From “Real World” to the Real World

Kevin Powell grew up with the odds stacked against him in Jersey City, New Jersey raised by a poor, single mother. Statistically, children who grow up in such environments are not as successful, but Powell is an exception to the rule. He said, “It affected my life in the sense that I was very determined to make something of myself, to have a better life than what I was born into.” Powell came to speak in the Underwood Room as part of Black Arts Weekend 2008. He emphasized the difference between hip-hop culture and the hip-hop industry, covering hip-hop, its history and its potential to be used as a tool for social change. He attended Rutgers University before becoming a cast member on the first season of MTV’s Real World, leading him to become a political activist, poet, journalist, essayist, public speaker, entrepreneur and activist. He is the author of seven books as well as a founding staff member of Vibe magazine. Powell said, “Vibe magazine started the same year [as the Real World], and it was a huge advantage as a writer because people knew my name and face.” Now, he calls himself a “hip-hop historian.” Powell has organized concerts, emcee battles and the first exhibit of hip-hop history in the U.S. at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In addition to his prominence in the hip-hop and literary industries, Powell takes pride in being a social activist. He said, “A job or career doesn’t mean anything if one is not happy—if one is not living one’s life fully. And part of that fullness for me is being a public servant, of being an activist for social change. Running for Congress in Brooklyn, New York, where I currently live, is simply part of the work I already do to help people.” Although hip-hop originally covered a wide range of issues and emotions, with the release of Dr. Dre’s highly influential album “The Chronic” in 1992, hip-hop took a turn. Although rappers such as Tupac “wanted thug life to be positive, the record labels told him it doesn’t sell.” Instead, Powell claimed, the hip-hop industry did not care about what they were selling as long as they were making money, and they purposely downplayed political hip-hop. Powell said that currently, the 75 million young people who form the biggest generation since World War II are seen as “consumers. Anytime anything becomes successful, we imitate it and run it into the ground. It is mass production of the same stuff—similar to fast foods; it’s not good for us, but we still watch it.” Because of this process, hip-hop became what it is today: an industry that revolves around sex, the degradation of women, and violence. Powell said, “This is the latest cultural manifestation of what’s going on in this country. This is where we are; hip-hop is the mirror showing what’s going on here…It’s not enough to be entertained. We must think critically. Some of us have to have the courage to say, ‘This is not right; it’s not OK to sell sex.’” Powell’s message included a multi-faceted call toward social awareness about classism, sexism and racism. He said, “Don’t ever use the word ‘ghetto’ again because it’s classism, the equivalent of ‘po’white trash.’” Powell believes that there is currently an assault on women in this country, and he cited this sobering fact: domestic violence toward women goes up on Superbowl Sunday. Lastly, Powell addressed the international effects of American hip-hop. He said, “American popular culture is our main export, and [hip-hop] is what we’re selling. We’re the dominant country on the planet, and what we are exporting to people overseas makes an impression.” Powell’s powerful message called for us to question our societal and gender norms. If the hip-hop industry is to be changed, if we are to move into a new, enlightened phase, that phase must come from our generation.