So, yeah, basically, my name is Bakari Kitwana. I grew up in Long Island and went to school upstate New York, University of Rochester. I did two master’s degrees there, one in English and one in education.
And after that I worked at Third World Press in Chicago, which grew out of the Black Arts Movement of the '60s, and I did that work for about five years. Then I taught briefly at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. I moved back to New York, where I was the editor of The Source Magazine and I did that work in various capacities. I worked as an editor of The Source for about four years, '95 to '99. And after that, I wrote a book called The Hip-Hop Generation that kind of popularized the expression. After that, I was one of the co-founders of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, which brought 4,000 young people to Newark, New Jersey to create and endorse a political agenda for the hip-hop generation. And we did that along with people like Ras Baraka, who's now the mayor of Newark, ironically. [Laughs.] Rosa Clemente, who was the 2008 vice presidential candidate for the Green Party. And Van Jones helped us out with that, Davey D, and many other people. Some of the artists that were involved were Wyclef, Chuck D, Dead Prez, Boots Riley of The Coup, and these guys performed and participated and helped us to organize the event.
So, after that, I wrote a book called Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop. I taught at the University of Chicago, I was their visiting artist in resident-in-residence, and I taught in the political science department. I also taught at Kent State previously, briefly, also as a visiting scholar. And I've been a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College of Chicago.
And I started an organization called Rap Sessions, which conducts community town hall dialog around the country on what I call "difficult dialogues facing the hip-hop generation." We've done that work for, like, the last 11, 12 years. We pick a different topic every year and we go to 10 to 15 cities with a different panel of folks who are a combination of artists, hip-hop artists, activists, scholars, journalists. This year we're focused on the election and we're calling it "Vote for the People: Reform or Revolution."
So, that's, in a nutshell, the range of my experiences. [Laughs.]
I've also been an expert witness on hip-hop for a number of court cases where hip-hop has been entered in as evidence, generally, by the prosecuting side. And so I've been brought in as an expert witness to, you know, decipher some of the intricacies of hip-hop or people that are generally using it against black and brown people. But one case I did was a white kid who was a junior high-school student. That was a federal case out of Pennsylvania.
What's your perception of the videogame industry and what's going on it? From where you sit, what do you see, what you think, what do you hear?
I mean, when I think about videogame culture, I'm reminded of my days of working at The Source, really. There were always kids who were editors and writers and artists who were into gaming, and sometimes they would be up at the magazine playing games. [Laughs.] You know what I mean?
So, I mean, that's always been something that's been in the background of the culture of hip-hop.
This is something that we just take for granted.
And then we have different points where artists' images and music are being used in videogames. I can remember the controversy around -- what was it? I can't remember the game where people were stealing cars. What'd they call that?
Oh, Grand Theft Auto?
Exactly. [Laughs.] Exactly. Grand Theft Auto.
Right. I remember the controversies and some of the racial depictions that people were concerned about. And then, I guess, other instances where there would have been debates about athletes' images being used in games and them not being properly compensated.
So, those are some of the things that have come under my radar as an activist and as a person who has worked in hip-hop and activism. These are the issues that come up. And then, a lot of times, a lot of young people, working with young people, they're talking about games and playing on games and I remember there was the -- what was that? Warcraft or something? What was that thing called?
Are you talking about World of Warcraft?
Yeah, World of Warcraft. Right. I remember a lot of people talking about that. I never really got into the games at that level. It just wasn't --
You've been busy is what it sounds like.
Yeah, it just wasn't something that -- I don't generally look for things to consume my time that aren't information- and knowledge-growing things. You know what I mean? So, I'm constantly trying to immerse myself in something where I'm learning more information.
But, you know, there's a friend who teaches at University of Illinois. And I know that they have some gaming academic sides going on with the creation of games and stuff with that. I don't know if you're familiar with that.
Are you talking about down in Champaign?
Down in Champaign, that's right. So, he's periodically -- me and him have gotten into conversations about where is hip-hop in this conversation? Where are young people who are into the games in that conversation? Because you have scientists and engineers and these kind of hacker, nerdy kids who are creating these games and becoming financially well off. And so he's always raising the question of where are the black and brown kids in this conversation at that level?
What conclusion does he draw?
He's saying that we need to make sure that they're present.
That's sort of at the core of this thing. I don't know how odd an assertion it is when I ask you about comparing rap culture and videogame culture. I mean, does that sound strange? Does that sound strange that I reached out to you to talk about that?
No, I mean, it doesn't sound strange because I think that America is a highly entertainment, consumer-driven culture.
And so, you know, a large part of the goal of American entertainment for the powers that be is to create these distractions.
And to get people invested and to be entertained instead of really confronting the problems that are facing everyday people. So, I mean, yeah, that makes sense to me. I mean, I feel like within hip-hop it's a constant battle between people need to make a living, but at the same time is the culture benefiting the people who created it or people outside of the culture? You know what I mean?
How is it affecting people internationally? American culture is often the new imperialism as it feeds on other culture. So, I constantly struggle with the point where hip-hop is entering into the international and the global space and teaching folks way to get free. But then also, the component of this cultural imperialism where we're basically using hip-hop as the backbone upon which to ride into American culture. I would imagine some of those lines get crossed with gaming just as they do with hip-hop just as they do with film.
Do you feel that mainstream rap has gotten less violent? Has there been any shift in the amount of violence in it one way or the other?
That's an interesting question. You know, I think that -- it's an interesting question on a lot of different levels. I mean, on the one hand the way that we measured impact and reach of the music has changed. So, like, in the earlier days of hip-hop it was how many record sales.
And now, with people listening to and sharing music in so many different ways that are trackable and some that just aren't -- and so I think it's difficult. I guess if you look at people who are at the top of the food chain who are the most financially successful, I would say it's definitely not the N.W.A era of hip-hop. Even so, I think that you have a lot of artists who still dabble in that imagery. I think that that N.W.A formula that was created back in the late '80s is very much something that's still with us in hip-hop and it is still a dominant trend.
But then you have artists like the Drakes and the Nicki Minajs, but at the same time you have the Chief Keefs and that whole genre of hip-hop artists that are also dabbling in that same imagery. It's been pretty consistent from N.W.A all the way up to 50 Cent right on up to the present.
Are you saying it's not less, but just because of the internet we hear about a lot of other things now, too?
I would not say it's less.
But I do think that the dominant -- those artists, solely in the way that they seem to be for a while, I think it's an evolution. I wouldn't say that it's less, though. I think more music is being made in a lot of different formats. It's being listened to and shared. You've got a lot of artists that aren't on major record labels, but they're still being listened to. How do you quantify those? I think, for me, the quantification of the impact is different.
Is hip-hop is what people are listening to on the radio? It depends on how you're defining violence. If you're talking about the ways women are talked about in misogynistic ways, to some people that's violence.
Yeah. I was gonna ask about that, too. You were talking before we started about some of the sportscasters being harassed. But have any of these stories about misogyny in tech or treatment of women in tech been making their way to you?
Only -- not really. I think to the extent of people talking about the lack of diversification in the workplace type of stories. That's always a presence. That's something I do hear about, but not much beyond that.
Yeah, I don't think there has been any single story that has spiked. I think it's more of a constant boil. But do you think rap has been more hostile to women than tech?
Oh, now that's interesting. I think that it's always important, I've found, with hip-hop to not get so fixated on where hip-hop is doing wrong but to look at where it's going right.
And I think that when we look at where it's doing right, it begins to tell a different picture. When we look at where it's doing wrong, because black and brown kids are so often criminalized, it's very easy to fall into the belief that, "Oh, hip-hop is responsible for all of this misogyny and it's the most misogynistic thing in American culture." People fall into that kind of a mindset particularly when you're dealing with a group of folks who don't have political power.
So, I think that when people raise the question about misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop, I want to talk about that but I also want to talk about where is hip-hop pushing back? Where are you seeing the pushback within the culture? And a lot of times, that's somewhat interesting terrain. because it's not dictated by the capitalistic economic impulse. A lot of times, the misogyny in hip-hop is very market-driven. It's bottom-line driven. It's not necessarily -- that's not the monolithic message that's really coming out of the black and brown community.
It's not the monolithic message, but I think that if you look at, within hip-hop, for example, in terms of gender, there's a very robust movement within hip-hop around gender. There's a book actually that written called Hip-Hop's Inheritance: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Hip-Hop Feminist Movement by a professor, his name is Reiland Rabaka. He teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. But then there are books like Joan Morgan's When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. There were books like Gwen Pough's book called Check It While I Wreck It, looking at women in hip-hop but also the messages of women in hip-hop.
And then you have the resistance movement within hip-hop pushing back against this. There's an organization that was starting by Rosa Clemente called REACH Hip-Hop that began to attack some of the way that women were being represented in media. Also, Lisa Fager Bediako started an organization called Industry Ears that looked at some of these same issues. Davey D was involved in a lot of that work also, just kind of pushing back against the images and representation of women in hip-hop.
When we did the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, we had a women's caucus that advocated on behalf of women's issues and the representation of women in hip-hop. And I think you've had congressional hearings where folks like Michael Eric Dyson and Lisa Fager Bediako have talked about the representation and image of women in hip-hop. So, I mean, I think that that resistance movement, to me, is equally compelling of an area to think about when we think about what's happening in terms of the representation of women. Because, one of the things that Joan Morgan says in her book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, is that hip-hop made her a better feminist. I just think it's a beautiful statement. Like, hip-hop forced her to think about feminism in more complicated ways.
That's the other half of my last question, too, in a way: To talk a bit about the internet and activism. You do see a fair amount of what I call "click to protest." It's this low-bar, low-effort type of activism where people think they are hugely involved but haven't really done much of anything. How do you feel the internet has changed the nature of activism within these broader entertainment communities?
Wow. Another really good question. [Laughs.]
Thank you. I told you when I emailed you that it's gonna seem like it's only about videogames, but it's not only about videogames.
I think that -- I have been really interested in this question of internet activism. In a lot of ways, because of what happened with Arab Spring, what people called the Arab Spring. The upbringing in the Middle East in various countries like Tunisia and Bahrain and Egypt, etc.
You know, I think that when we looked at what happened over there and people credited the internet and things like Facebook, I think a lot of people begin to look for those parallels here. But I think that it took on a different manifestation. I mean, in some of these countries you're dealing with a state-run media where it's very difficult to get any messages out that are contrary to the powers that be. This is not the same type of media environment. Some would argue that it is. [Laughs.] And I would agree, to some extent, but it manifests itself in a different way than it does in the Middle East.
So, for example, if you got an activist organization and they're advocating a position, say, like, Black Lives Matter. They can get mainstream media coverage here. So it's not like the mainstream media is not gonna cover you if you have a radical message. But I think that what made the internet different here I think is what we saw what happened when Ferguson exploded.
And you had activists reporting from the ground with live streams, etc. You know, community activists, citizen journalists were emerging and able to document what was happening on the street. And again, this is a byproduct of the mainstream media because what the mainstream media did was the mainstream media downsized and it's a constant conversation about the elimination and the under-representation of people of color in the newsroom. And I think that when something like Ferguson happened, that becomes really apparent because then what you have is -- when Ferguson exploded, some of these organizations didn't even have people of color they could even send into these communities. They didn't have them on their staff.
So, the internet impact in a setting like that is also driven in part by the lack of representation in the mainstream. Another thing -- there was a student protest. This was before all of the Black Lives Matters stuff. I want to say it was maybe before five years ago when it caught my attention. It was a young girl in Newark, I believe, who called for a student walkout. I can't remember what her name was. It was just something that really caught my attention. And they have this massive student walkout because she put it on Facebook or something and kids saw it and people responded. But it was huge.
So, I think of things like that and I think of things like the big protest in New York. It was around the time of the stuff that was happening in Ferguson, and it was a march on New York by three women. They were artists and they called for a march and people responded. And a large part of that response, I think, is because of the influence and power of the internet, the ability to get the word out and to get to people. I can't remember how many hundreds of thousands of people came out, but it was a huge, huge thing. So, I think that's what I see in terms of activism and the internet and the impact that it's having. I think it's interesting. It's complicated, but I think that sometimes it's overstated. You know?
I don't think that the internet is a substitute for being in connection with real people. I mean, if you were building an activist movement, you're building community in some sense. And you have to know the people you're working with. You have to be able to touch them, talk to them, spend time with them, care about them. I don't know if the internet really allows that.
One of the things that I feel that even happens with the internet is you lose people. It's hard to keep people together. It's just different. You don't keep people together and I feel like you move from one issue to the next. Like, this is one of the problems right now I think with the anti-police movement, or what some people call police reform or some people call police abolition. We're moving so quickly from one thing to the next.
I saw it this week, where people were really upset about Donald Trump one night and then the next morning they were talking about Star Wars.
Exactly. Exactly. Or people are upset about a police shooting one day and then they're talking about Beyonce's Lemonade.
And that was just last week.
I think with videogames, it's been really hard for people because this is a thing that's always existed on screens. You talk about community and that's kind of unclear for many people what that means. So there's a component here that I think you can talk to, which is how do you deal with activism on the internet when you're also talking about intergenerational conversations?
Because the perception used to be that videogames were just for kids, even though it was never true. That's still sort of the rhetoric around it or at least that's how it's marketed. But those people that were kids then, they have kids now. So we can't talk like that's even the case anymore.
No, that's interesting.
Maybe this is unusual for subcultures and cultures at large, but in videogames the younger generation wants everything to stay the same. They still want violent games. They don't care about the people who are making them. The older people, more generally, want to see things change. But they aren't considered the audience by the industry.
There's no real mechanism for change or outlet to be heard. I'm not asking what would you advise, but do you see parallels to rap there?
I do see parallels with hip-hop in terms of inter-generational threads. It's interesting that you raise that because I feel like, again, this gets back to the business kind of marketplace, capitalist-driven economy, which basically is saying, "We gotta sell this music to young people." Like, hip-hop was sold as a youth culture.
So, when those youth were coming to Kool Herc and some of the pioneers, they're in their fifties. They may even be approaching 60 at this point, right?
So, you got guys who are not "youth" anymore who created the culture and some of those guys get pushed out of a culture that they created beyond being seen as an iconic kind of figurehead.
But I think that for older people in hip-hop, I mean, I'm 49, and the answer to that is a 45 or whatever how old Jay-Z is now, right? Jay-Z, LL Cool J, I mean, these guys who are still doing hip-hop well into their forties -- even Chuck D, you know what I mean? He's still doing hip-hop, performing, he just had music come out recently. I think that the audience is sometimes divided and they're divided in part because people have been told it's a youth culture. But no other black music was promoted as just for one generation. [Laughs.]
It wasn't like: R&B, it's just for young people! Or: Blues, it's just for young people! I think that this is a marketing capitalist-driven idea.
Yeah, I mean, am I remembering this correctly? Is this something that videogames and rap have in common, where it was kind of treated like a fad that would blow over or end quick?
Yeah. I mean, I didn't realize people felt that about videogames. Yeah, I guess you could say that. Yeah. Yeah. We should talk about that.
But in terms of this inter-generational piece, I think that you find is older people who either buy into the notion of it as a youth culture and they feel they gotta do something else now that they're older. They might still be listening to hip-hop or love hip-hop quietly, or off to the side, but they concede the territory to young people.
And then you have the older people who are like, "You know, this is my lifestyle, this my culture, this is what I do," who might be educators. And so people age in hip-hop in different ways. Sometimes that means beating up on the young people. [Laughs.] You know, saying, "Music isn't like it was. The music is not as good. You're not doing it how we did it, you're diluting it." You get those kind of debates.
It's the same everywhere.
Yeah. But what I think, to me, there's something to be said about -- you really wanna talk about it on multiple levels, but how do you age as an artist in hip-hop? How do you age in hip-hop as a fan or as a person who feels themselves a part of hip-hop culture and as a participant on some level? Maybe you're into some of the art.
People do it in different ways. Like, if it's a career, like, a lot of the folks that I worked with at The Source who were hip-hop editors have gone on to do a lot of different things. June Ambrose, who was the fashion editor when I was at The Source, she's created an entire industry around fashion and design and styling. I think she even had a reality show at one point. Erik Parker, who did the Nas film [Time is Illmatic], he used to a music editor at The Source. You know, he's gone on to do this film with Nas. So, it's that maturation of most people got into hip-hop as fans and then nurtured that fandom into a career of some sort. And as they aged out of -- because a lot of the prominent journalists writing on contemporary hip-hop were young people, they went into anywhere they could find a place like writing books or Dan Charnas, who wrote the book The Big Payback. He worked at Def Jam, then he went onto write this really amazing book about the business of hip-hop.
So, I think you have -- Carlito Rodriguez, who was an editor at The Source who's now a writer on Empire. He writes for Empire and he's been an editor at The Source. He has done documentaries on police brutality and New York City and gang culture and the evolution of gang culture from back in the '20s and '30s and the black community leading into the '60s and on into the hip-hop era.
So, I mean, I think that people have aged in hip-hop in a lot of different ways.
But they've taken that entrepreneurial spirit and that hip-hop ethic and brought it and infused it into whatever they were doing. But I think that evolution of aging is an important question.
Yeah, a lot of it is crippled by the economy and the marketplace that's saying: “This is youth culture. It's a youth culture. It's a youth culture.” They're drumming that into people's heads. I think we have to push back against that.
How do you feel rap journalism helped shape rap?
Oh my God. That is amazing. I don't think that hip-hop as a mainstream phenomenon would look as it does if it wasn't for hip-hop journalism.
To me, hip-hop journalism was the propaganda arm of the mainstreaming of hip-hop. Hip-hop journalism introduced people to hip-hop beyond the music.
When hip-hop was emerging as a musical phenomena, people, I guess, seeing it as music because that's they've known this as: a musical form. They weren't looking at it as a culture and as a lifestyle. That was one of the great things about The Source Magazine.
The Source Magazine thought about hip-hop as a lifestyle. And that's what we saw their mission as: How do we promote and advance the lifestyle of hip-hop beyond just it's an artist, you go to the concert, you buy the music. Like, there's a whole culture behind hip-hop. The Source got into all of those intricacies.
That became what the magazine was, it was the intricacies of the culture beyond the music, beyond the breakdancing, the graffiti art, the turntablism, to the lifestyle of the the people. Like, how did hip-hop culture overlap with all these other areas of people activity? That was the basis for my book, The Hip-Hop Generation. It was to look at hip-hop not as a musical phenomenon, but as a generational moment. And if you're looking at it as a generational moment, then you don't get locked into the ageism of the capitalistic machinery that's saying, "We're marketing this music as a youth culture." [Laughs.]
That generation is gonna get older, and so then you start to have multiple hip-hop generations: You have the pioneer generation, you have have the generation that helped to usher hip-hop into the mainstream, you have a post-hip-hop generation, you have a generation of young people now who are listening to hip-hop who are listening to a lot of other music also. Hip-hop is not the end-all, be-all defining musical cultural moment for millennials as it was for people who grew up in the hip-hop generation.
Yeah. I mean, I think that the power and the possibility for hip-hop came from people outside of the corporate machinery. And I think that if a culture that has a grassroots appeal is gonna have a grassroots voice, it's gonna take those people at that grassroots level becoming almost the propagandist for what that thing is.
You need the documentation of who are the people playing the games. What are those cultural things that don't even speak to the marketplace? Because the marketplace is gonna define things in a certain kind of way. The corporate-driven media is going to define things in a certain kind of way. I mean, hip-hop, when it emerged as a journalistic idea, a part of it was because you couldn't get coverage. [Laughs.]
You had people reviewing and talking about the music who really weren't a part of the culture.
And so it was young people pushing back. The Source Magazine was created by college students in their dorm room at Harvard University, who were hip-hop heads and they were into the music and culture and they wanted to talk about it in a more broad way. I can remember one of their articles on hip-hop on the cover of Newsweek or TIME, but these things were few and far in between. And a lot of time, in the most early days, they were quoting people like Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker, who were English professors who happened to be black.
And people were making the connection between the poetics of hip-hop and the history of black poetry and literary tradition, and so they went to these experts in black literature and poetry. But there's a lot of nuances lost. I mean, hip-hop artists are poets. It's no question about that. But there's a lot more going on in the generational moment of hip-hop as a poetry than, say, what Phillis Wheatley was doing. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah.
And so I think that -- we created a whole generation of journalists who began to write because they were writing about the culture that they thought they were a part of, that they were more connected to and knew more about than any mainstream newspaper of publication could tell them.
And a lot of times, like, my first book, The Rap on Gangsta Rap, was about writing about hip-hop and gangsta rap -- what was being called gangsta rap -- because I was tired of people like Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker being the go-to expertise. [Laughs.] That the media was advancing what they thought about it and I'm like, "Look, I grew up with this music and this culture and what I'm hearing and what I'm seeing and what I'm experiencing as I interface with these artists is radically different than what these guys are saying, who are really just interlopers. They didn't grow up with this music and culture.”
So I think there's something to be said for people taking ownership of the space and beginning to define how they are living it outside of the creators. Like, who are the people creating the games? But the people who are playing the games, that's a whole different arena of people activity that in some ways can be arguably more important or as important as the creators. If you don't have an audience, who are you creating for? Sometimes are artists are creating just because they're artists and they like the art. I think as the industry evolves, it's evolving because there's an audience. I think the audience that serious about a culture has to create a way to talk back to that culture.
When I started this, I started by talking to people who lost interest in playing videogames because there's something that says about the culture and how it's losing people, too.
There's gotta be more differences between a 12-year-old gamer and a 35-year-old gamer. That needs to be documented to have a better understanding of the impact that gaming is having on American culture.
As rap went mainstream, what are the frictions you remember popping up where it became apparent in the culture that people weren't all on the same page? In videogames, the creators and the audience and the industry and the media aren't on the same page at all as it's all struggling to figure out how mainstream it wants to be or can be. But what do you remember like that in the rap world?
Yeah. I think from the beginning. [Laughs.] I think from the beginning, because from the beginning, the emergence of hip-hop journalists is really the emergence of cultural criticism through the lens of hip-hop. So, it's people critiquing a disconnect between a corporate-driven industry and a lived culture.
Just by virtue of it going mainstream, that's what happens.
Yeah. I think just by virtue of it going mainstream, yeah. Yeah. And a lot of the origins of hip-hop in these black and brown communities, these poor and working class communities, a lot of that culture was a very folk cultural experience. The earliest hip-hop that I remember is being at a basement party on the weekend after a basketball game, like, in the seventh grade or something. [Laughs.] Or my neighbor two doors down from me, blasting his music on a Saturday afternoon cutting records. So, that live culture experience became the foundation of my hip-hop knowledge that allows for me to offer critique on this corporate manifestation of an artist being published and distributed to by a global multinational corporation.
Do you know the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes?
That's by Byron Hurt.
Yeah. Have you seen that?
Of course! I've seen it many times.
There's a part in the movie where someone is talking about how once you're above 70,000 units sold, that those are all white hands buying records and that those white hands are the ones that want to hear all the violent stuff in rap. I'm not asking you to respond specifically to that, but is it irresponsible or inaccurate when people make statements like that?
I mean, I wrote a book called Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop. In that book, there's a chapter whose name I can't recall because it's been so long. [Laughs.] But I wrote a book and one of the chapters focuses on -- I think it have been titled, "Are white kids really hip-hop's buying audience?" but that sounds like too long for a title to be mine. [Laughs.] But that was basically the idea, was to examine where the idea came from that white kids were the primary buying audience of hip-hop.
There's never really been a study on this. That was one of the interesting things about it. There have been -- it's primarily based on conjecture. The emergence of a company called Soundscan, it's really the foundation of it, and Soundscan, they do over-the-counter sales. That's how they started.
Oh. I didn't tell you, but I got my degree in music business.
Okay, so you know what Soundscan is. Mike Shalett and the other person [Mike Fine] founded it.
So, they were tracing these over-the-counter sales. And what they didn't do was they didn't track demographic data. So what they're basically doing is -- you're in Chicago, you know all kinds of people from all kinds of neighborhood go to the Water Tower. So, if you go into the Water Tower to buy music, just because the people that live in the Water Tower neighborhood may be predominantly white, it doesn't mean that those are the only white people that are buying the music.
But that was one of the measures, was just where people are geographically buying it. The other measure was they did a separate survey of what they considered to be active music consumers. These were people who bought anywhere from 15 to 20 CDs a month. I don't know who that would be, but they supplied this survey of these 15-to-20 active music listeners, they determined that the primary listening audience for hip-hop was white suburban teen boys.
So that's where this idea came from. There was an attempt by a woman named Wendy Day. Wendy Day, a long-time early pioneer around hip-hop advocacy. She was an artist first.
She started an organization called the Rap Coalition, and I believe Chuck D and Tupac were two of her founding board members. And what they did was the Rap Coalition -- one of the things Wendy Day did was help artists get out of bad record deals. She did a lot of different things. She helped to launch independent hip-hop labels. One of the things she also did was to go to the music industry major labels executives and say to them, "Hey, you guys really don't know who's buying your music. I can help you to create a study and we should do a study where you really know who's buying this music.”
They didn't want to do the study. They didn't. [Laughs.] All of this I talk about in Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop. They didn't want to do the study and they said, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." So, we really don't know if that was ever even true. There's no demographic study that's ever been done to demonstrate. And so, in my book, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, I talk about some of the political reasons why people might not want to really know.
I mean, just imagine if the economic source for hip-hop from the beginning was really black and brown people. What does that say? [Laughs.] What message does that say and where do people go with that, when you have this idea that black people are not responsible for economic development in America, even though the entire capitalist economy is built on the backs of black people?
I feel that type of conversation, of a white-buying audience for hip-hop has never really been factually proven.
I hate asking questions like this, where it's like, "Hey, you remember what you said a decade ago?"
I might remember. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] We'll find out. You were on NPR and I had never heard about this either, where you were talking about white rap fans into white rappers who think they're smarter than black rap fans who listen to black rappers.
[Laughs.] I know I've said that, I didn't know I said that on the radio, though! Whose show was that? [Laughs.]
It was on NPR.
Was that something recent?
No, it was, like, 10 years ago.
Wow. I didn't know I was saying it 10 years ago. But yeah, I could see that.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
I think there are some parallels there in games, but maybe not split along racial lines.
Right. Well, I think that what I was talking about was I wrote an article a little while after -- it probably was about 10 years ago, but Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop came out in 2005. Around that same time, I wrote an article for The Village Voice called "The Cotton Club," which was about the politically conscious hip-hop artist whose concert-going audience was increasingly becoming white. It was predominantly white. I talked about how this evolution had taken place. Alongside that same time, you start to see the emergence of the white independent hip-hop artist and you start to get the emergence of the white middle-class college audience that is, you know, the audience for a lot of these smaller concert venues where those black political hip-hop artists were playing.
And so, people like El-P and some of the folks like that who were emerging around that same time, some of the cats out of Rhymesayers and Minneapolis, some of those groups -- there was another group out of Boston. I can't remember what their name is off the top of my head. But all these other things were emerging and there was this kind of an idea -- we were starting to move into an era where there was a white hip-hop fan who no longer really had to interact with black people. [Laughs.]
Whereas before, in the early days of hip-hop, if you were a white hip-hop kid, you had to at least be around black people even to listen to their music. You had to go into black communities, you have to interface with black people. We arrived at a point where you could be a white hip-hop fan and your audience -- your whole social circle could be white, also, but also the artist that you listened to could be white and you didn't really have to have any real engagement with black culture. And so, that's a different thing than what hip-hop was at its origins for white people.
Hip-hop, at its origins for white people -- a political consciousness came with that. You had to make a certain kind of commitment to understanding what was happening in the black community and some kind of a commitment to racial justice. And we move into an era where that was no longer a prerequisite. You could be a white kid in hip-hop and not have anything to do with black people, and at the same time imagine that the white rappers that you were listening to were smarter than the black rappers.
I remember one time -- God, I'm trying to remember what was the concert. I was in a debate with someone. They were talking about Jay-Z.
It was something about Jay-Z and they were talking about some of the white rappers, and I could just tell that what they really were saying was that they thought that the white rappers were smarter. [Laughs.]
And this is a complex thing because Jay-Z, like, intellectually is a really complex artist. You think about the complexity of his intellectualism and the range of it. I think that sometimes people can equate rapping about what was happening in the hood with anti-intellectualism.
You see a lot of that in videogames, too.
Oh? Tell me about that. [Laughs.]
Well, there's something about it where there's a lack of curiosity about other cultures and subcultures. I've talked to people who teach in academia around videogames who their philosophy is it's a waste of time to read books because literature can't tell you anything about videogames.
Oh, that's fascinating.
At a certain level, you do see that espousement of: Keep your interests narrow, just stick to videogames, don't bother to learn more about it or people who are different from you. Just like what you like. Don’t challenge yourself.
That thing about books is a really egregious example, but sometimes you go to industry events or conferences around videogames and I don't want to be smug but oftentimes it's like, "Man, can we talk about something else other than videogames? There's a whole other world out there."
But for some people it's like, "No, I'm good. I got this, I got my one thing. I'm done growing as a person." Like, they're sort of fine and they shut down.
You mention you got into a debate. I've talked to some people for this project where they talk about there isn't even a conversation, it's just other people bludgeoning them with their opinions so they shut up.
So, you get stuff like that.
Well that's, I think, a growing American cultural phenomenon across the board, the idea that your opinion is just as important as the facts, even if your opinion is wrong. [Laughs.] There used to be a time when people debated facts. We don't really debate facts anymore. It's like, whoever's the loudest. And we have convinced people that their opinions is important -- this is the height of American individualism, to tell people that their opinion is important, even when it's not rooted in any facts and when presented with the facts, they still stick to their guns.
There was a time where people, they would actually just be wrong. [Laughs.]
Yeah, you can't be wrong anymore.
What I see in videogames a lot -- basically, what people are saying is, "As a bigot, you are offending me. You need to be quiet."
That, I think, is definitely a trend in American national discourse. I talk about this in my new book, which is Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era, which comes out this summer. I think that what we're seeing is the rise of conservatism in America, and a large part of how it's been able to thrive has been with that very notion. That your opinion is just as good as the facts and stand on that opinion, don't let people "bully you" with the facts. [Laughs.]
Your opinion is okay.
I remember there was a girl who made some kind of veiled death threat against Obama in Florida. I can't remember what her name was. This was a while ago. This was back when I think he was still running for office. And the FBI came and scooped her up or whatever, but her argument basically was: "But that's what I thought. That was my opinion." [Laughs.]
It's permeating. It's the way that I think conservatives begin to make these arguments, but it's so permeated mainstream culture. It's so permeated national culture that it's almost become an American phenomenon to stand on your uninformed opinion as an argument that's valid alongside the facts.
You mentioned some of your work in courtrooms. Do you feel like the types of conclusions or things being argued against rap in courtrooms, is it any different than what you see in the mainstream media or on the internet? Is there really any difference?
I think that -- no. [Laughs.] I think that when you have created a narrative in American mainstream culture about black and brown people, that's a go-to narrative. And we use this narrative over and over and over and over again. [Laughs.]
And it seems like it because it's so familiar, it worked again. It's these racist stereotypes that are what people call dog-whistle politics.
And I think that we've done that. I think it's almost embedded in American culture. And so I think that, yeah, you get those same kind of narrative about black boys in the court cases where they're saying -- there was a case I did last year in Cincinnati. There were a handful of black boys that went to a predominantly white school. They got kicked out of school because they were alleged to be in a gang. They were rappers. They had a rap group and their rap group was called Cincinnati Money Gang.
And so the school decided -- there was a shooting of some sort that didn't involve them but somebody who used to be in their crew. But he was no longer attending the school but I guess they cracked down on these kids, like, "This is a gang. They call themselves a gang. They're rappers. They're rapping about violent stuff and they're gang members." And that was the basis upon which they had thrown these kids from school.
This sounds like the kind of stuff we were hearing in the early '90s.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah, well, it's very much alive and well. But the difference is in the early '90s, nobody was trying to use hip-hop as an argument.
So what had happened in this case was they went and listened to their music and they cherry picked the lyrics to suggest that the kids were really a gang.
So, I think that's something that I see happening a lot. It happens with -- let's say Mike Brown. or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice here in Cleveland. I mean, you get these stereotypes: "Oh, Tamir Rice, he looked like an adult. He's not a little boy playing in a park. He's an adult. He looks like an adult." Mike Brown: "I felt threatened. He strong-armed a grocery store." You understand what I'm saying? It's these old tried and true racial stereotypes about black people.
And I see those same things playing out.
And this is the dangerous thing about the capitalization and corporatization of the music. That became a dominant trope in hip-hop. These same stereotypes that have oppressed black people became the dominant tropes used again and again within the music and in the culture. And then you get this crossing over from the entertainment world into the reality of somebody’s life in a courtroom.
When you get called into a courtroom, how do you disprove and shake people from these archaic notions?
Yeah. I mean, I think that the most important thing is to -- each of cases have been different. But the most important thing for me is to talk about what hip-hop and what it isn't. [Laughs.]
That's basically what I do. I mean, I talk about hip-hop. I talk about what hip-hop is and I talk about what it isn't 'cause a lot of times you have these prosecutors who may have a police officer who thinks he knows a lot about hip-hop and he's giving an interpretation to maybe something that's being said. Or you have a school administrator who's giving an interpretation to something that he thinks. Hip-hop has been criminalized and demonized in mainstream culture. That's one of the fascinating things about it. You got this multi-billion-dollar industry that's making corporations all of this money all across the world, but at the same time the media -- which is sometimes owned by the same corporations -- are demonizing the artists. [Laughs.] N.W.A was one of the most demonized rap groups in history.
So I think you have that ongoing demonization of hip-hop, and so I think people who are outside of the culture who are just watching from a distance or maybe tuning into a Bill O'Reilly program, who has a constant ongoing tirade that demonizes hip-hop and demonizes black and brown people. If you're tuning into that, then you're sitting in your room at the school and you're downloading, listening to hip-hop lyrics and you can't discern between the art and the fiction of somebody talking about, say, no snitching or killing suspect witnesses. So, the art becomes a reality to them in their mind. There's no distinction between the art and the reality. So they fixate on it as being real and that these people really mean it.
Meanwhile, we have a long tradition of music in America -- no other music has come under this kind of scrutiny. Not rock 'n' roll. [Laughs.] Not jazz. Not any other American music. Not pop music. No other American music has been entered as evidence in a courtroom case to convict somebody of something. Just hip-hop.
How would you like to see the portrayal of rap become more nuanced?
I mean, I think that there already is more nuance. I think that what's lacking in the nuance is at the corporate level. I think some of the most interesting music that's happening in hip-hop is by independent artists. And I feel like if there was more -- and this has been a constant argument from people who have been advocates for hip-hop, is to broaden the representation. We don't have broad representation. We have the same kind of handful of content ideas that just get repackaged over and over and over again.
Meanwhile, you have people creating new and original music, ideas, approaches. There's a hip-hop artist that I like who's from Ghana. His name is Blitz The Ambassador, and he performs with a live band and he calls it Blitz The Ambassador & The Embassy Ensemble. They tour internationally but no mainstream record deal. Jasiri X, who is a hip-hop artist from Pittsburgh, he has been making independent music for the last probably seven or eight years, now 10 years, and is actually getting an honorary doctorate from Chicago Theological Seminary next week. No mainstream record deal. [Laughs.]
Blitz The Ambassador, he got an award for musical creativity from an emigrant. I can't remember the name of the organization. Jasiri just got this Rauschenberg fellowship where he got to spend two months working on his music. The foundation was started to really lift up artists.
So, I feel like the industry is promoting a monolithic idea that is the idea that they're comfortable with, the representation that they're comfortable with. But there's a lot more music being made and a lot more artists that are doing really creative, cutting-edge stuff. Rebel Diaz is another group that I like. They're amazing. No mainstream record deal.
I should also mention some of the women because the sisters will kill me if I don't. Invincible, out of Detroit, who has always been on point and has been for a long time, also an activist. A woman -- she's from Connecticut but she lives in Germany: Her name is Akua Naru. Also doing some really amazing stuff. A lot of international touring. I mean, she is absolutely amazing and I think you got all of these artists doing this work and they're doing it outside of the corporate mainstream. And so their message doesn't get pushed in the same way as a Jay-Z or Beyonce or someone -- Drake. You know what I mean?
So, I just think that the nuance is there. It's just not being promoted in advance inside of the corporatized machine.