Photo: taken from cover of Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
Who is the “Hip Hop Generation?” In a very vague way, the “Hip Hop Generation’s” loose borders lend themselves to anyone raised and/or socialized (mostly…) within urban environments all across the country, who were born in the 1980s (the period generally accepted as the emergence of rap as a musical art form and genre), and are predominantly African-American or Latino. More Master’s theses, PhD dissertations, academic articles, panel discussions, and conference seminars are emerging around this otherwise fresh topical debate. And the more academic discourse gains momentum, the greater social awareness becomes, and only then can change and adaptation, that is long overdue, take place.
To be clear, this article will only be a miniscule snowflake on an iceberg that has been over thirty years in the making. It does not even come close to qualifying as a part of the tip, and in accordance, for not one moment do I profess expertise on the theories or arguments contended surrounding the Hip Hop Generation (from herein referred to as “Double H-G”). So please permit me my public disclaimer: I know very little on the subject, have just begun to research it, and am only starting to ask myself questions surrounding the significance and worth of its message. Regardless of my ignorance declaration, during the next thousand words or so I hope at best to introduce you to an idea that may be foreign to you, and provide you with enough platonic philosophizing to encourage you to begin to look at these theories yourself (assuming you have not already) and ask yourself the same questions. Mainly: Who makes up “Double H-G?” And why is it important that I know, I should care, or I should want to do something about it?
For the last twenty years or so, Bakari Kitwana has been one of the main go-to sources on the topic. Ever since the publication of his book The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, Kitwana has challenged professors, intellectuals, academics, teachers, administrators, government officials, and students to think about the “new crises in African-American culture that have come about in [his] generation’s lifetime.” Arguing for black Americans who have grown up in a post-civil rights America, Kitwana contemplates what contribution Double H-G will have to the centuries-long African-American struggle for liberation and how that struggle should be redefined during present times.
Music plays a central theme to his arguments–and it should; after all, the phrase used to name the post-civil rights African-American generation is referenced after what has now become more popularly known as only a music genre. However the origins of the locution “hip hop” refer to more than just the music, but rather an entire culture. Thinkquest.org provides an excellent and brief definition of both the roots of ‘hip hop’ as idiom as well as the reference to the entire culture (as much as I hate to quote long phrases, I feel it is necessary to do so here):
Hip-hop is a modern culture consisting of music, fashion, and art…. Keith Cowboy, a rapper with Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, made the term hip-hop [when] he started singing the words, “hip hop hip hop” [while] teasing a friend who had just joined the US Army. Hip-hop began to be popular all over the world. The four fundamental elements in hip-hop [are]: hip-hop dance, hip-hop art, hip-hop music, and hip-hop fashion. Hip-hop dance includes break dancing and interesting forms of street dance. Hip-hop art includes urban inspired art and graffiti. Hip-hop music includes DJ-ing, beatboxing, rapping, and hip-hop production. Rapping includes MC-ing and urban-inspired poetry.
Unfortunately I have not done the research into the epistemology of the term “hip hop,” so I cannot confirm or challenge thinkquest.org’s reference, nor do I know who coined the phrase “The Hip Hop Generation.” But the credit is a moot point. What does matter is how this witty use of phrasing forces us to marry the two ideas–music and culture, especially culture that is specific to a time and place.
Music = Culture. But in that, do we risk it also fostering segregation? For anyone born and raised in the years since 1980 (which I assume to be majority of our readers), does that automatically qualify you as a member of Double H-G? Or is it more specific than that? Has the designation of a generation of people altered from simply “a child of the sixties,” which intends to incorporate everyone, to something more complex that involves an individual’s age, race, color, regional upbringing, etc? Or have we had it wrong all along? Does an African-American born in downtown Detroit, Compton, or Harlem consider him/herself a member of the sixties generation in the same way that a white American from San Francisco does? Or put another way, does a thirty-year-old white American from Austin or Seattle consider him/herself a member of Double H-G today? Perhaps in the modern hyper-need for category, we separately belong to a Punk Generation, a Heavy-Metal Generation, a Grunge Generation, an Emo Generation, a Ska Generation… (The list could go on, but you get the point) while all being born Americans of the same time.
Maybe we need to think how we define and associate the word “generation” when we read it or hear it. Perhaps therein lies the requisite for identifying separate cultures of people, all of who were born during the same period. It may be that we need to do more than simply assume that being “from the eighties” is relative across the country therefore creating a cookie-cutter image of that person in our minds. Kitwana raises a valid point–it is not enough to simply label oneself in association with what year one was born, but rather we should search for ways to define different cohorts of Americans of the same period into sub-generations, specific to where one was raised, what culture they are a part of, and what race they are a member of. Dictionary.com defines the word generation as: “the entire body of individuals born and living at about the same time” (note the employment of the adjective ‘entire!’) If this is so, than Kitwana, while doing Double H-G a service, risks an inclusion of Americans who are specifically, and intentionally, ostracized from his definition. Double H-G is predominantly urban African-Americans and Latinos born in the 1980s. As a result, it is my contention that calling them a “generation” is a misnomer, regardless of how important the recognition of their individual existence may be.
There is a huge amount of importance and responsibility that comes with the identification and recognition of social issues by empowering them with a title and subsequent definition. Once a defining phrase is attached to an abstract idea, it begins to grow a character and our society is then able to contextualize and identify the existence of the object, no matter how abstract it may be. All of a sudden large support for the necessity of social awareness grows, and the attention created fosters conversation, which leads to organization, and eventual change. Giving Double H-G a title thus allows it to be recognized as an existent body within our society, which enables us to identify problems, seek answers, and evoke change.
There is a great need for our society, especially our educational institutions, to recognize the existence of Double H-G and address the risks and threats we face if it is not properly attended to. A further examination of these risks and issues, and how to confront them, can be found by reading Kitwana’s book, or any of his other articles for that matter. For those interested in looking deeper, I suggest readings by a few of the more fresh faces on the subject such as Dr. Thurman L. Bridges, Dr. Christopher Emdin, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and Martha Diaz.
There is an important message to the arguments being made by the aforementioned professors and writers. A re-examining of how we view the modern African-American contribution to the complete liberation, and perhaps even more importantly to a complete autonomy from the deeply ingrained subconscious fear of inferiority in this country, is a necessity to our progress as the unabridged land of opportunity, freedom, and equality. As Dr. Emdin argues, it can start with music. There is an entire generation of African-Americans in this country who are coming on thirty years of post-civil rights existence. Their struggle with disorientation and a sense of function can be found in the lyrics and style of their music. Let us all embrace this challenge together, regardless of skin color, regional habitat, or musical taste. But while doing so, we must remain conscious of the risk we face of falling backwards into a state of segregated youth.
Be proud of individualism and cultural colloquialism. Express it.
Yet be ware of separatism and elitism. Oppress it.
– Kory French