Bigger Than Hip-Hop :: A Q+A With Kevin Powell

By Guest Columnist Sep 09, 2008

photo by Aaron Taylor Originally published on Zentronix By jchang On Tuesday, New York voters will go to the polls in an important Democratic primary. 42 year-old, former Vibe writer Kevin Powell faces off against 74 year-old, 26-year veteran Congressman Edolphus Towns for one of Brooklyn’s 3 House seats in Washington D.C. It’s one of the most closely watched races in the country, in no small part because of the contest’s implications for generational change. There are echoes here of the Obama-McCain battle. Powell calls himself a voice for change, and has hammered at Towns for backsliding on crucial issues like free trade, and for losing touch with his community. (Towns supported Rudy Giuliani for mayor in 1997 and barely won his last primary in 2004.) Yet Towns holds a major fundraising advantage, and has said that Brooklyn voters have no time for on-the-job training for Powell. I recently had a chance to correspond with Powell on his candidacy and the meaning of the 2008 elections as he was jetting back from Obama’s nomination speech in Denver. Here’s what he had to say, uncut: Q: A lot of attention has been focused on the presidential race this year. But how much do so-called "down-ticket" races such as yours mean to young urban voters? A: My election is not actually a down ticket at all. It is a Democratic primary on Tuesday, September 9th in a majority Democratic city, which means that whoever wins my Congressional race, will be the next Congressperson for Brooklyn, NY’s 10th Congressional district. Obviously I plan on winning. Additionally, I have been a community organizer and political activist for the past 24 years, since I was a youth and student activist back in the 1980s. It is not just young Americans of all different backgrounds who need to become more politically aware, it is all Americans. From back in the day to my campaign now, I cannot begin to tell you how many people, regardless of age and background, who do not understand electoral politics at all, be it the presidential election every four years, or local races like mine. In fact, I would argue that local races are far more important because they directly impact the day to day lives of our communities. It is local electeds who determine what kind of money and resources flow back to our communities, what kinds of businesses and industries come, or don’t come, what kinds of schools we have, and so on. So part of my mission as a leader in these times is very serious political education, not just getting folks to vote for me. We’ve got to cease being a nation of hype. That is, we get hyped for a political candidate because she or he is younger, hipper, hip-hop, or something like that. And that is simply not good enough. As I sat in that Denver stadium the other day listening to Barack Obama with those other 80,000 people, naturally I was very proud. But I also thought to myself I have been a part of incredible movements before, back in the 1980s when folks like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan were moving millions of younger people. And there still has not been, for me, no single more incredible gathering than the Million Man March in 1995. But we need movement in America now, a progressive and multicultural movement of people from Generations X and Y. Young people who understand hip hop and pop culture in general, technology including the various handheld devices and social networks, the history of America and the world on at least a basic level, contemporary issues on at least a basic level, and are able to relate to a range of people, because they are culturally multilingual. My point in all of this is that this is so much bigger than me or Barack Obama. Because after I get elected and Barack Obama gets elected we are still going to have racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, religious intolerance, ignorance, poverty, a terrible healthcare system, wars everywhere, including in Iraq, a polluted environment, mediocre public schools, and so on. So younger people, of all backgrounds need to do what some of us did back in the 1980s: Jesse Jackson and his campaigns for president were the spark for our activism, for our social awareness, but then we took upon ourselves to become full-fledged leaders because we began to understand voting was just a piece of the work that needed to be done. And that is the case today, too. Young Berg, the new hip-hop artist, asked me recently when was this CHANGE Barack Obama is promising going to happen? My response was simple: When YOU become the change you want to see, when YOU make it happen, when YOU understand the leadership we are waiting for is US. That is the message we need to be putting out there very clearly to young America. Q: In many ways, your candidacy has echoes of the presidential primary and general election contests, with your theme of "new leadership" pitted against your opponent’s theme of "experience". What do you think really separates young hip-hop generation leaders from a previous generation of leaders? A: I think there is an overemphasis on hip-hop, number one. Back in the 1980s there was a wave of us who were, without question, hip-hop heads. Myself, Sister Souljah, Ras Baraka, and many others who understood that just given the world we were a part of, that hip-hop had to be a part of the conversation. For example, I came up as a graf writer and b-boy and could recite any and every hip-hop lyric of that era, and certainly dressed the part. But we NEVER referred to ourselves as hip-hop leaders, or hip-hop activists, or anything of the sort. This is a very new thing, and, to me, a very tired thing, just the way back in the 1970s people felt compelled to put the word SOUL on everything. A leader is a leader, an activist is an activist, as long as she or he is doing the work. But I do need to say we worked very tirelessly with hip-hop artists of that time, the leading ones, like Public Enemy, like KRS-One, like LL Cool J, like Heavy D, like Ice Cube, and many others because we understood, instinctively, that, as Souljah said twenty years ago, any movement that post-Civil Rights generations have MUST be mass marketed to the people. Well, clearly hip-hop is the greatest mass marketing tool we’ve ever created. And obviously, now hip-hop America is multiple generations. There is no one hip-hop generation, so we need to stop saying that. I see that as I campaign every single day in Brooklyn: there are folks between the ages of 35 and nearly 50 who came of age with hip-hop, who are hip-hop heads, who know my work as a hip-hop head. Then there are the teenagers and 20-somethings, also hip-hop heads. So one of the main things that separates us from the old guard is our natural ability to relate to wide age ranges of people in our community. On top of that, we know the different ways to communicate in the 21st century, which is why my campaign does not just knock on doors and pass our flyers. We also do mad e-blasts, we have myspace, facebook, and other social network pages, we do text messaging to handheld devices, we have a mixed cd produced by DJ Reborn and hosted by DJ Drama (who I have known since he was a pre-teen, and whose parents are both old school activists), and we do nonstop parties and media that appeals to young America, be they hip-hop or not. The type of leadership I am representing is not interested solely in protest and marching and complaining of being a victim. Those days are over. I represent leadership that is about practical and proactive solutions. For example, my 9th book is just coming out. It is called The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life. Every single contributor to the book, be it BET’s Jeff Johnson, the actor Hill Harper, filmmaker Byron Hurt, or scholar Jelani Cobb, is of what we call the hip-hop era. So as folks read the books of essays around spirituality, political awareness, redefining Black manhood away from sexism, violence, and misogyny, hip-hop culture vs. the hip-hop industry, mental wellness, physical health, and stopping violence against women and girls, they are getting these solutions in the language of us, of the 21st century. We are tired of leadership that is simply about reports and studies and conferences where the same people show up again and again, say the same things over and over again, and we walk with nothing practical and life-affirming to give our communities. That is what makes us different. Others talk about it. We make it happen. And that making it happen, now, is being translated into our taking over the leadership of communities once and for all. It is time, and we have no other choice. Q: What has been the most inspiring moment in your campaign so far this season? A: Every single day for the past 12 months we’ve been campaigning has been inspiring. I love people, all people, and I could not imagine doing anything else with my life other than being a public servant, of being an activist and advocate for the people. This is why I quit journalism many years back. I am always going to be a writer. Always, but even my writing is simply a tool to get information out to the people, to spark dialogue, which is why I write essays more than anything else now. You want an inspiring moment: last night we had a pre-Labor Day fundraiser in the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Great crowd, music being blazed by my dude DJ CEO. I addressed the crowd briefly, to thank them. I thought I was done for the night. A young man named Richard came up to me, quite serious and passionate, and said he wanted to know why I was really running for Congress, and asked if I could get back on the mic. He basically challenged me, at 1am in the morning, to talk to the people. So we turned the music off, and for the next 90 minutes, at a club, we held an impromptu townhall meeting covering issues like education, the state of young America, violence, you name it. And as always, the people asking questions and making comments realized, as I guided the dialogue and answered questions, that the solutions are right in front of us. But it is only when we realize our individual and collective power that things will change in America, and on this planet. Erica Perkins, my Campaign Manager, and I left that club like WOW. This is what this work is about. Wherever people want to think and talk, you give them that space to do their thing. And Richard, as I said to him over and over again from the stage, is a leader. That is what this is about, that is what inspires me. To get as many people as possible to know that self-empowerment and community empowerment is the route we must take. Anything less means we will forever see ourselves as powerless victims. So folks walked away from the party last night ready to do, as you better believe I steered the conversation toward DOING. Great to talk, pontificate, theorize, all of that. But we need action, now, more than ever. That is what inspires me about this campaign, about Barack’s campaign: all the multitudes who are stepping up to do something. But it has to continue, as I said, beyond voting, it has to become a movement for change nationwide.