Kevin Powell: Let’s Get Free Part 2

AllHipHop.com: You brought up a point about the World Trade Center in your book about how the 3,000 people counted did not include immigrants or the homeless. There’s kind of a parallel happening in New Orleans with the prisoners not being offered any assistance. What would you suggest for the average person to do to take action?

Kevin Powell: To me, it’s really basic. People have computers and go on the internet every single day. Do a simple Google search “How to help Katrina survivors.” Commonground.org, you’ve got ACORN down there, The People’s Hurricane Relief covers Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana is down there, local chapters of the National Urban League, NAACP, there’s so many different organizations there. People need to understand, there’s not going to be some grand leader like Bobby Kennedy or Malcolm X. If you look back to the 1960s there was a whole bunch of people. Many of them young people like our generation. There’s not going to be some instant change here, it’s gonna be gradual. Look at the Montgomery Bus boycott, students protesting and sitting in, students deciding they are going to drop out and go to the South for their summer break; that was at least 13 years. Gradually, things start to happen. Then you look at the Women’s Rights Movement, fighting for equal rights, fighting for abortion rights, slowly over a period of time. You look at any movement of any group of people, it’s a gradual thing. People have to take the initiative and do the research. Make it happen. I just named you like four or five organizations, and how many people who read AllHipHop.com are going to actually take the initiative and look that stuff up and say, “How do I get involved?” Another organization that I have a lot of respect for is MoveOn.org. I just went to their Katrina benefit last week and Moby was there, The Roots were performing, Julia Stiles the actress was there, and it was a great event. MoveOn.org is strictly an internet base, they have no overhead and three million members all through the internet. So when Katrina hit last year, they made HurricaneHousing.org, and 30,000 of their members opened up their doors around the country for Katrina survivors. That’s what I’m talking about. This ain’t rocket science. Just care. That’s all we can ask, and if we don’t [care] then we’ll have this erosion of American society in my opinion. We are so distracted by, “Oh I’ve got the cellphone, I’ve got the Blackberry, I’ve got five email addresses, digital cameras.” We’ve got all of these gadgets, but we need to understand that a lot of these things dumb us down because we allow ourselves to become addicted to these material things and they affect our spirit. I’m not trying to prophesize. It doesn’t mater if you’re Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Muslim, whatever you practice, Rastafarian, Buddhist. Something Frantz Fanon said that I read several years ago applies directly to the Hip-Hop community, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, betray it or fulfill it.”

AllHipHop.com: What went through your mind as you watched celebrities who were taking action in New Orleans travel down with a camera crew to ensure they were being filmed as they pulled people from the water and rubble?

Kevin Powell: I think those people were opportunists, not just celebrities. Like I said in my book, they were treating the people [of New Orleans] like animals in a zoo and taking pictures of them. People like Moby, like Bono, Sean Penn, Spike Lee who recorded a four-hour documentary in less than a year, that’s deep. There were a lot of people affected by it who were really sincere. Charity for some made you feel for a moment, give a little change, show up to a couple of events and then change the channel in your mind. How many people really remember what the tsunami was about, you know? Justice means that no matter what you are in life: film maker, writer, whatever it is, in some small way you’re gonna try to make this world a better place. Unfortunately for a lot of celebrities it was a trend. I respect someone like Elton John because he consistently has an AIDS charity every year for a long time. But then you have celebrities who are like, “Hey let me jump on that for a minute, take my obligatory trip to Africa,” and then it’s a wrap. I can’t really respect people like that, and I think that unfortunately in these times, a lot of celebrities are not encouraged to think outside the box and be profound thinkers. If you look at our history, Sean Penn, his father was very active. He got ostracized in the 1950s for being politically socialistic or whatever, I respect people like that. Harry Belafonte, Susan Sarandon. Look at what Robert DeNiro did. When 9/11 happened, he went and bought up all of that property in downtown by Tribeca and now Tribeca Cinemas is his institution and they do a lot of stuff. He wanted to give something to the community. That’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Don’t do it because you can do it. Do it because you care.

AllHipHop.com: Do you believe in the conspiracy theory that what happened in New Orleans was a racially motivated action?

Kevin Powell: I can’t. No. Maybe when I was 20 during my Black militant nationalist stage, “Huey Newton Kevin Powell.” Back then, I’d have been like, “This is a conspiracy.” I think we have to be very careful if we are in a public position to say stuff like that. But I do think that people do have the right to ask questions. I’ll put it to you like this: was it a conspiracy for Native Americans to have their land taken in this country? Was it a conspiracy for Africans to be enslaved in this country? Was it a conspiracy for people from Ireland or Italy to come here and be forced into ghettos in New York City and do the kind of labor that was inhumane? Was the Holocaust a conspiracy? What happens in Haiti or Liberia or Rwanda…is that a conspiracy? What’s happening in the Middle East where people are literally blowing each other away, is that a conspiracy? And poor people, black people, like in Spike’s film said, “I heard a snap,” or “I felt like these levees were purposely breached.” You do wonder what is going on here, but to me as a public servant, I have no proof of that. But Katrina demonstrated that we do have a reckless disregard for black people and poor people regardless of race. I can definitely say that for a fact.

AllHipHop.com: Do you feel that Hip-Hop’s indifference towards what is going on in the world is a result of the powers that be or just plain apathy?

Kevin Powell: There’s Hip-Hop the culture, and Hip-Hop the industry. It used to be one in the same; now it’s split. We know what the culture is, who Afrikka Bambaataa is, the DJ, the MC, graffiti writers, the dancers, and knowledge knowledge. Well think about it, over the past 27 years since “Rapper’s Delight,” the DJ fell to the back, MC put up front. There was a brief period where graffiti writers and breakdancers had their moment, movies like WildStyle, Breakin’, etc. For the most part they were even ostracized except by the people who were underground and really trying to maintain the culture. That’s when the industry started to kick in. Let’s put this one person out there in the front. The other problem was- back in the days, we didn’t have positive rap or negative rap. There was no such thing as backpackers or alternative rap. It was all one family, so in my house in the late ‘80s, I would have Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, I would have De La Soul, I would have Kwame with his polka dots [laughs], Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass, Public Enemy, MC Lyte, Latifah, all of that was Hip-Hop. N.W.A. was just as important to us as Public Enemy.

I would say by the early 1990s, it began the dumbing down process of the music and the culture. There was a real split between the culture and the industry. The industry came strictly about making money off the worst attributes to come from the inner city. Now I’m from Jersey City, I lived in Newark, and now I live in Brooklyn, so I know every single day ain’t murder and mayhem and just the kind of madness we hear in the music. But if you play the same stuff over and over again over a period of time, people will begin to believe that there is nothing more than the n-i-g-g-a-s or the b-i-t-c-h-e-s. For young ladies a reckless disregard or disrespect and in some cases a hatred. Life is nothing more than material things, especially if you’re poor. So where does your self esteem come from? From your grill, from your ice, your SUV. I think that with the explosion of the last media age Hip-Hop changed. When Hip-Hop started, growing up in New York City you had ten channels. Now I have direct TV with 500 channels.

When I was growing up, the TV went off at midnight and it was just a blank screen. At 6AM, “The National Anthem” would start playing and then the cartoons came on. Underdog, Flinstones, whatever it was, it was meant for kids. Now when you turn the TV on or the radio in the morning, they’re wilin’ out [laughs]. So imagine if you’re a child in 1979 compared to a child in 2006. A huge shift has happened. The breakdown of the American family structure is very different. I’m an only child so I grew up watching a lot of TV, but to balance that I went to the library. Even if you were a video game junkie, you had to go to the arcade. Now I see heads with the video games all up in their faces. All of this technological stuff has contributed to the dumbing down of people in America.

I’ve worked in the Entertainment industry for a long time, I worked at MTV, VIBE, places owned by multi-national corporations. And I consult at corporations. A lot of the events that I do- holiday party we had Best Buy, Microsoft as sponsors. So naturally there is a relationship with those corporations, but at the same time I’m always looking for corporate responsibility like, “Yo man, these are kids you’re selling this stuff to. Yo man, you’re over-sexualizing a whole generation of kids.” And you wonder why the teen rate of HIV and AIDS has shot through the roof in this country, why is there teen pregnancy in this country? I was just reading an article about a brother who is considered the best running back in high school football in America, eighteen, and he’s got two kids! He better get an NFL contract, you know? So I think that the culture is still important for Hip-Hop and that’s what I try to represent. I’m in the industry and I have been in the industry. Everyone is making money, making paper, but what happens all the time is people get caught up in it. And as for me, I see heads I came up with who are deep in their thirties running around talking about “What up, son?” You’re 35 with a big t-shirt on. You look mad ridiculous. At what point do we become grown men? I did a workshop at Grady High School, Coney Island. 70 bloods in the room, half of them had on Al Pacino Scarface t-shirts. So I said to these cats, “What does Scarface represent for you?” and they were like, “He’s gangsta,” and I said, “Well, how’s the movie end? He dies.” You realize heads are being socialized and programmed just to be violent, individualistic and to care about nothing but material. This is why I feel that those of us in the Hip-Hop community need to step up and help.

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