Political activist, journalist and author Bakari Kitwana spoke at the University on Thursday, Feb. 25, at his lecture “Young Americans in the New Economy.” These questions were asked after the lecture by the Torch and students in attendance.
St. John’s Unversity: Do you have any suggestions for someone who would like to hold politicians more accountable for their actions?
Bakari Kitwana: I think that writing letters and calling the congressmen and senators has a huge impact, and I think people don’t do it as much as they should. In 2008, I did a national tour called “Hip-hop and the Presidential Election,” and there was a woman on the tour who started an organization in D.C. called Global Policy Solutions.
She said to me that during the time she was there, the most powerful political moment came when people would call into those offices. So that’s something that has a big impact.
I think we have to be operating on multiple fronts. We need to join organizations because organizations tend to have greater leverage than just individuals working alone.
I think one of the problems with the 2008 election of Barack Obama was I think it fractured people more than it brought them together in their ability to organize separate from the campaign.
So a lot of people got excited and mobilized, but they got mobilized around a campaign, and when the campaign was over, there was not anything to continue the time together.
STJ: What is your opinion on current hip-hop culture and the music specifically?
Kitwana: There are ways that your generation is listening to music that is different than the ways we listened to music in the earlier generation. We listen to music on the radio, we listen to what we watch in the music videos and we didn’t have access to as many independent artists.
Now, I don’t think people listen to the same stuff. People now listen to a much broader range. So I think it’s made music listening more democratic where before it’d be like three artists with an album out a year. I think the artist had more leverage and I think a lot of other things have changed.
Artists used to come out and they’d be hot for maybe a couple years. It amazes me that Jay-Z can still go platinum. That’s just amazing to me.
Because Jay-Z has put out 10 albums at this point, it’s like a different moment for hip-hop and before, and artist couldn’t last beyond a couple years. But it’s also a part of the energy hip-hop has lost because it doesn’t produce new artists.
I think that there are refreshing things going on, and I think the music still has an impact, but I don’t think the impact is as great as it was before four or five years ago or more than that. I think that some of the content is problematic, but the ways in which we listen to music-the fact that music can be downloaded, the fact that people are generally downloading singles-I think all of that stuff moves the power from just those handful of people.
As we talk about building political movements and the power and influence of hip-hop, I think the ways that music is being listened to has kind of change in the equation.
STJ: Political hip-hop artists are not as popular as mainstream artists. As an activist, how do you use hip-hop to motivate people politically when political music is not what people want to hear?
Kitwana: As a person who’s been involved in politics, I think the mass penetration rather than the content is more important to me.
I think the content is important, but I remember I was really excited when 50 Cent and Eminem both went platinum in less than a month.
Because as a person who’s thinking about politics, I think, how many politicians have that much influence?
Let’s say we had 50 Cent here today and we had Charlie Rangel here tomorrow. Who’s going to have the bigger audience?
I just think the power and influence and the reach of hip-hop is what is exciting to me in terms of politics.
I think that the content is important, but the most important content to me is that there is a range available, there isn’t just a monolithic message.
Good music is, in part, about innovation and bringing something different to the table and not doing the same thing that’s been done like a formula.The problem with the music that we’re hearing in terms of the radio is the same thing. It’s all the same thing and you don’t see enough of a range.
There has been, within hip-hop, a media justice movement. The problem is not those specific artists so much as that there is no other artist at the level to counterbalance. Currently, we don’t have any politicans or another artist to counter the negative or the same monolithic message. But in terms of politics, I’m interested in taping into the influence of a Jay-Z because I think that’s a starting point for a powerful conversation.
When Lil’ Wayne did the song “Georgia Bush,” that was like one of the most powerful moments in hip-hop for me because you’re taking something that you think you know, you’re taking something that the system thinks it’s gotten all figured out, and then the revolution is right there.
That’s what continues to make hip-hop relevant and powerful-it’s not predictable.
STJ: Do you believe there is a level of control going on in the publishing and music industry with filtration and censorship at the institutional level?
Kitwanna: I agree to some extent, but I think in the publishing environment people are more empowered because of the ways in which the Internet has a power to people.
For example, you go on the Web site and publish your story and have a million and a half viewers and that could make people want to go and buy your books.
That just didn’t exist for writers 10 years ago. At the same time, the power and ability of people to publish themselves is much more viable now then it was 10 years ago.
So, the problem is I think these corporations absolutely dominate the marketplace. They dominate media on all levels. They have the ability to make your book a New York Times bestseller
I think the Internet is just a powerful place for writers. I think a lot of times we don’t see the power that we have because it’s not being broadcast.
There’s power for writers in this moment. They may not get paid for it in traditional ways, but I think that the pay has to be seen in different ways.
For example, I write for Huffington Post. I post an article on Huffington Post at 9:00 in the morning, within three hours, it’s probably on 50 Web sites around the world, not just here. That type of influence for a writer is much greater than writing a book and 15,000 people reading it.
STJ: What should we do to help young people get jobs?
Kitwana: I think one of the things that young people can be doing, and I petitioned the Obama administration to do this, is when we talk about job creation, one of the things that would be effective, in the 70s they had summer job programs to infuse capital into the community.
We do something similar right now for young people where they could provide social networking and helping establish organizations and businesses.
Currently, the health care industry, educational institutions, and even online industries are creating jobs.
STJ: How should young people become more involved in politics?
Kitwana: After the young voted for Obama, the energy fizzled. The young people mobilized Obama’s campaign and because of that, Obama was elected. Young people need to become involved in organizations and engage more than just vote.
The administration has been ineffective at putting issues that were important during the election onto the agenda.
Young people don’t care about health care. I think the administration is resp
onding to those who give money; and since young people are not primary funders, their needs are not being met.
Young people can’t wait for the president and they must push this president since they have helped his campaign.
Historically, the young are downplayed and there is a de-emphasis on them so we need to change the way they are viewed. We need to rethink how to organize the young.
This new jobs bill in congress that is requesting $700 billion is not enough just like many economists have predicted.
We really need to mobilize young people especially with this education bill in order to make college more affordable.