Bakari Kitwana has spent 20 years studying hip-hop and youth culture, which is why the Office of Multicultural Services and the Black Student Union invited him to speak about drugs and hip-hop on March 1 as part of the 2018 Hip-Hop Symposium.
“We had originally wanted somebody who could tell us about the relationship between drugs and hip-hop because drug use is a common factor that is within today’s hip hop,” BSU Vice President senior Taylor Goddard said. “We wanted to know if it was a common factor in old hip-hop. People tend to associate the culture with the music.”
Kitwana opened the event discussing his history with hip-hop and black culture, including his two books on hip-hop culture—The Hip-Hop Generation and Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop. He has worked extensively with other hip-hop artists, including last year’s symposium speaker Paradise Grey.
Kitwana has also worked with the Black Lives Matter movement, most notably as part of the Cleveland Eight, which called for the resignation of the officers who were involved in the 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland Police.
Kitwana strongly criticized the accusation that hip-hop is the reason behind so many drug overdoses. He similarly dismissed the idea that the opioid crisis predominantly affects black communities, which according to statistics, is factually incorrect.
“One of the things that I see in today’s culture that is troubling to me is the tendency to isolate something as if it is new, or a problem, but this kind of thing has been going on for a long time,” Kitwana said.
Kitwana additionally understands hip-hop as an extension of black culture and the undue blame hip-hop has received for the opioid crisis.
“Blackness is attacked coming into the 2000s through hip-hop … anything that society wants to put the blame on someone for, hip-hop becomes the scapegoat,” Kitwana said. “It is easy to make black kids scapegoats because when you don’t have power, people can just say stuff about you, lock you up with no evidence.”
Kitwana then explained the factors he believes have caused the opioid crisis: the healthcare system and insurance companies. He revealed how his own insurance company asked him to stop using a nasal spray for allergies because it was expensive, but he pointed out that insurance companies don’t question prescription opioids, which he says are cheaper.
During the presentation, Kitwana made a point to distinguish between suicide and drug use.
“You can have suicidal thoughts without taking opioids, but I feel that these things often get lumped together by writers,” Kitwana said. “Some songs make gratuitous references to drugs—these songs are just kind of name dropping opioids the same way Lil Kim was talking about Versace back in the ‘90s … it’s the selling of a type of cool.”
Kitwana closed the event by calling on students to engage with activism and change attitudes for the better.
“One of the things we need people to do is get involved in these activist movements, push back and change the society,” Kitwana said.
Some attendees felt appreciative toward the reflection of hip-hop culture.
“The previous generation will always have something to say about the next generation of music,” geology major senior Brandon Perpall said. “When the previous generation started, their grandparents were probably saying … this sounds horrible.”
Kitwana’s perspective highlighted the relationship between drugs and hip-hop culture, and emphasized during the event that important issues are not always one-sided.