'Hip-Hop Is the Most Important Youth Culture on the Planet'

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TIME: A major museum exploration of hip-hop acknowledges its rightful place in the annals of American popular culture. But doesn't putting something in a museum also imply that it's dead?

Kevin Powell: No, putting something in a museum does not imply that it is dead. It implies that it is important, crucial, an important part of the human journey. The art of Basquiat is not dead, although he has been dead for 13 years. The art of Bearden, Lawrence and others is full of life because art is about life, not death. And hip-hop is urban folk art, period. And that urban folk art is about the lives of a very unique group of people, of how they made something out of nothing, and how that nothing has come to define an entire era in many ways, be it our language, our fashion, our attitudes, our art, the way we make music, and the way we do and do not communicate across race, gender, geography, and cultures.

I think the fact that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the originators of this exhibition) and now the Brooklyn Museum of Art have taken on "Hip-Hop Nation" is a mainstream institutional recognition that hip-hop is the most important youth culture on the planet, bar none. And that has been the case for some time.

Hip-hop's influence over the wider American youth culture is quite without precedent. How did it achieve this tremendous crossover appeal?

Viewed in the context of Black music in America over the past century, there's nothing surprising about hip-hop "crossing over." Blues and jazz crossed over in the 1920s, when whites rushed to Harlem to hear the music. In the 1930s, jazz became — for whites — "swing." When Black musicians created something called bebop (a clear antecedent for hip-hop) in the 1940s, that too crossed over as whites gravitated toward the language, fashion, attitude and music of hip cats like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And I think most people today are clear that it was artists like Louis Jordan and Big Mama Thornton, not Elvis Presley, who created rock and roll and laid the musical foundation that crossed it over to young white people.

You can't talk about American music without talking about Black people and Black musical forms. And you cannot discuss Black music without taking it account its edginess (think of bluesman Robert Johnson, bebop innovator Charlie Parker, rocker Little Richard, soulman Otis Redding, et al.), its rebelliousness (anyone from Big Mama Thornton to Jimi Hendrix) and the fact that edginess and rebelliousness ultimately appeals to white young people as much as it does to Black young people. That and "white music" suffering slumps from time to time made the white embrace of hip-hop inevitable — has there really been anything interesting happening in rock music since the heyday of Nirvana? Not really.

Of course, this crossover success and hip-hop's current dominance of youth culture has not come without a price. What was the effect on hip-hop of its success?

Same thing that has happened to everything else black folks have done creatively: white folks control it and own it and we remain, for the most part, economic slaves. Pretty basic. And we become slaves to what the "market" tells us we should be buying. And the question I always ask young people when I speak at colleges, community centers, prisons, or wherever: What other people on the planet are allowed (and encouraged from what I have seen through my many years in and around the music industry) to call themselves the equivalent of "niggas" and "bitches" on CD and that is distributed for mass consumption?

Is hip-hop the same thing now as 25 years ago, or has it transmuted into something quite different? How have the constitution and the borders of the "hip-hop nation" changed?

Nothing stays the same. Remember, hip-hop was born on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, a serious fiscal crisis in New York City and other urban areas, gang activity, etc. Since then we have been through the horrific Reagan era, the invasion of crack, guns, AIDS and an alleged economic boom in the 1990s — "alleged" because not too many Black people I know, even the ones with college degrees, are anything more than a paycheck away from poverty. Hip-hop has documented all of this, and more. As Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) stated in "Blues People" (perhaps the most important book on Black music ever written), you can always tell where a people are at by the music they make. That means if you listen to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" or Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" or Fela Kuti's "B.B.C.: Big Blind Country" you can gather what is going on with Black people at various times and in various parts of the world. Hip-hop is no different. It has evolved with the times. Now whether or not that evolution has been progressive or regressive is another discussion entirely.

Your exhibition defines the mid-'80s to 1990 as hip-hop's "Golden Years." What happened after 1990?

"The Golden Years," to me, simply means that was a period when hip-hop or, specifically, rap music, was incredibly exciting, fresh, def and diverse. There was no such thing as positive rap or negative rap, or so-called gangsta rap. Rap was rap: rhythmic American poetry, period. There has not been a time since when an N.W.A was as popular as a Public Enemy, or where the storytelling of a Slick Rick could fall alongside the pimp strolls of a Too Short, or Roxanne Shante was just as necessary as a Salt 'N Pepa or Queen Latifah. A lot of us cats who have lived through most or all of the history of hip-hop are the ones who proclaim that period the golden era. Why, because we can. And because we know what we are talking about. It has nothing to do with nostalgia. It has everything to do with consistently good music. Back then I use to get excited whenever a new release was coming. This year I can only count on one hand the number of hip-hop albums I have been eager to hear (Nelly, Eminem and Outkast). The corporate takeover of hip-hop has taken away much of the creativity and genius, except for the underground stuff, and that rare album where an artist is allowed to grow and shine rather than being forced to follow a formula.

Public Enemy proclaimed hip-hop the "Black CNN," and even original gangsta rappers NWA said "it's not about a salary it's all about reality..." Does this still hold true? What's happened to the "bearing witness" side of hip-hop? And how do the more mainstream artists view those like Mos Def, Common, the Roots, KRS One, Black Eyed Peas etc. — the acts that arise in every generation who rededicate themselves to the core values of the socially conscious rappers of the early years — are they the conscience of the hip-hop nation?

One thing George Orwell said that I very much agree with is that everything is political, which means, to me, that Nelly or Master P is as political as a Chuck D or Common. What is missing from a Nelly or Master P is a political consciousness that would force them to question WHY they have chosen a certain path and why materialism and hedonism is more important than the conditions of their communities.

That said, hip-hop has always been Black America's CNN. That has never changed. CNN shows all kinds of news, not just "positive" stuff, and that is the same for hip-hop. And hip-hop has never stopped bearing witness. Listen, for example, to Nelly's album very closely. I have been to St. Louis several times, but his album gives the close listener, via the lyrics and the accents and the attitudes, an inside look at Black working-class St. Louis. If that is not bearing witness, I don't know what bearing witness is. A lot of people, unfortunately, expect hip-hop to be overtly political. Well, we live in apolitical times and the art created in America, by and large, reflect the times. Again, how could anyone say something "positive" if there is no consciousness (or consciousness movement, for that matter) there to provide another way to look at and absorb the world.

Also, hip-hop, in spite of being a billion-dollar business, is still the blues of the working poor. And I can say this because this is the world I come from; the working poor are just basically trying to survive from day to day. I find it very classist for people to raise the issue about positive versus negative hip-hop because the same people who raise that issue don't usually discuss the death-baiting conditions which most hip-hoppers come out of. And most cats who raise that issue don't really have much to do with the hip-hop heads they are criticizing. For example, not only am I curating this exhibit, lecturing around the country, writing books, articles, etc., I now manage a young hip-hop DJ and four young hip-hop producers because I felt it important to engage people directly rather than be an armchair critic who ain't even trying to turn this apolitical madness around. It is SAFE, to me, to cling to Common (my homeboy), Mos Def (another one of my homeboys) and the other so-called socially conscious rappers. That is what the bohemians here in my Fort Greene neighborhood LOVE to do. But I RARELY see these same hip-hop bohemians in downtown Brooklyn shopping on Fulton Street on a Saturday, and I definitely don't see them walking past the Fort Greene projects on Myrtle Avenue. Which says to me there is a fear and a hatred of the working poor and their expressions. The irony of that is that cats like Common and Mos Def embrace the working poor but a lot of their fans do NOT.

My basic point: It is real easy to divide hip-hop into camps. The real challenge is to understand WHY hip-hop has deteriorated from the golden era into what we have now, and how corporate interests have played a role in that and how even the socially conscious among us are guilty of perpetuating ignorance rather than education and self-love, especially among those who need it most: Black and Latino young people.

The exhibition traces hip-hop's roots to Bronx in the '70s. But what about the Jamaican "sound system" tradition which predated those Bronx block parties, and were clearly a major influence?

Hip-hop's roots are not Jamaican, nor Puerto Rican, nor African American, but African. It's part of the continuum of African art forms — in some traditional African societies, for example, we find the "griot," who is the storyteller or oral historian. How is that much different from an MC telling a story (think of Slick Rick, Ice Cube, or Snoop Dogg) or rhyming about the past.

Hip-hop is a collision between African American, West Indian and Puerto Rican cultures, with the understanding that we are all African people. My point is that no matter where we were enslaved in the Western Hemisphere, be it Jamaica, Brazil or South Carolina, we as Black people held on to modes of speech, dance movements, and attitudes (what some call "cool") that formed the foundation for hip-hop's emergence in an African-American context.

So the point of the exhibition is to give people an overview of hip-hop culture and history and, really, to encourage people to do their own homework. It is not going to please everyone but that is the beauty of dialogue, is it not?