Teens in Michigan end prom night with break-dancing battles. Graffiti-splashed boxcars roll through dusty cowboy towns in Wyoming. And fans in Japan routinely mob even little-known rappers when they’re spotted on the street. Beginning two decades ago as an inner-city subculture but now a major force in global pop culture, hip-hop has defined a generation of young Americans—one that is now searching for ways to make its mark in American social and political life.
In his new book, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, writer Bakari Kitwana notes that "Gen H" (African Americans born between 1965 and 1984) benefited from the labors of the civil rights generation that preceded them but now face a whole new mess of challenging but subtler issues. "We don’t have colored-only water fountains or a Vietnam War, " explains hip-hop activist Conrad Muhammad. So without a broad, unifying movement, critical problems like racial profiling, unemployment, and welfare cuts fail to get the public hearing they deserve.
And in some cases, the civil rights generation isn’t helping things. Jeff Chang notes in the Voice Literary Supplement (Spring 2002) that black baby boomers and organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League focus primarily on the issues that affect their generation, sometimes ignoring or dismissing the concerns of youth and leaving Gen H’ers without solid political leadership. Chang and Kitwana argue that a solution to this black generation gap is for Gen H to harness the power of global hip-hop culture to pursue its own political agenda.
Though rap is certainly big business these days, artists like Common Sense and Sage Francis show that it can be more than the sensationalized, commercialized drivel of recent years. Their work is proof that some of the best rap is still "the voice of young rage," as Chuck D of Public Enemy once tagged the genre. A number of prominent figures are getting excited about Gen H’s largely unexplored potential as a force for social change. Artists and activists have formed the Tupac Amura Shakur Memorial Foundation, for instance, to help imprisoned single mothers assimilate back into culture, and Lauryn Hill’s Refugee Project pairs children with mentors. Meanwhile, conferences and symposiums like producer Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit in New York are popping up across the country. This is a start, say Chang and Kitwana, and now’s the time for the rest of the generation to join in.