- Doing Their Own ThingHip-Hop Youth Activism in the Twenty-First Century
The term political activism would seem, on the surface, to be relatively straightforward. Employed in casual conversation (certainly among those on the political Left), its implicit meanings encompass ideological commitment to social justice and equality issues, community-based outreach, organizing skills, and an unrelenting desire, as Andreana Clay suggests in her exciting new publication, to “do something for a cause” (176). With an array of prior examples and generations of models available for emulation, the common assumption when speaking of activism is that we simply know it when we see it.
In her eminently accessible book The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism, and Post–Civil Rights Politics, Andreana Clay revisits the concept of activism, critically engaging the commonplace assumptions about what it is and how contemporary sociopolitical conditions require distinct community organizing practices. Clay, an associate professor of sociology, based her project on two years of field research in Oakland, California, a city that stands out for its complicated geosocial segregation (Tilton 2010) as well as its renowned legacy of political struggle. The political legacy is significant in Clay’s study, as she frequently cites the iconic resonance of the Black Panther Party (which was founded in Oakland in 1966) and other local activists, noting that the horrors and the glories, as well as the defeats and victories, associated with past political struggles can both overwhelm and inspire the activist initiatives of contemporary youths. [End Page 371]
The historical specificity inscribed in the book’s title (in fact, there are two temporal constructs in play) is crucial for, as Clay emphasizes, “each political generation has its own definitions of what it means to be an activist” (9). Her interests lie with young people in their mid- to late teens who, while on the cusp of greater autonomy, are still positioned within the authoritative domains of schools and families and who confront the repressive might of sanctioned state power, as well as critical scrutiny, definition, and often demonization by the media. As Clay illustrates, the activist motivations of these young people are often a direct result of age-based circumstances that are fused with other social variables (race, class, gender, sexual orientation) and, importantly, the kinds of activism they enact are also interpreted and expressed through the lens of age, experience, and ability. Clay explains: “In particular, I am interested in how youth understand and navigate the violence of institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism and the methods they use to address it” (56).
The book title’s employment of the term hip-hop generation may be a bit confusing. Age-based designations can be complicated; they are often imprecise, and though they are intended to provide a general frame to help us understand what social cohort we are discussing, slippages occur. For instance, Bakari Kitwana (2002) defines the hip-hop generation as those born between roughly 1965 and 1984; Jeff Chang (2005), too, uses the term to refer to hip-hop culture’s earliest participants and practitioners. More recently (Asante 2008), the term post-hip-hop generation has been coined to identify youths who are further removed both from the civil rights and black power movements and from hip-hop’s originary moment in the 1970s. They grew up in a historical era shaped by significantly different structures and political forces than those that shaped the era of the 1960s through the 1980s. With hip-hop’s existence extending past forty years, many youths in Clay’s study are surely the offspring of a prior generation of hip-hop-aware adults (if not outright aficionados), and their comprehension of hip-hop’s influence on society and politics is surely different than that of their parents or older relations; Clay’s informants, thus, conform more accurately to a notion of post- (or perhaps late) hip-hop sensibilities.
Focusing on after-school groups and the roles of two nonprofit youth advocacy...