Scholars, artists, journalists, brothas on the block, and countless others have tried to define and explain the political attitudes of the “hip-hop generation” since the mid-‘80s, when the nascent urban street culture began to stake its claim in the American mainstream. The moniker became an easy way to label (mostly black) youths who came of age in the years after the civil rights movement and the tumult of the ‘60s, at a moment when the bumrush of brassy self-expression coming from the ‘hood was the closest thing to a mass political movement anyone could spot.
Efforts like Bakari Kitwana’s The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture (Basic Civitas, 2002) probed the challenges and opportunity for political action by the hip-hop demographic - even though the use of the label “hip-hop” in this context implied a structural connection between a primarily cultural sea change forged in clubs, playgrounds and blank public surfaces, and an expressly sociopolitical battle waged in the streets, the courts and the halls of Congress.
Imagining that hip-hop could be the missing link between art and politics became part of the culture’s creation myth, even though hip-hop-referencing activists have typically gotten results through the old-fashioned, shoe-leather tactics community organizers and change agents have always used (educating the masses, building coalitions, fundraising, pressuring decision makers), not through beats and breakdances. This doesn’t mean that hip-hop doesn’t have a role to play in any broader political activity; hearts and minds will always be shaped by the nature of political overtones in the culture they consume. But while hip-hop may be a multi-billion dollar industry that resonates from the Bronx to Bangladesh, the culture’s existence won’t singlehandedly compel anyone to reduce environmental stresses, ban torture, or create jobs. It’s people rising up to act on their own behalf, before and since hip-hop, that actually changes the world.
That reality is at the heart of M.K. Asante’s disjointed declaration It’s Bigger than Hip Hop (which borrows its title from a dead prez lyric). Asante has compiled an impressive resumé, especially for a 25-year-old: a post-millennial Renaissance Man, he’s a published poet, documentary filmmaker (The Black Candle, his exploration of Kwanzaa, was narrated by Maya Angelou, his wife’s aunt), and professor at Morgan State University. His countercultural bonafidés are in order: his dad is professor and scholar Molefi Kete Asante, godfather of the Afrocentricity discipline, and his mom, Dr. Kariamu Welsh, contributed seminal works to the field. And no one would question his passion for making positive change in the world. None of all that gives this, his first non-fiction book, sufficient focus or clarity to match its breathless tone. It’s clearly meant as a call to action, but it’s not at all obvious that some specific group is being called, or what it’s being called to do.
Asante speaks to, alternately, both the young people coming of age in today’s world (the “post-hip-hop generation” in the subtitle) and to those folks who seek to understand them, but never with crisply articulated messages to either group. He defines “post-hip-hop” as “an assertion of agency that encapsulates this generation’s broad range of abilities, ideals and ideas, as well as incorporates recent social advances and movements (i.e., the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, gay rights, antiglobalization) that hip hop has either failed or refused to prioritize.” In other words, he’s angry that the previous generation of hip-hoppers didn’t change the world like it said it would do. But while Asante perceptively notes that today’s young adults live in a world markedly different from that of their parents (who grew up in a world without No Child Left Behind, the Internet, or three-strikes-you’re-out laws), he never spells out what distinguishes this generation’s attitudes and outlooks. Moreover, he never settles on a basic theory, a plan of attack, or even bulleted takeaway points to address the cultural and societal ills he decries. If he wants people today to do something, he doesn’t explicitly say what or how, only that the floor is now theirs to do it.
The term “post-hip-hop generation,” in Asante’s construction, is especially problematic. Although Asante has no love whatsoever for the latter-day commercial aspects of rap music, he sees potential for new forms and expressions rising up from the same hip-hop foundation that spawned, after a fashion, the corporate rap culture he lambasts. Indeed, he ends the book with an interview with “Hip Hop”, which concludes with the interviewee proclaiming, “…remember to tell the people: I am their weapon!” How, then, could such a new culture be “post-“ hip-hop - implying a radical break from the culture - and not an extension of it? Asante suggests that properly politicized and engaged youths should rise up to reject the Young Jeezys of the world and forge new socio-cultural paradigms – but there’s also the sense that he’d settle for a new wave of conscious rap becoming the coin of the hip-hop realm.
Asante goes on to outline conditions and situations, from images in the media to law enforcement to education, that he suggests the current generation needs to address, and provides a basic (albeit often sketchy) historical context for understanding them. To cover all this ground, he alternately takes on the voices of journalist, satirist, theorist, educator, historian and memoirist in laying out his case. As individual set pieces the chapters aren’t bad, but It’s Bigger than Hip Hop would have been a much stronger and unified whole had he settled on one voice, rather than employing different devices to present his ideas. The cutesy notion of interviewing “The Ghetto” to explain its evolution as both term and place, for example, doesn’t hold the same level of weight next to his interview of dead prez about police brutality, or his account of experiences in his native Philadelphia. He has his points to make, but the book’s inconsistent tone and structure undercut those points’ cumulative impact.
It’s Bigger than Hip Hop attempts to use hip-hop as a gateway to discussing important urban policy issues, which may be an effective hook for younger audiences who’ve never studied these issues in analytical depth. But readers already familiar with this era’s social struggles and cultural changes will find this book wanting: those discussions have been handled more rigorously by many activists, sociologists and political observers over the years, and Asante adds little of anything new to the conversation. It’s less clear what those younger readers will make of this earnest but flawed effort. They may well come away from It’s Bigger than Hip Hop with eyes smartly opened, but in need of structured follow-up reading (the book’s bibliography, which might otherwise serve as a read-this-next list, is heavy on hip-hop studies and almost bereft of volumes that place these critical issues in a more substantial context).
Ultimately, Asante sounds more like an ambitious undergrad learning how to translate book-learned concepts into fully developed ideas and then into action, than a professor with distance and perspective. But he’s got smarts and skills to spare, so here’s hoping for better work down the line.