Published in the Spring 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

The rise of hip-hop gives insight into today's world

By Carl Vogel

Hip-hop has moved far beyond its roots in low-income, African-American and Hispanic urban neighborhoods. Today, hip-hop culture— spanning music, poetry, fashion, dance, art, and language—is, in many ways, simply youth culture. As part of a conference on hip-hop and race at SSA last fall, journalist, activist, and political analyst Bakari Kitwana provided some insight into the trend gleaned from his third book, "Why White Kids Love Hip- Hop." It's more than just hip-hop's open, evolving ethos and a 1990s marketing push from the music industry, he argues, although those factors certainly apply.

"Young black and Latino people decided in the 1970s that hip-hop will be how they survive globalization and jobs shipping off overseas," Kitwana says. "Today, that trend has reached everyone, and young people see Biggie and Jay-Z, who grew up in the poorest, harshest conditions in the country, and they say, 'If those guys can make it, what did they do?'"

Kitwana interviewed young people of every background, from Eugene, Ore., to Gainesville, Fla., for his book and found that today's youth, faced with an uncertain economic future and immersed in new technologies, feel alienated from earlier generations and more open to identification with people their own age, regardless of race and socio-economic status. At the same time, new communication tools from the Internet to cable television give kids more access to other cultures than ever before.

"They're very clear that they're living through something that their parents have no clue about. They're asking what does it mean, and they're finding answers from hip-hop," Kitwana says.

Regardless of the factors that have contributed to the rise of hip-hop, its impact is unassailable and here to stay. Kids in high school in 2008 have never lived in a world where they don't hear hip-hop on the radio and see it in everything from movies to commercials. "If you work with young people today and you don't have a handle on hip-hop," Kitwana says, "you are at a severe disadvantage."