Kevin Powell: Let’s Get Free Part 1

K evin Powell has long stood as the voice of activism, politics, Hip-Hop, poetry, and revolution since the dawn of the 90’s. One of the most assertive voices of our time, Kevin emotionally connects to every line he writes. As a soldier for Hip-Hop, his work with VIBE Magazine echoes to this day through his […]

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evin Powell has long stood as the voice of activism, politics, Hip-Hop, poetry, and revolution since the dawn of the 90’s. One of the most assertive voices of our time, Kevin emotionally connects to every line he writes. As a soldier for Hip-Hop, his work with VIBE Magazine echoes to this day through his journalistic relationships with some of the most important MCs in history. His book Who’s Gonna Take the Weight: Manhood, Race, and Power in America presented the most troubling aspects of our societal structure, as well as Kevin’s self-analysis in response to the world around him. Kevin Powell has authored a number of books on life, politics, and the assimilation of Hip-Hop. His latest work, Someday We’ll All Be Free, presents the talented humanitarian at his most vulnerable hour with his personal anecdotes and reflections on Democracy and the struggle for freedom.

Over the past five years, America endured two of the most disastrous events in recent American History: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The common thread woven through both occurrences is the resounding question Why? Traumatically touched by both 9/11 and Katrina, Kevin recounts the days, weeks, months, and even years leading up to and following these horrific tragedies in Someday We’ll All Be Free. More than words in print, Kevin’s work is the result of enveloping himself in the pain that every individual sustained regardless of race, color, or creed.

As America memorializes a year following Hurricane Katrina, the work is far from done. Meeting with Kevin Powell in Brooklyn for the Katrina Memorial, he recounts his days in New Orleans, responsibilities of the media, and how we can all do our part in making the move towards freedom.

AllHipHop.Com: When was the last time you visited New Orleans since Katrina hit?

Kevin Powell: The last time I was in New Orleans since Katrina was in March. We took college kids down the Gulf region. We stayed in Selma, Alabama for two days, and then shipped down to New Orleans to Biloxi, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama. So it has been about four or five months at this point. From what I understand, not much has changed since then. What we did was we came to Selma, Alabama- and we picked that place because of its connection to the Civil Rights Movement. We came back after seven days on a weekly rotation with students from all over the country. It was incredible. You can tell how affected they were by the work they were doing. So that was the last time [I’ve been to New Orleans]. I definitely plan on going again this fall. You traveled to New Orleans right after Katrina, and in your book you described the stench of death in the air and bodies on the ground. How did the atmosphere change when you returned in March, 2006?

Kevin Powell: You know…and I just found this out watching Spike Lee’s [When the Levees Broke], and I think I read it in the New York Times somewhere, they’re still finding dead bodies down there, which is crazy. It still looked like a war zone, which is unfortunate because New Orleans is such an important city. It is the most African, the most European, and the most Caribbean city in America. It’s a gorgeous mosaic and just so sad to see what happened. God only knows what’s got to happen for it to get back on its feet. The people who made New Orleans happen may never be able to go back.

AHH: Why did you choose to make 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina the focal points of your recent book Someday We’ll All Be Free?

Kevin Powell: Well, I knew I wanted to write a book about Democracy and freedom in America. When I was in college – I went to Rutgers University, gotta shout out Jersey – I studied Political Science. Even though it was possible that the only way we’d meet each other was if someone was a Hip-Hop head for a long time, what’s happening in this world has always had an effect on us. Politics, racism, sexism, and homophobia: all of those [issues] are important to me. So I wanted to write a book that captured some of the things I’ve been saying on the lecture circuit for the last ten years. That’s how I make my living; I speak more than I write. Traveling around the country for the past decade, I’ve been to practically all 50 states. I’ve been to colleges, universities, prisons, community centers, the whole nine. You start to put ideas out there, and the best part is when you have a dialogue with the audience and they put questions out there that challenge you. And I said, “You know what, I’ve got to start putting some of this stuff down in book form. An essay form.” My heroes are people like James Baldwin, and I really feel like the Hip-Hop generation, the Hip-Hop community has got to develop writers who are not just going to write about music or Pop culture and entertainment, but what’s happening in the world as well. You quoted Malcolm X in your book stating that the South was everything south of the Canadian border. Keeping that in mind with regard to the Hip-Hop community, there are a lot of voices speaking out about Katrina, but do you feel there was action to balance it out?

Kevin Powell: I tell you, it’s been a year since [Katrina]- and like you said, I’ve been in it since the beginning. I remember when we did a huge benefit at the Canal Room down in Tribeca. It was packed, man, unbelievable to see all of the people that came out. We know Mr. Bush and the Bush administration talked a good game. In the New York Times Magazine this week, there’s a great cover story about the children of the storm. Poor Black kids, poor white kids, affected by this thing. A year later, a lot of stuff that they promised hasn’t happened. People are not able to go back, public housing hasn’t been rehabilitated in the poor areas of New Orleans, people in New York City who were displaced haven’t been given Metro cards, some of the hotels are being sued for back rent by FEMA. A lot of property owners have to file actions against insurance companies because they’re still not getting their [insurance] policies fulfilled at this point. So there are some major injustices happening to a lot of people of various backgrounds. How do you respond to the statistic that rent’s gone up 30% since Katrina?

Kevin Powell: I refer back to a New York Times Magazine cover story about three or four months back about a developer down there who’s been buying up mad buildings and just sitting on them like New York City. You buy a building, sit on it, and hope for gentrification to come along. So, I’m not surprised by that. This country- and I don’t care what’s your racial background- I’m concerned about working people; poor people. The way we get divided is people start the racial bag, “Oh I’m black. I’m white. I’m Latin. I’m Asian.” They need to understand that Katrina is really a mirror reflection of how the Bush Administration has really, really controlled the power of this country, and really divided people and made it a country of haves and have nots. Where the Hip-Hop community can come into effect- even though Hip-Hop was created by African American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian brothers and sisters back in the day- it’s a culture that belongs to everybody. Chuck D said it, Hip-Hop is everybody who grew up…if you were born after 1980, you’re a Hip-Hop head; born after 1985, you’re a Hip-Hop head. You’ve been touched by it in some way, you know. I think that we had a chance for all of those cultural powers to be creative. You know, two turntables and a microphone, the graffiti with spraycans, magic markers, the cardboard you can dance on, the fashion, whatever it was that we wore, and we have a chance to put that into political power. If you put Generation X and Generation Y together, you’re talking about over 100 million young people in this country between the ages of like 13 or 14 to probably like the early 40’s. That’s serious. So, when I think about Katrina, I say to people out there you know, understand that could have been you no matter what’s your background. It was you, if you consider yourself a human being then you felt that. Just like I feel that if a woman is assaulted or raped, I should feel that. The tsunami and its affect on the Asian community, I should feel that. We as Hip-Hop heads man, the country should see how we can use [Hip-Hop music] to talk about our different struggles. And Katrina, after a year people don’t want to talk about it, they’re tired of talking about it because nothing’s happening. We have people there who are permanently deeply depressed and traumatized. You think about that and you think about September 11th, how a lot of the workers who were doing clean ups are now suffering diseases from what they took into their lungs, and not being able to get any relief from the government. How many Americans are going to be disregarded before people wake up and start to do something about it. I’m not saying some massive revolution…although that’d be nice [laughs]. I’m just saying do something. Like what y’all are doing; be a media person. Tell the truth through the media. Do something.