begin to collaborate with activists and academics on a new project that hopes to document the impact of hip-hop driven get-out-the-vote efforts in the 2008 election. The goal, he said, is to be able to show how effective local and national efforts such as Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network voter registration drive are in mobilizing voters.

    For more information on “The Hip-Hop Generation: Race, Gender & the Vote,” which is being sponsored by several organizations, including the Race Center, the Center for Gender Studies, the Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council and Kitwana’s Rap Sessions, please visit: http://csrpc.uchicago.edu/ or www.rapsessions.org.