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Black to the Future: Hip Hop and the New Negro

By Kwame Owusu-kesse

The black community leaders initiated the Black History is Your History campaign to explore the American past through the “lens of black intellectuals whose thoughts have shaped the political, social, and cultural landscape of America to this day.” It sought to actively engage with the intellectual tradition of our forebears and constructively adapt their better ideas and strategies to a new 21st century global order. On this final day of Black History Month, the question remains: What is the future of blacks in America? I assert that it is through the influence of hip hop culture that our society will progress towards racial equality and social justice.

Hip hop culture provides the framework through which black people can enact change in American society, by virtue of hip hop’s ability to transcend race, gender, and class. Hip hop serves as a medium for conversation of all people because of the diversity of its audience; it is reported that over 80 percent of the purchasers of hip hop music are not black. Hip hop dominates media outlets, fashion, sports, artwork, and popular lexicon. Hip hop also serves as an effective tool to politically engage and mobilize youth, as evidenced by Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Action Network and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ Citizen Change project. We have also seen the emergence of hip hop cultures all over the world. Halifu Osumare, a lecturer in African American Studies at University of California Berkeley, stated in a press release regarding his course entitled Power Moves: Hip Hop Culture and Sociology that “Hip-hop has become a global culture…you can’t go to any youth culture in any capital city on the globe today where you won’t find rappers talking about their marginalization using similar lyrics, similar music, and similar dress.” Hip hop is the only set of cultural sensibilities that resonates with people that are marginalized globally. Moreso than any other form of culture in the 21st century, it allows the privileged to understand, appreciate, and connect with the struggles of the oppression.

However, black people need to honestly critique and revaluate the current status of hip hop culture, particularly focusing on the disconnect between the black intelligentsia, hip hop artists, and black politicians and entrepreneurs—the leaders of the hip hop generation. Currently, these leaders fail to engage one another in constructive dialogue, failing to recognize the potential power of the amalgamation of their ideas and resources.

The black intelligentsia is equipped with the intellectual capital to create and understand the complex political and theoretical ideas that govern public policy. However, they are not conversant in hip hop dialogue and are not familiar with its cultural dimensions (partly as a result of not being raised in hip hop culture). Hip hop artists serve as spokespersons of the urban generation, often exposing the effects of racial inequality and social injustice on the black experience. Yet, most artists are largely divorced from black history and are not in conversation with the most innovative thinkers of our time. Black politicians and entrepreneurs have the ability to institutionalize hip hop through political summits, record labels, fashion lines, magazines, and other media. However, such efforts are personality centered; thus, we see the institutionalization of individuals versus ideas (Barack Obama, Combs, Jay-Z, and Simmons).

Todd Boyd in The New H.N.I.C: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop writes that “unlike previous eras when politics and ideology produced culture, hip hop stands at the forefront of contemporary culture for it seems to both reflect and produce the politics and ideology of its time.” It is important for the leaders of hip hop culture to identify such potential for empowerment and enlightenment. An open dialogue will expose the uninformed to new ideas that will equip blacks with a political consciousness, knowledge of the markets and investment strategies, and the intellectual capabilities to mobilize and produce change. Most importantly, it will inspire creativity to keep the vitality of black culture for the future.

Kwame Owusu-Kesse ’06 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. He is the president of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.

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