Social critic Bikari Kitwana’s The Hip-hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture is a meditation on the unique structural defects that have challenged the quality of life of the first generation of black folk to come of age after the Civil Rights movement; the Hip-hop generation. While working as the former editor of The Source magazine, Kitwana developed the concept and designates the “Hip-hop generation” as blacks born between 1965 and 1984 whose identities are couched in the aesthetics and psychology of Hip-hop’s culture. For these youths, Hip-hop music and culture has a direct influence on the formation of their worldview and is integral to their socialization practices and political values. In short, The Hip-hop generation positions Hip-hop as a unique culture, distinct from generations of black youth seen previously in the 20th century that has the potential to be a force for activism and political consciousness.
Kitwana studies Hip-hop’s worldview as a process of articulation developed by black and brown youths “who share a crystal clear understanding of coming of age in an era of post-segregation and global economics.” According to Kitwana, the Hip-hop generation is characterized by disproportionate incarceration rates, truncated job opportunities, high rates of unemployment, disparities in housing, and gaps in educational achievement. These failures of public policy are further intensified by the cancerous impact of the 1980s crack epidemic that continues to ravage black and brown communities across the nation.
Perhaps these unique conditions are the reason the Hip-hop generation became far removed from the politicization practices of preceding generations of black youth cultures of the 20th century. Where previous incarnations turned to traditional black institutions—family, education, religion– for guidance, the Hip-hop generation developed their culture independent of the previous generation. Indeed, they have turned to a collection of artists, musicians, and to one another to articulate the formation of a new incarnation of black youth culture–Hip-hop.
Of the many concepts explored through Kitwana’s analysis, the schism between African American youth and their elders is offered as one critical reason why black youth have consistently failed to achieve despite the gains made during the struggle for civil rights. Kitwana contends, “the defining values of this generation’s world view have taken a dramatic turn” from that of previous generations because of the very unique circumstances black youth faced after the 1960s.
The tensions between the youth of the Hip-hop generation and their elders worldview is more vital than Kitwana analysis suggests. As someone born just outside Kitwana’s designation (I was born in 1986), I look at the this separtion as having an impact on the psyche of generations of African American youth coming of age in an era where the battles for advancement did not take place at the public diner but in the general public square. Post-civil rights genenrations have been made beholden to the accomplishments of black America’s “greatest generation” on the one hand and told to that we would never compare to them on the other. As the first generation of black youth to arrive after the Civil Rights movement, the Hip-hop generation have been made to live in the shadow of that movement in a way that impedes what we believe can be possible and has a negative impact for generations of black folk to come.
The dialogue around the crisis in African American culture have continued to be marginalized because media depictions of black Americans have skewed the perception of black youth in the eyes of the American public; including the elder black citizens. The elder’s perception is that the Hip-hop generation carelessly squandered the opportunities that previous generations fought hard to obtain. And there is the sense within the Hip-hop generation that their elders have also bought into the propaganda campaign against black youth as well as in American societies’ desire to declare institutional racism dead after the March on Washington. Instead of recognizing the limitations of such gains, black youth have continued to be blamed for impeding African-American progress.
The Civil Rights movement is an awkward space to occupy for future generations of black youth who have been told that we “owe everything” that we have to another generation that has suffered in a way that we could never possibly understand. Comedian Chris Rock captures the sentiment of the Civil Rights generation in artful fashion: “the old black man went through some real racism. He ain’t go through that ‘I can’t get a cab’ shit. He was the cab!” In other words, racism of the Civil Rights era trumps racism today because “they suffered more.” The black communities preoccupation with the greatness of the Civil Rights era has contributed to the hopelessness and despair that make up the harsh conditions that the Hip-hop generation faces it invalidates any hardships black youth face by comparison. This outlook defeats the purpose of progress.
The very first chapter includes a quote from the mother of rapper 2Pac, Afeni Shakur, that sets the tone for the tensions between two generations. “I’ve heard enough of [our youth] to know that we ought be holding them up…instead of standing on top of them telling them what they’re not doing right.” According to Afeni, “we continue to fail these brilliant…young people because their not saying what [the Civil Rights] message was.” For generations of black youth coming up after the Civil Rights movement, we have heard stories that exalts the movements leaders to something of divine heights. Because of how civil rights has been essentially deified in the black community as the greatest accomplishment black folk will ever achieve, the greatest detriment of this outlook is that it essentially says that the Hip-hop generation’s existence in the continuum of black history, indeed American history has no purpose. It is difficult for youth to build on the legacy of the past if they there is not understanding between the generations.