Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes,

and the New Reality of Race in America

By Bakari Kitwana

Basic/Civitas. 222 pp. $23


Politics, Pop Culture,

and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement

By S. Craig Watkins

Beacon. 295 pp. $24.95


A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

By Jeff Chang

St. Martin's. 546 pp. $27.95

It may not merit a Grammy nomination, but 2005's best rap performance by a duo came this June when Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman sat down with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The meeting signaled a shift in hip-hop's relation to electoral politics. A decade ago Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole declared rap a "nightmare of depravity" corrupting America's youth. Though such criticisms persist -- witness conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly's attacks on rappers Jay-Z and Ludacris -- they've been drowned out by two overwhelming realities: Rap is America's popular music, and the young people who listen to it span the boundaries of race, class and ideology.

Three recent books make cases for why hip-hop should matter to you. Together they describe an America on the verge of social upheaval in race relations, generational divisions and the ongoing cultural wars over art and moral values. Hip-hop, the authors contend, may prove the crucible in which a new national unity will be forged.

Bakari Kitwana's Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop never really provides the answer its title promises. White kids, one would think, love hip-hop for very near the same reason black kids do: because of the infectious beats, inventive rhymes and undeniable life that the music, at its best, conveys. Kitwana, also the author of the acclaimed Hip-Hop Generation and former executive editor of a bestselling hip-hop magazine, the Source, seems less interested in probing cultural trends than in fashioning a political manifesto. Citing grassroots organizations like the National Hip-Hop Political Convention (of which he is co-founder) and The League of Pissed Off Voters, he sees an emerging hip-hop voting bloc with "the potential to morph into a political party that can appeal to Americans regardless of race, class, gender, age or sexual orientation." "Hip-hop politics," he writes, "is arguably one of the few political spaces to have emerged in the past three decades where any real potential exits for challenging prevailing public policy approaches to issues like education, criminal justice, employment, health care and foreign policy." He asserts that today's activism might provide "the catalysts necessary to jump-start an international human rights movement in this generation, a movement with the potential to parallel if not surpass yesterday's civil rights successes."

Kitwana's bold claims assume that hip-hop's listening public shares a core set of political values, an unrealistic view given the multi-racial, multi-generational audience the music attracts. While hip-hop may indeed offer a new space for political discourse, it is one marked as much by conflict as consensus. Kitwana fails to distinguish between the interests of a small but significant cadre who embrace hip-hop as a worldview, and those of the overwhelming majority -- black, white and otherwise -- drawn to the beat and the image rap projects. In fashioning his hip-hop voting bloc, Kitwana includes both "those individuals, regardless of race, age or sex, who helped make 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " sell 800,000 copies in its first week" and those "young people (from 18 to 40-something) whose hip-hop sensibility goes beyond simply being consumers." Such activism, however, is more the stuff of block parties than voting blocs.

Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop is a hodgepodge of journalistic features, film reviews, editorials and political prophesies, but it lacks the rigor to support its ambitious premise. Kitwana mistakenly claims, for instance, that young people of the hip-hop generation are "the first Americans to live their entire lives free of de facto segregation" -- de jure, certainly, but de facto segregation remains alive and well. This is more than a typographical error; it signals a fundamental failure of analysis. Far from providing sobering social commentary, Kitwana has fashioned a hip-hop utopia where people live "unrestricted by the old obstacles" and rap's troubling currents of violence and misogyny are a distant memory. While one can hope that Kitwana's vision of hip-hop's "beautiful democratic momentum" will materialize, it serves little purpose to presume it has already arrived.

One finds a more reasoned, if limited, assessment of hip-hop's political potential in S. Craig Watkins's Hip Hop Matters. Watkins, a professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, sees an essential conflict between hip-hop's culture and commerce, what he calls in his subtitle "the struggle for the soul of a movement." Hip-hop, he argues, "has failed to realize what many believe is its greatest calling: the chance to have a meaningful and enduring effect in the lives of ordinary youths." Watkins locates hip-hop's political transformation in the continued work of grassroots organizations, the promising but flawed political efforts of hip-hop entrepreneurs Russell Simmons and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and the election of America's first "hip-hop mayor," Detroit's Kwame Kilpatrick.

Watkins well understands the challenges facing the nascent hip-hop political movement. "The idea of a national hip-hop political agenda, while enticing," he writes, "faces enormous difficulty due to the sheer complexity of the movement and its ever-evolving constituency." Whereas Kitwana calls for unity around traditionally black political issues, Watkins suggests that "unlike the issue that defined the generational mission of civil rights -- de jure segregation -- there is no single great issue around which the hip-hop movement can rally." This is not to admit defeat, but rather to frame realistically the challenges of forming a cohesive political movement out of a constantly shifting cultural phenomenon.

Jeff Chang's voluminous Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, may be one of the most political books on pop culture in recent memory, though it offers precious little about voting blocs and party platforms. Spanning 30 years, it records events that often escape historical witness. While dutifully chronicling rap's emergence in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s, it is not focused on the music alone. Rap is at times little more than a soundtrack to Chang's fly-by documentary of epic house parties, gang wars and urban revolts. The book is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in hip-hop's context as well as its culture, and for anyone who would better understand the confounding mixture of activism and apathy that characterizes America's younger generations.

Chang's hip-hop credentials are beyond reproach (he is a widely published journalist, indie-label founder and blogger), yet this insider status often leads him to dwell on the arcane when the obvious still demands attention. He makes only passing reference, for instance, to Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., artists whose respective careers and murders continue to shape mainstream perceptions of hip-hop. Such absences reveal a fundamental paradox in Chang's effort: He might have achieved more had he written less. Historians traditionally work by selecting and arranging facts to provide a window on the past. Chang, however, gives equal attention to all, taxing the reader's attention and in the end detracting from the book's truly transcendent moments. This is less a book to read from cover to cover than one, in the spirit of hip-hop itself, to sample and to savor.

Hip-hop may yet emerge as a viable force in national politics. It will require, however, continued efforts by the writers chronicling its past and those disputing its future, and most of all by the young Americans still trying to hear their voices over the music. *

Adam Bradley teaches African American literature at Claremont McKenna College.

Kanye West performs on "Good Morning America."