An Interview w/ Kevin Powell
on Hip Hop, Race & Politics

This is an interview with writer, long time activist and Hip Hopper Kevin Powell. Many of y'all know him for being part of the original cast for the first season of MTV's Real World [New York]. Still many more of us know Kevin as a writer who came in on the ground floor at Vibe Magazine where he interviewed and wrote compelling stories on everyone from 2Pac to Biggie. Still others know Kev as a poet, community activist and talented writer who has penned or edited three books including Recognize, Keepin' It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics, and the editor of Step Into A World. His lastest work is Who Shot Ya which is a collection of 3 decades of Photos from Ernie Paniciolli. Kevin edited the text of that book....

This interview first ran in the Wednesday, October 16, 2002 edition of the DAILY FORTY-NINER (Cal. State-Long Beach newspaper) questions were submitted by Monica Levette Clark to Kevin Powell Happy reading..

1)- Why is this book of photos of various people and events so important to hip-hop culture?

First off, I think Who Shot Ya? is important because it is the first major pictorial history of hiphop dedicated to the work of one rap photographer, Ernie Paniccioli. Paniccioli is 55, Native American, and was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and literally absorbed Black culture from his childhood on. And he has been shooting hip hop images since the early 1970s. So what the book represents is a look at hip hop over three decades. This is important because a lot of folks still don't feel hiphop is a culture, that adults are into hip hop, and that hip hop does not have a history. Ernie's work, and the text we have in the book (my intro and a narrative of Ernie's life and take on hip hop's development and evolution) dispel those myths.

Second, and just as important, is that it is clear that hip hop music and culture is at a serious crossroads. That hip hop is in a state of arrested development, and has been for some time. Five record labels now control most of the music on the planet. There is a corporate radio monopoly dictating what songs will get played and how often. The major music channels play up the videos that depict young Black people drinking alcohol, degrading and objectifying women (or women participating in their own objectification), and being addicted to material things like platinum chains, all makes of automobiles, and name-brand clothes.

Now we know that our music has always talked about sex, violence, material things, all of that. The difference today is two-fold: there was not music videos around back in the day to reinforce and perpetuate the images being sung or rapped about the way it is today. And there was balance. There was diversity to the music. And you genuinely felt that the music was there to empower you, to make you feel good about yourself in the face of oppression and all the insanities of the world. There are a few songs that do that today, but, by and large, rap artists who are trying to be creative, who are trying to push the art form, are not encouraged or supported or marketed properly, if at all.

Now don't get me wrong: I was born and raised in the ghetto and appreciate the rawness of hip hop. No question. But what is missing are these labels encouraging artists to grow, to push the envelope, to see long-term careers instead of hit songs for the moment. Which is why someone like Snoop Dogg is interesting to me. I have always dug his music and I don't expect Snoop to be anything other than what he is and to rap about the environment he comes from there in Long Beach. But, by the same token, I was reading this profile on him in a recent issue of The Source, and dig the fact that he seems to be maturing, and grappling with his role in the music industry, that he does not want to take the publishing rights and money of his artists the way his were taken way back when.

I dig that fact that Snoop has publicly stated that he wants to stop using the word nigga, and is referring to people as "cousin," instead, as much as he can. And, finally, the fact that he is trying to stop the weed-smoking because he now recognizes the importance of being sober, especially if he is trying to be a player in the music game. That is growth, and that is what is missing from hiphop, by and large. So Who Shot Ya? is about reminding people where this culture came from, all that we've created up until now, and why we are at such a standstill.

2)- What events, people, etc., specifically, prompted you to want to do a book like this?

Ernie and I both just have a deep love and appreciated for hip hop culture, and realize that hip hop has empowered so many of us, put so many of us on, and that we have an obligation to understand and preserve this culture, and to share what we have seen and learn with others, especially younger people coming up in the culture and the game today.

As an African American, I am also very aware of the fact that, for a variety of reasons, that we have not always taken seriously the study of our cultural creations, be it spirituals, the blues, jazz, rock and roll, or soul. We generally have created something, it gets ripped off by the White majority/White power structure sooner or later, and we keep it moving to the next thing. I am an activist as much as I am a writer and I absolutely refuse to stand by and allow folks who did not grow up where I grew up, who don't know hip hop the way I know hip hop, to dictate the history, how I should be responding to it (or not), or what is happening with it today.

So there is no one event or no one artist or group that inspired this book. It was really about making sure Ernie, a photographer of color, had his work documented while he is still alive to get the respect he deserves, and making sure that young people of color (and young White supporters of hip hop and Black culture in general) see that people of color can be, and are, qualified to document this lifestyle, from our unique perspectives.

3)- Aside from this project, what other things are you currently working on and plan to do in the future?

Well, as I have said, I am a writer and activist. That means that I am always working. I am now working on my sixth book, Who's Gonna Take The Weight, which is a collection of essays, and which will be out in the Fall of 2003. This essay collection will deal with where America is at the beginnning of this new millennium, in terms or race, gender, class, and the aftermath of September 11th. My two favorite essayists are James Baldwin and Dr. Bell Hooks and I am trying to bring the noise the way that do.

I am also nearly finished my second poetry collection. And I am about to start on a childhood memoir, my childhood, very much inspired by Richard Wright's Black Boy. The way Wright's book had a blues motif running through it, mine will have hip hop up in it, since this is the era I grew up in. Then as far as my activism work, I do over 100 speeches a year around the country, I run a nonprofit community-based group called Hiphop Speaks, which is a series of forums and MC battles geared toward using hip hop as a tool for social change.

In 2003, we plan separate summits on Black womanhood and Black manhood, as well as setting up a mentoring program here in Brooklyn, where I live. It is clear that Black leadership, on a national level, has let Black America down, has no national Black agenda, and is ignoring all the things destroying our communities right now, like the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the crisis in public school education, the on-going issue of institutionalized White racism, Black self-hatred, sexism and gender oppression, the prison-industrial complex, and more issues than I can list here. Hence, my life work is dedicated to telling the truth as I have lived it, and as I see it, and to helping my people, Black people, and all people, really. The slogan for Hiphop Speaks is "the leadership we are waiting for is us," and that is exactly how I feel.

4)- This semester the Black Studies department at Cal. State University, Long Beach, brought a new course focusing on hip hop culture into its program. What are your thoughts on the relevance of hip-hop culture as an intellectual study? And how important is it for today's youth?

To me, Black culture in general is an intellectual study, the blues, jazz, slave narratives, our dances ranging from the Cakewalk to the Harlem Shake, our visual arts, our language and vocabulary. We short change our humanity and who we are, what we have been through in this country, and our future, by viewing our culture as anything less than genius against all odds.

Hip hop is just the latest manifestation, and the really sharp teachers and professors understand that, which is why you see hip hop classes popping up all over the nation. The other piece is this: if you are a leader, be it an educator, a journalist, a religious or spiritual figure, or whatever, you have to have a working knowledge of hip hop music, hip hop culture, the history, all of that, if you are really trying to reach people under 40, or 35, or 30, since most of us grew up with this language, this energy, and since it permeates so much of what we do, and how we think.

Hip hop is a lifestyle for younger people today. When I say I am a hip hop head, I mean that I speak hip hop, I dress hip hop, I walk hip hop, I think, out of the box, like hip hop, and that, as KRS-One famously said, I am hip hop. And I understand that hip hop, really, is a reaction to the failures of the United States government to help poor people, since it was poor people who created hip hop in the first place, and that hip hop is also a reaction to racism and oppression, the failures of Black leadership, a reaction to the absence of Black fathers, healthy and holistic Black families, all of that.

Hip hop is really, at its core, a call out for help, us making something out of nothing, of us trying to be seen, heard, felt. Now a lot of folks don't like hiphop and I feel them. A lot of things have been commodified, again, by these corporate record labels, so some things seem like a minstrel show, straight up. But I also say this to folks: you may call hip hop foul, obscene, garbage, etc. But there is nothing more foul, more obscene, nothing that makes you feel more like garbage than being born and raised in an American ghetto. The music and the culture is merely a reflection of all of that, whether we like it or not. And I am not feeling folks who criticize hip hop, criticize young people, but do nothing to change the material and spiritual conditions of young people. They are armchair critics and hypocrites, as far as I am concerned.

5)- What effect has hiphop culture had on you personally?

Well, I just feel proud to have something that belongs to my generation, to my era, the way Motown belongs to my moms. And since I am now in my 30s, I feel proud to have seen this thing from the early stages, before it was even called hip hop, and to have been one of those kids out there trying to pop and lock and spin on my back, one of those kids tagging my nicknames on walls, one of those kids who was at the clubs, in the gear of the day, just loving all that energy. And I feel blessed to have made a living because of hip hop, as a journalist at Vibe, as a curator of the first major museum exhibit on hip hop at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City, as the editor of Who Shot Ya? and in so many other ways.

I always ask myself this: What if hiphop did not exist, would I have had all these opportunities? It, to me, is the same as asking what would America look like if the Civil Rights Movement had not happened? Would White racism recognized it was mad foul, and opened up its doors to us? I don't think so. Without hip hop, a lot more of us would be unemployed, thinking there are no possibilities at all. That is real. Everywhere I go in the country some young person says to me "Hip hop saved my life."

6)- What would you like to say to aspiring young African American writers in college today, (like myself)? The African-American youth today?

I tell young Black writers to read everything you can get your hands on, Black writers, White writers, Latino writers, Asian writers, Native American writers, every kind of writer you can get to. But it is important that your foundation is the tradition of African American literature, because that is who we are. We do ourselves a disservice, I feel, to absorb other writers, other cultures, and not be familiar with our own.

I grew up reading Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats... Ernest Hemingway, all the so-called masters of Western literature. And I loved those cats because I have always loved reading. But I hated myself as a Black person because the public schools I attended in Jersey City, New Jersey, where I was born and raised, NEVER really brought up Black contributions to history, Black writers, none of that. Not knowing about yourself means, more than likely, you are not going to appreciate yourself, that you will, in fact, hate yourself, because you don't think that you and people who look like you are relevant.

So young African American writers must dive into Black literature, Black music, Black art, Black history, all of it. When I first read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, for example, I felt like I was reading the stories of my mother and her sisters and, for the first time, I saw that the dialect my mother spoke, from her native South Carolina, was a beautiful language, not broken English. And I saw that all the stories my mother had given me was oral history, oral poetry, not some random, obscure tall tales.

Same thing with reading Richard Wright or Malcolm X's autobiography: everyone I know from the ghetto thinks no one has it as bad as we do, that no one gets what we are going through, how life in the 'hood is a series of domestic terrorist acts being waged against our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. That we are alive only because we are not dead. Wright and Malcolm spoke to me as a Black boy, as a Black man, in a way Shakespeare had never spoke to me. Those books changed my life, and young African American writers have to understand that the most important writing should strive to change lives, make the world better, empower people. And that writing is not about being rich or famous; it is about telling the truth. If it is meant for you to be rich and famous, it will happen. But you gotta love writing the way you love life, and it has to be as natural to you as breathing.

7)- Where were you on September 11th and how did it change your views on society? After over a year, what are your views, feelings, today?

I was in Syracuse, New York, on September 11th. The night before I had lectured to incoming first-year students. Ironically, that night I talked a lot about young people understanding the importance of knowing history, present-day events, the full history of America, all of that. While what happened on September 11th certainly affected me emotionally, spiritually, it did not change my views on this society.

As I have said, I am a political activist, and have been one since I was 18, which means I have always been into critical thinking, into raising questions about the world we live in, in challenging myself and my thinking every chance I get, in learning constantly. So while the human being that I am was deeply affected by September 11th, I am equally affected by the mental terrorism that ignores poor people, homeless people, the disenfranchised and marginalized in this country. While I hear a lot of folks talk about how badly women are treated in certain Arab countries, which may be true, I wonder why people don't talk about the fact that Black women are now the largest recipients of the HIV/AIDS virus right here in America. Or why folks are so quiet about how women, right here in America, are raped, daily, beaten, daily, commodified and objectified, daily, in the popular culture, to sell music, products, all of that.

So I did not jump on the patriotism bandwagon. How could I when I know really well the history of America, how the Native Americans were literally slaughtered and had their land stolen, how Africans were turned into niggas and made to work, for free, all those years as slaves? How those same Black people, even after physical slavery ended, had to endure another 100 years of second-class citizenship, of dodging the insanities of their White brothers and sisters. And how, even after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the majority of Black people remain poor, marginalized, stuck in America's ghettos, so where is the progress, really?

And I think about slow, domestic terrorism, in the form of racial profiling, police brutality, the dropping of drugs in our communities (and no one seems to know where the drugs came from), the number of Black people who are marched off to jail for chunks of their lives, even though they are nonviolent drug offenders. And why are they selling drugs? I am not condoning drug dealing because I understand we are ultimately selling death to our people, but where are the jobs in the ghettoes? And, as Marvin Gaye asked a long time ago, who really cares?

So I had two reactions to September 11th: one, spiritual, because I am human and am connected to other human beings so I feel things deeply, I mean, I am a writer, an artist, and we just are mad sensitive, hypersensitive. But the other reaction is equally important: a political analysis, a political take. Like if 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11th were from Saudi Arabia, why was Afghanistan bombed? Or, why did Osama bin-Laden matter a year ago, and why is Saddam Hussein the biggest enemy now? Why was Hussein not dealt with 10 years, during the Persian Gulf War, if he is such a menace? Why was Iraq an ally of the United States in the 1980s, what role did the American government play in the creation of the Taliban? Or, why is America viewed, by many countries in the world at large, as an aggressor, and not the bastion of democracy that we portray ourselves as?

If this country is really a democracy, if we really believe in freedom, and not that knee-jerk stuff of waving a flag or learning a few patriotic songs because someone told you to, then you would ask the hard, critical questions. Unless you are a complete coward.

8)- How do you think the hip hop generation of today can bring about change in society, thought, views, what needs to happen?

The hip hop community, the hip hop generation, or whatever we call ourselves, has got to grow up. I think it is embarrassing when you see heads in their late 20s through their late 30s still acting like children. Not being serious about anything. Not owning up to any level of responsibility.

Again, I speak all over the country. Imagine that I go speak and I come in their, unprofessional, cursing up a storm, disrespecting women, disrespecting the men, disrespecting the opportunity, because of my ignorance. And it is ignorance, so I have a level of understanding and compassion for that. Some of us only know what we have been taught and/or given and really are like children who need direction, guidance, a helping hand to get us to the next level. But those of who are socially conscious, who have lived long enough, and been around the culture and the game long enough, have an obligation, I feel, to see the big picture, way past hip hop. That our people are literally dying out here, that I can go to a prison and see TONS of young Black males locked up, then go to a college campus and see 5, 6, 7, 10 Black women for every Black man on that college campus.

We need to see the struggles today as a war on our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. People think just because we can now vote freely, sit next to White folks on buses, in restaurants, go to historically White colleges and universities, or because there are now acceptable Black icons like Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, or Michael Jordan, that racsism does not exist any more, or that it is not as bad as it once was. That is absolutely untrue. We live in a country where Black voters were disenfranchised in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. We live in a country where the conservative response to horrible public schools is to give a few vouchers to a few students while the rest of the students are stuck in those horrible schools. We live in a country where more money is spent on building prisons in most states, than on the public school system.

In New York State, back in June, an appeals court said New York State was only obligated to make sure New York City public school students, most of whom are Black or Latino, get an 8th grade education. An 8th grade education! What are you going to do with that other than work at a fast food restaurant, or some other low-paying, low-level job?

The hip hop generation has to grow up, read, study, travel, even if it is just to the next town or city, or the next state, and resist being duped by the pop culture machine that makes us think life is just one big party, complete with liquor, weed, unsafe sex, and name-brand goods. That is mental slavery, and that is where we are at. Ain't nothing wrong with having nice things, or wanting nice things. Most people who are struggling feel that way. That is real. But there is something wrong when those things become more important than being intelligent and critical thinking, being spiritual (not religious), and being rooted in your history, who you are, so that you can begin to develop a game plan on where you are going.

Whether we like it or not, hip hop is led by the rappers, in spite of hip hop having three other core elements: the dj, the dancer, and the graffiti writer (artist). The rapper has a huge influence over young people today, moreso than teachers, politicians, any of the so-called traditional leaders. I actually hate that it it is this way, because it puts an unfair burden on the rappers to be role models, and many of them just don't have the emotional and political maturity to be responsible to themselves, even. But, by the same token, I say to rappers all the time, when you get out there you need to think about how you are affecting young people, are you selling life or are you selling death, do you even care, and does it matter to you that you may not even be hot, or around, in a couple of years? This is not just for the rappers, really, it is for all of us. How many of us, today, actually care enough about ourselves and our people to work to stop all this madness before it is too late?

On Wednesday October 30th at 8:00 PM A Conversation with Kevin Powell and David "Davey D" Cook will take place...

Powell and hip-hop historian, journalist, and Hard Knock Radio host Davey D explore how artistry and politics influence their journalism and how their work impacts larger cultural issues. For more info send an email to: [] [hard knock radio] [] [] [] []
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