Conversations w/ Hip Hop Journalists
Kevin Powell & Charlie Braxton on 9-11 [pt 1]

by Kevin Powell & Charlie Braxton 3/24/02

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, essayist, editor, art curator, hiphop historian, public speaker, political consultant and fundraiser, and human rights activist born and raised in Jersey City. Like Charlie, Kevin was a student leader while in college at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, and he was deeply affected by the South African struggle against apartheid, Reverend Jesse Jackson's two presidential bids, the rise of Louis Farrakhan as a national figure, and his studies of various social struggles and activist figures like Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. As a result Kevin has been a part of many many political groups, or helped to create them, and he regularly mentors young people in New York City and across the country.

A professional journalist for the past fifteen years, Kevin has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, Essence, Rolling Stone, and Code. Kevin was also a founding staff member at Vibe Magazine, where he wrote a number of cover stories, including several on the late Tupac Shakur.

Just prior to his work with Vibe, Kevin was a cast member on the first season of MTV's The Real World. As a result of that exposure, Kevin has done much television work in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. A highly sought after lecturer and commentator, Kevin Powell has offered his insights on politics and pop culture to TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, and internet outlets in America, and abroad, and he has lectured at many many colleges and universities, as well as at community centers, religious institutions, and prisons.

Now a resident of Brooklyn, New York, Kevin is the author of four books. His fifth book, Who Shot Ya? An Illustrated History of HipHop, gathers the celebrated work of legendary rap photographer Ernie Paniccioli and will be published in November 2002. Another book, Who's Gonna Take The Weight, a collection of essays, will be available in the Spring of 2003. And Kevin is the founder and chairperson of HipHop Speaks, a series of community forums and MC Battles held four times per year (March, June, September, and December) in New York City. HipHop Speaks is also being developed into a community-based organization and a 10-city national tour of the forum and MC Battle is slated for the Spring of 2003.

Charlie Braxton is a poet, playwright, and journalist currently residing in Jackson, Mississippi. He was born in McComb, Mississippi. Charlie's family was engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly since a good portion of it took place in the Deep South. At Jackson State University Charlie was active in campus and community politics, working with several organizations: He was president of JSU's Student Government, a participant in the Free Eddie Carthan Committee, a supporter of the Black and Proud School as well as the anti-apartheid movement.

Charlie worked closely with the now defunct Mississippi Institute for Economic and Technological Resources. He is also the former publisher and editor of The Hattiesburg Informer. Today, Charlie mentors young people around social issues and the music industry. In fact, Charlie either consults or manages a handful of Jackson-based hiphop artists and entrepreneurs.

As a writer, Charlie Braxton's work has appeared in numerous publications including The Source, Vibe, Murder Dog, and Doula. He has written cover stories on various figures in hiphop like Outkast, Master P, the Notorious B.I.G. and the Fugees. His poetry has appeared in literary publications such as African American Review, Cutbanks, the Minnesota Review, Drum Voices Review, the Black Nation, The San Fernando Poetry Journal and Sepia Poetry Review. Additionally, Charlie's poems have been anthologized in Word Up: Black Poetry from the Deep South, In the Tradition, Soul Fires, Step Into A World, Bum Rush the Page, and Role Call. Charlie's Ascension from the Ashes, a volume of verse, was published in 1990 by Blackwood Press. Charlie is presently co-producing a documentary on the history of Southern hiphop, entitled Southern Explosion, and penning a book on the roots and evolution of hiphop culture.

Kevin Powell
We've been talking about the importance of our generation stepping forward and having some critical dialogue around the issues of our day. Clearly, the war on terrorism and the new patriotism permeating the country has been on a lot of folks' minds, including ours.

Charlie Braxton
Yes, and I think that it's extremely important that we first understand the context out of which some of our generation finds itself swept up in the spirit of this newfound patriotism.

Kevin Powell
I gotta say this: I just got off a plane from Little Rock, Arkansas, which connected through Memphis. It was delayed because of bad weather, and what was striking to me is how much September 11th had so many of us on that plane, including me, shook! I have flown through much worse weather but the residual effects of that tragedy, of those planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers are real.

Charlie Braxton
True, it has been a very traumatic experience for the entire nation. The last time I think there was such widespread panic was during the Kennedy and King assassinations. This is particularly true of the Kennedy assassination because so many people saw that happen live on TV. It was a feeling of shock and disbelief that everybody had witnessing that event.

Kevin Powell
You are correct. I think some people really underestimate how much the two Kennedys, and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King getting blown away at the height of their national recognition affected people. And still affects a lot of people. When I was in college and becoming politically conscious, one of the first things my mother said to me was You remember what they did to Dr. King, right? The horror of that assassination had stuck with my mother all those years later. And, Charlie you are right, seeing John F. Kennedy's assassination on TV was heavily traumatic, and now our generation, our era, has the memory of two planes crashing into the Twin Towers here in New York City. This will be with us for the rest of our lives.

Charlie Braxton
I first heard about the tragedy of September 11th when my mother-in-law called me to see if I was watching TV. I was at my computer working on an article so the television wasn't on. She called just after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. My first reaction was Man, what a terrible accident. I wasn't going to turn the TV on because I was working, but there was something in the sound of my mother-in-law's voice that told me that this was much more than an air-traffic accident. I remember her saying something to the effect that the world was coming to an end. So I decided to turn the TV on to see just how bad it really was. And as soon as my set came on there it was: one of The Twin Towers wrapped around the plane with smoke and flames billowing out like a chimney. I was shocked. And just as my mind was busy trying to comprehend the whole thing I saw the second plane fly into the other tower. At that moment, I actually thought that I was literally in some kind of apocalyptic nightmare. The reports about the planes flying into the Pentagon and the one that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania only served to reinforce that notion.

I then tried to call any and all of my friends from New York, including you, Kevin, but the phone lines were jammed and I couldn't get through. Emails didn't go through. It seemed like for a minute New York, the media capital of the world, was cut off from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the only information that I could get about conditions in New York was via the mainstream media.

After calming down I began to watch the news with a more critical eye and it amazed me how slanted the media was in this event. It took them no time to tell us that Osama bin Laden was responsible. And for the next several days we were literally bombarded with images of the smoking Twin Towers, and video clips of bin Laden shooting an AK-47, and patriotic themes that only fanned the country's emotional tinderbox. Basically, the media bluntly showed its biases by not really delving into the history of the United State's history with bin Laden and the Taliban.

I mean later on I found out all kinds of things like how the Bush family has business ties to the bin Laden family. How the U.S. had been trying to negotiate with them for an oil pipeline, but they refused. I also discovered that while the mainstream American media was busy whipping up retaliation sentiment, Attorney General John Ashcroft and his cronies were busy pushing their legislation that will, in the long run, severely limit our civil liberties. Suddenly questions started to pop in my head like: What does this really mean? Why is it that we have the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, an organization that can and has toppled countries, rigged elections, and generally destabilized sovereign governments all over the globe, need new laws to find one man. Why is it that we are willing to blow up a whole country and kill thousands of innocent people just to get one man, when we have the technology to find anybody in the world? We have satellites in space that can literally read the nametags on a soldier's chest. Why do we have to go to war to catch a handful of terrorists?

Kevin Powell
Those are important questions, Charlie. I was in Syracuse, New York, when those two planes hit the World Trade Center. Ironically I had just given a talk at Syracuse University the night before to first-year students, and one of the things I had stressed was the importance of being tuned into world events, that these young people were leaders and needed to take that seriously, no matter what their area of study would be.

I remember I got up early on the morning of September 11th for my flight back down state to New York City, and that I needed to make a call to April Silver. April and I pretty much coordinated all of the HipHop Speaks forums and MC Battles last year. I do not readily recall now why I had called April but I remember April saying Kevin, I think one of the World Trade Center buildings is on fire. Like me, April lives in Brooklyn, and she lives in a high-rise building with a spectacular view of parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. For those who don't live in New York City, Manhattan and Brooklyn are simply two of the five boroughs that compose New York City, although a lot of people think Manhattan is New York City by itself.

What Manhattan contains are the financial and communications and cultural centers of the city, and some might say of America. Anyhow, April said this and I thought it was just a routine fire. New York City is such a big and crowded place where crazy things happen all the time. So a lot of us who were born here or who've lived here for some time have sort of a cavalier attitude about things. Cars stopping short with tires skidding don't bother us. Neither does loud, crashing sounds, or people screaming. It is part of our cultural make-up here, at least it was up until September 11th. So after April made that comment she and I, being New Yorkers, returned to our conversation. But then April told me, Kevin, you gotta turn on the television and see this. So I did.

And I was awe-struck by what I saw. One of the Twin Towers was on fire with what looked like a plane jutting from the side of it. And just as I was focusing on this incident another plane comes soaring in and crashes into the other building. I was speechless. It looked like something out of a Hollywood movie. And my first thought was that two planes crashing into both Twin Towers is no mere accident. Someone, somewhere, planned this.

Charlie and I literally spent the next 21 hours, from about 8:45AM that morning until 5AM the next morning, watching all the footage: the different angles of the planes going into the two buildings; the people running from the collapse of the two buildings; the bodies hurling themselves from windows; the terror, the confusion, the white soot from the collapsed Towers, the blood, all of it. I sat on the Internet searching for information, trying to let folks know who had been trying to find me that I was okay, and away from New York City. I had to call a friend in Philadelphia and ask him to call my mother in New Jersey because I could not get through to her and I knew she would be worried about me.

I felt dazed, confused, and completely powerless. And as crazy as this may sound, I absolutely wanted to get back to New York City as fast as possible. But to this day I have yet to visit Ground Zero because I just cannot. But I wanted to be back in the city that I love because some thing, some force, some spirit, was compelling me to be there. And when I finally was able to get back, two days later, via an eight-hour Amtrak ride, I felt as if I had walked into an episode of the Twilight Zone. Penn Station at 34th Street in Manhattan is where trains come and go. I walked, Charlie, from 34th Street all the way down to Union Square and 14th Street with my luggage, stopping to meet a friend only, at I think 23rd Street.

At Union Square Park shrines had already been set up for the dead or missing, and there were flyers everywhere about this loved one or that loved one. I read as many of the flyers as I could, wondering if I would know someone who was missing, or dead. I read the poems and meditations, everything. I listened to people debate in various circles. I noticed the undercover police and other sort of law enforcement folks eavesdropping on the edges of the more radical conversations. I noticed the tourists snapping pictures and shooting video images with digital cameras.

We were allowed to be there at Union Square Park because that was as close as folks could go, in large groups, to express their feelings about this tragedy. Access further downtown had been blocked off, and would be blocked for some time. I had very mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I, like everyone else, kept calling people to see who was alive and who was not, or who was missing. It became a ritual for New Yorkers for several days.

I noted that I knew two people, including one of my former landlords, who died in the tragedy. I read all the newspaper articles about people who had just moved to New York City, who had their lives taken away so easily. I read the stories of folks who had just married, who had just had a baby, or just bought a house. I read the stories of people who had been planning to leave whatever job they had at the Twin Towers. And so on.

And I thought about all the Latino immigrant workers and homeless people, forgotten people, really, who lost their lives, too, but no one cared because they were considered illegal or bums and therefore invisible.

And I thought about Black people, a lot, Charlie. Black people are not new to tragedy, as you well know. As Langston Hughes once said eloquently in a poem, I've known rivers. Collectively, we've known rivers. So I saw this tragedy with a different set of eyes, so to speak. I saw it with the eyes of a people who had been ripped from their native land, Africa, stripped of themselves, their language, their spirits, their minds, made to hate themselves, and made into slaves. That, too, is a form of terrorism to me.

I saw it with the eyes of a people who had been told they were free, after slavery, only to endure another 100 years of second-class citizenship, only to endure lynchings, cheap or underpaid labor, the stealing of whatever land some of them might have had (as had happened to my great-grandfather in South Carolina), denial of the right to vote, denial of the right to be a citizen and, really, denial of the right to be human beings.

I saw it with the eyes of a people who, in spite of the great Civil Rights Movement, still had to live in the ghettoes of America, the majority of us, anyhow, dealing with poor communities, poor schools, poor resources, just a vicious cycle of poverty and madness. And I saw it with the eyes of folks in our communities who have and do experience their own form of terrorism, what I think Michael Eric Dyson called slow terrorism because of what things like AIDS and crack and police brutality have done to us, and does to us everyday.

Charlie Braxton
Indeed terror comes in all forms. I think about the thousands of people in Latin American countries, like Guatemala, who were maimed, tortured or killed by soldiers who were trained by the U.S. I think of some poor kid in Cuba, who is going blind needlessly simply because his country can't get the proper medicine that he needs due to the sanctions imposed on Cuba by America. I think of the millions of people in Africa who are dying due to AIDS and cannot get proper treatment because certain world heath organizations, led, once again, by the United States, will not allow certain generic brands, which would be cheaper, to be sold. I think of the family and loved ones of the men who were poisoned with syphilis down in Tuskegee, Alabama, which as history tells us, was a form of bioterrorism. I think of the hundreds of thousands of people all over who will go hungry in this country, who will lose their jobs as a result of the globalization of the economy. Yes, as people of color and as poor people of any color we have known terror.

Kevin Powell
With all that said, Charlie, in the aftermath of September 11th, I felt like I was walking a tightrope with my emotions. I was not ready to embrace either extreme: not I feel more American nor Chickens coming home to roost. I just needed to listen and to think and talk with some folks, like you, who were also trying to think logically, not emotionally, which is, admittedly, hard to do in times like these.

Charlie Braxton
Yes, which is precisely why these events have helped to create what I like to call a panic attack, where in the face of such gruesome acts, many Americans have become literally intellectually paralyzed over what to do next. Our sense of security has been permanently shattered. And as a result we have suspended our sense of reasoning in favor of an emotional backlash that has forced the whole country into what Gil Scott-Heron has called selective amnesia: Remembering what we choose to remember and forgetting what we choose to forget.

Kevin Powell
I agree. I have been saying to people that there needs to be two responses to the tragedy of September 11th: the first is the very real human or spiritual response, where we unconditionally offer our condolences and our prayers for all those innocent lives lost, and to their families. Anyone with any sense of humanity must do that. But there needs to also be a political, critical response, which raises the questions many of us either do not want to ask, are afraid to ask, or, because of our ignorance of American foreign policies, of American history, and of recent events, do not know to ask.

Charlie Braxton
In light of what the average mainstream American has been taught I can see some segments of the population not being able to process a lot of this. But for African Americans and other people of color, whose history has taught us better, I don't understand this blind adherence to My country, right or wrong attitude. I want to go back to what you said about the average American and their knowledge of history. I think that it is very important to understand that the main reason why so many Americans really don't have a complete understanding of what is happening in the world has a lot to do with how they were taught in school. History, as you well know, Kevin, is the tool upon which you and I build our understanding of how the world works. But the way we're taught history is really distorted. It doesn't tell people the whole truth. And that's because history is usually told from the vantage point of the person who is responsible for printing the books.

Kevin Powell
Indeed. I have been struck by the number of people who did not know, prior to September 11th, even where Afghanistan was, what Islam is, what America's relationship has been to South Central Asia and the Middle East, or the fact that part of the reason why people outside the United States might hate us is because we have been educated to see the world from the viewpoint of the United States ONLY.

This education begins in the classroom, as early as kindergarten as far as I am concerned, when we are told those stories about Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Washington and the other Founding Fathers, and Abraham Lincoln. Right from the jump the education is from a narrowly Westernized or Eurocentric perspective, and as the explorers like Columbus made their way to the so-called New World, the stories go from being European-centered to White American-centered. So unless you are an American who has been given a wholistic education in the sense that you have been taught about the contributions of all people to this country, taught about the vicious treatment of Native peoples (who some of us call Indians), the capture, enslavement, and general cultural and spiritual destruction of Africans (Black people), and unless you are getting an education that teaches you equally about Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, then your worldview is going to be very slanted toward this one place.

Charlie Braxton
But even beyond that the miseducation is reinforced in the cultural fabric of America. I think of movies like Tomb Raider, The Mummy Returns, and Pocahontas, where history is literally distorted and spoonfed to little kids under the guise of wholesome family entertainment.

Kevin Powell
You are right, Charlie: America reinforces this revisionist history through its pop culture outlets like films and television. I remember as a child really believing that Elizabeth Taylor was Cleopatra, or that Tarzan was the king of Africa. Or that the way to get to China was to dig a hole in the ground and keep digging until you got there. I saw this one in a cartoon. If parents really examined the cartoons their children are watching, they would be amazed at what is being said about race, gender, class, all of it, under the guise of keeping the children occupied and entertained.

Charlie Braxton
It is this along with the stifling of any real alternative viewpoints that have placed the average American at the mercy of the corporate-backed media, whose main objective is to persuade the public to side with the dominant culture.

Kevin Powell
Not only do these scenarios promote white or American superiority at the expense of people of color, but they also completely decimate factual histories. And some of us wonder why young Black, Brown, Red, and Yellow children hate themselves to this day. Look at what they are fed on a daily via popular culture and in the classrooms.

Charlie Braxton
I remember growing up as a kid and watching a show called Isis, with a white woman playing the part of Isis and thinking that the Egyptians were white!

Kevin Powell
I remember that show! Yup, I believed that that was true. So when I think about the reactions to September 11th, the rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments, I think about all the films, like The Seige, which have portrayed Arab peoples as terrorists, or I think about how, dating back to the heyday of the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and 1960s, how uncomfortable America has been with any religion other than Christianity.

Charlie Braxton
And therein lies the real crux of the problem. If the average American hasn't done the proper reading and research to counteract the miseducation that they have received over the years, then they will always be asking questions like Why do they hate us? I think that it is important for people to understand that the majority of the world is not white, Christian, or male.

Kevin Powell
True that. If one does not read, if one does not travel, if one does not try to get one's news information from non-mainstream media, one will really believe that the world is America versus everyone else, and not really care who everyone else is, how they live, what they eat, what language they speak, what their customs are, nothing. That is why one of the most important books any American can read, and should read, is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, because it offers a balanced interpretation of this country's history, and it is about truth, not myth-making.

So, again, when I think about all the reactions that have come since September 11th, the detaining of Arab Americans in this country, the plans to deport thousands of Arab Americans who are suspected of criminal activity, the deep anti-Muslim sentiments, the zealousness with which many people in and outside of the government have called for war and revenge, the calls for United We Stand, the waving of American flags and the wearing of flag tee shirts, hats, pins, and other items, I can't help but wonder how wounded America was as a country before September 11th if we could be so instantly reactionary after the tragedy. In other words, given the magnitude of what happened, does it not make sense for us to assess everything? History, American foreign policy, this country's on-going problem of dealing with its own racism toward people of color, the propensity of this country to solve everything by violent means.

And, as you know, Charlie, America is a very xenophobic nation. Hell, we are even xenophobic internally, if you look at how various groups have been ostracized through history, be it Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians, or even Whites among themselves depending on which ethnic White was an outsider when first arriving to these shores from Europe.

Charlie Braxton
I agree. When I was a student at Jackson State, we had a lot of students from the Caribbean and West Africa as well as other parts of the world. One of the things that I always tried to do was learn about their culture. It usually started with me listening to their music and using that as a bridge to forge friendships and cultural exchanges. But a lot of my American brethren felt that I was strange for wanting to understand them on their terms.

Kevin, I think before September 11th, the average American was oblivious to what was going on in the Middle East. They probably saw some stories on the news, but that was stuff happening to other people who were over there dealing with their political problems.

People need to understand that the world is not like it is portrayed on TV. The American way isn't always the best way for the rest of the world. In fact it is not always best for Americans. I recall a time when it was the American way for Whites to own Blacks as slaves. But unless we take the time to truly understand that then we will forever be at the mercy of the media and misinformation.

In fact I am willing to bet that before September 11th, the average American wasn't out looking for an Arab American to scapegoat. They weren't interested in trying to understand the religion of Islam, nor were they trying to understand the politics of the Middle East.

Kevin Powell
Of course not. Or think about the fact that just a week or two before September 11th, you had this major conference on global racism and intolerance happening in Durban, South Africa. How many Americans knew 1) That is was going on? or 2) That the American delegation walked out of the country when the thorny issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was brought up, from the perspective of people of color?

Charlie Braxton
That's true. America has a cowboy mentality when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world. We think that because we are the most powerful nation on earth what we say and do to the rest of the world is right. Not because it is the moral and correct thing to do, but because we have the power and authority invested in us by the gun, oops, I meant God, to do it. Nowhere is the attitude more evident than in the Monroe Doctrine and the concept of Manifest Destiny. People need to look these things up in Zinn's book.

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