"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Some young black activists complain that the media marginalizes the good things about hip-hop, choosing to focus on the often misogynistic lyrics, flashy and violent music videos and gangsta image of its stars rather than its more socially conscious messages. But when Russell Simmons‘ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network helped the United Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for Quality Education draw thousands of people (the estimates range between 50,000 and 100,000) to a recent protest against New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s $358 million cut in education funding, the press took notice. Stars such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Alicia Keys and LL Cool J showed up to support the cause. A couple of weeks later, a Washington Post headline declared: “We the Peeps: After Three Decades Chillin’ in the Hood, Hip Hop Is Finding Its Voice Politically.”
Mayor Bloomberg took notice, too; shortly after the demonstration, he restored $298 million to his budget proposal. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network declared victory. Has a hip-hop power movement arrived?
Not quite, says Bakari Kitwana, author of “The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture.” A former editor at The Source, Kitwana argues that although the hip-hop industry has created a far-reaching constituency, and local and student activist hip-hop groups have emerged across the country, there’s still a lot of work to do. Kitwana believes that what he calls the hip-hop generation — made up of African-Americans born between the years 1965 and 1984 — desperately needs a national organization, and not necessarily one that’s spearheaded by rap stars or entertainment moguls. According to Kitwana, such a national group, one that taps into the vast economic power of the hip-hop industry and that focuses on education, employment and incarceration, could be more influential than the ’60s civil rights movement.
Salon spoke to Kitwana from his home in Ohio about the tensions between the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation, why hip-hop stars need to take responsibility for the content of their lyrics and what kind of leader the hip-hop generation needs.
What was your reaction to the New York City protest? The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network had all these stars show up — Erykah Badu, Foxy Brown, Rah Digga, Common, Noreaga. They brought in the crowds. Is this the start of a hip-hop political movement, and what part will the stars play?
It was meaningful in the sense that it’s an important issue. But the important thing about this marriage of hip-hop and politics is not going to be rappers becoming political leaders. What was misleading about the protest was that it undermined the long haul movement of the teacher’s federation who have been working on this. It also undermines the political work that the activists in our generation have done.
That’s what the articles in the Washington Post and other papers are missing — the activists that make up this generation. We are immersed in a celebrity culture and when the celebrities show up, it eclipses the importance of the work of the activists. [The press] is getting caught up in the idea that rappers have a role to play. They have a role to play, but they’re not leaders.
Russell Simmons, who founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, was quoted in the Associated Press as saying that rappers are the voice of the poor. What do you think of that statement?
That’s true to a great extent. Poor black people, especially young blacks of this generation, have not had a voice until the emergence of rap. If you can get past pimps and hos, hip-hop conveys the message of poor people not having jobs and having inadequate education. Most certainly you saw it more during the time of Public Enemy and the Poor Righteous Teachers. Today, it exists with groups like Common. And it does exist in the lyrics of Jay-Z — but that other message of pimps and hos is overshadowing that.
Do you think the protest was a success?
The fact that the administration turned its position so quickly after the protest makes it seem as though the protest was the turning point. I don’t think that’s true. It would have been more of a success if it was a long-term protest. And it’s misleading to kids. If they think they can show up one day to bring about social change, then they are sadly mistaken. One rally does not a revolution make.
And you think a hip-hop movement could be bigger than the civil rights movement?
Absolutely. For two reasons: One, this generation stands on the success of the civil rights movement. We don’t have to fight for the right to vote, for the right to be able to go to college. We can take that foundation and build on it. Hip-hop as an economic force and as a cultural movement has given us foot soldiers. They exist already. This infrastructure gives us unprecedented power. All it needs is a national organization to connect the dots. But so far, they’re being blinded by the stars.
The civil rights movement was a giant step in race relations. There hasn’t been one since then. This could be a giant step for the country at large, not just for race relations, but for civil rights for all people — because it’s focusing on issues like education and employment. You have a great segment of this country that is not middle class, even though that’s what America is supposedly about.
When you talk about the civil rights movement as compared to this one, obviously you have to wonder who the leader will be. If it’s not a hip-hop star, and not Russell Simmons, who might it be? What about Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network?
A hip-hop generation organization, if it’s going to have any lasting impact, has to have leaders born in this generation. Ben Muhammad is a civil rights generation leader. He of all people knows that this generation needs to immerse itself in a movement — at some point there has to be a changing of the guard. Most of our criticism of the older generation is that they’re not making room at the table. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network has to make the transition too. Dr. Ben has been an important voice, and he still has a role to play, but they have to give way to the generation that they’re purporting to lead.
Do you think we’ll see this presence at the next election?
Absolutely. Every day we’re getting a step further. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is important because they stepped out there. Criticism from people like me is pushing them to go further. Before the criticism, they did not support Ras Baraka [son of playwright Amiri Baraka and a city council candidate in Newark], they did not talk about reparations. They’re becoming more radical because the conversation is becoming more radical. And you’re going to see more.
One of the things about hip-hop is the desire to be authentic. And they know it. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network knows they need to be authentic. Their days are numbered if they’re not. Don’t get me wrong, Russell should be applauded — he has the resources and he stepped out there and a lot of people who have those kinds of resources have not done the same. But we need to do more.
The problem is that the local and student activists can’t come in as cheerleaders. They have to come in in a serious leadership capacity. This is going to mean shaking things up. And it might mean that Ben Muhammad won’t be the leader.
Do you think that race is downplayed in politics now?
The conversation about race has gotten redundant. Definitely, there’s a tendency to shy away. There’s no better indication than the platforms of the political parties for the last three or four elections. Race is just a nonissue. Some folks feel that having blacks visible makes it easier to not make it a conversation.
We haven’t had a giant step forward in race relations in this country since the ’60s. The conversation in the ’80s and ’90s got to be redundant. There was Studs Terkel‘s “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession” and Cornel West‘s “Race Matters” — I don’t think that the conversation has shifted much since then. Partly it is a problem of the mainstream not wanting to deal with race when issues like reparations come up. But the civil rights leadership, the old-guard black leadership, is to blame because they haven’t been effective at making the younger generation’s agenda part of their agenda. That would get more young people involved and create more energy and excitement around politics. Until that happens, we’re going to continue to have this bland discussion.
That’s one of the most interesting things about your book — the relationship between the old guard and the hip-hop generation. Who dropped the ball? Where did they miss making this transition? Was it the ’70s or ’80s?
As we came into the ’80s, few people in the African-American community paid enough attention to globalization and its negative effects. If you’re working class and you have a job, that job isn’t able to afford you the ability to buy a home or to take your family on vacation or even to buy a car. Many people in our generation, if they’re working class and have a job, are probably living with their parents. That is a dramatic difference between this generation and the previous generation.
The older generation has not taken enough time to try to understand what’s unique about the hip-hop generation. In the process, the older generation thinks that we’re slackers, that we’re not go-getters like they were, that we use racism as an excuse. There’s a lack of understanding of the ways in which issues of institutional racism have been compounded for this generation who have come of age in a post-segregation society. The older generation just continues to look at race and race relations in a way in which they were affected.
What’s the main difference that you’re talking about?
They came of age in a society that was not integrated, and so for them, it’s a giant leap forward to live in the society that we have now. Our generation hasn’t experienced any dramatic shift like that where we can point and say, “Oh, race relations have gotten so much better.”
You say that hip-hop is the most significant achievement of this generation. How would the old guard respond to that?
They would think it’s crazy. Most often hip-hop, as a cultural movement, is equated with something negative such as anti-black images. “The new black minstrelsy” as Stanley Crouch calls it. If you don’t make a distinction between hip-hop culture as a subculture of what I call the new black youth culture, then you’ll make that mistake.
But hip-hop as a cultural movement is definitely one of the most significant achievements of this generation. When you look at hip-hop as a cultural movement, you’re talking about an emerging student activist movement, you’re talking about an emerging politics that’s manifested in things like the recent Cory Booker and Sharpe James race in Newark.
When people say hip-hop is a culture, they generally mean the four elements of hip-hop: graffiti, break dancing, rapping and DJ-ing. But I’m talking about something more than that. Hip-hop as a cultural movement created a national infrastructure whereby many young blacks around the country are on the same page, are tuned in to the same thing, are getting together — in the name of hip-hop. And that force can be effective in terms of disseminating information and bringing about social change. It’s already going on at the local level. What I see missing is something happening at a national level with the assistance of national organizations that can make the strategies and impact at the local level be seen in a larger context.
Do you think that if the NAACP grasped the power of this generation and linked up with them that they would help build a viable political movement?
Absolutely. If you look at the ’60s generation, young national political groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers were helped in some way in terms of getting resources in order to create those organizations. Whether it was entertainment figures financing those groups or the older generation groups. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for example, was very effective in helping to get SNCC off the ground.
It would be very effective if the NAACP or Al Sharpton’s National Action Network said they were going to work with the younger generation, not to bring them into their group, but to create their own organization where they could put their issues on the national agenda. But what’s happened is that a lot of these groups, and these groups’ leaders, have gotten comfortable with being in leadership. Leadership has become a business. Because of that it’s much more difficult for them to step aside and say, “OK, this is a new generation. Let’s nurture this generation and help them to come into leadership.”
What did you think about the charges that Sharpe James launched at Cory Booker during the Newark mayoral race? James said Booker was a pawn of whites, that he wasn’t black enough.
Until a hip-hop generation candidate emerges with serious support from the hip-hop generation, people like Sharpe James will be able to cast those types of charges. But those days are numbered. Ras Baraka, for example, ran for councilman in Newark. [He lost after this interview was conducted.] He is the type of candidate that someone like Sharpe would be less able to cast those type of charges against.
But someone like Cory Booker is also representing this younger generation. He may not be a grass-roots type of person like Ras Baraka, but at the same time, our generation is very multifaceted and Cory Booker is as representative of our generation as Ras Baraka. The older generation can say we’re not ready, and we haven’t done this or that, but Sharpe James cannot point to young people in his administration that he’s nurtured for leadership. Until the older generation can address that issue — what they’ve done to nurture a new generation of political leadership — then it’s not fair for them to just stand on top of young people and say, “Oh, we’re gonna continue to be in leadership for 20 to 30 years and not let you guys do anything and then get mad when you run against us.”
What’s the difference between a Cory Booker and a Ras Baraka? Why do you think that Baraka makes a more appealing candidate? He still hasn’t won in Newark, whereas Booker was a councilman there. Sharpe James defeated Booker, but it was a close race.
Booker did not appear as an authentic candidate — not authentically black, but authentic. He seemed handpicked. Ras has been in the community, he’s been a teacher for 10 years. He’s visibly a part of the hip-hop nation; he was featured on the Fugees album.
But, still, people have to start thinking out of the box. Booker is a product of this generation. He might not be as close to the hip-hop nation as Ras, but he could have tapped into hip-hop more. Booker had some support from Queen Latifah at the end. If he had tapped into that more, I think he would have won. Booker went to Stanford and Yale — the ability of people in our generation to do that is a result of the civil rights generation. He’s a little more polished than what’s seen as an authentic hip-hop voice but he’s not an aberration.
I thought it was interesting that you say that the old guard encourages people to vote for the Democratic Party candidates. Russell Simmons endorsed Hillary Clinton, for example. But you write that members of the hip-hop generation don’t necessarily respond to Democratic Party candidates. Why not?
I don’t think that the hip-hop generation believes that the Democratic Party has been any more effective in terms of bringing about change than the Republican Party has. The old strategy of “let’s just everybody vote for Democrats” … this is a generation for whom results matter more than just some theory of “we’ve always done it that way.”
So what kind of candidates will appeal to them, then?
Candidates who support issues in terms of what I call the crises in African-American culture. Crises that are more and more affecting middle America and young whites. A survey that was done in Salt Lake City showed that the most listened-to radio program for young whites 18 to 25 was the hip-hop show. There’s always been a certain element of fascination with black cool. But what’s happening differently for this generation is that the alienation that young blacks have been feeling throughout the ’80s and the ’90s is affecting whites. Globalization is a big part of that. If you look at the world trade protests, many of them are young, white and middle class.
What is the most important issue for this generation?
The important issues that spin out into all others are education and employment. The problem begins with education. No one can possibly believe that African-Americans are inferior to whites. But yet we live in a country where we continue to accept these disparities in standardized tests. When you look at the high incarceration rates, you’re dealing with people who were not prepared educationally to be able to secure a job that could allow them a living wage. So you’re going to have a lot of people who can’t even begin to think about participating in the political process because it’s just not at the top of their agenda.
So what effect do hip-hop images have on this generation — you write that achieving wealth is the most important thing to hip-hop generationers.
It’s had an effect. You have more young people not just wanting to be financially secure, but wanting to be instant millionaires by the time they’re 30. They point to people like Puffy as an example that it can be done. Or Shaq. Or Kobe. Or Allen Iverson.
People think that I’m being contradictory, but it’s just common sense to see that there are two sides to hip-hop. Hip-hop has a positive impact, but also has a negative impact in terms of these anti-black images and this misogynistic attitude that comes from rappers who sell multi-platinum records. Like Jay-Z. But at the same time, Jay-Z offers a message that the society is screwed up, that it’s difficult out here, that the issues of unemployment and education are critical issues. The music is contradictory but the messages that society is sending us are contradictory too. I don’t think that it’s unusual; I think that’s how life is.
What are you most critical of about this music then? How does it actually affect people’s lives, particularly young blacks?
It’s hurting a lot of young people who don’t have a concrete definition about what it means to be young and black in America today. They turn to the music and they turn to films like “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents” for those definitions. The black intellectuals have failed to offer a new definition of what it means to be young and black. In the absence of that, films and music have filled that void.
Stanley Crouch did an editorial a couple of days ago about the R. Kelly situation. He quoted [former Nation of Islam minister] Conrad Muhammad saying something to the effect that the sad thing is that hip-hop and the entertainment industry have created a situation where young women can rationalize a ho mentality. Young men can rationalize a thug mentality as being part of what it means to be young and black. We can’t continue to hide behind the idea that the critics are old people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and we can’t continue to hide behind free speech. These are very real issues and the music is affecting people’s lives in very real ways. We have to begin, as a generation, to be more critical of ourselves.
Since the audience for hip-hop is made up of so many white kids, and kids from other various backgrounds, what part do you see them playing in this? Will they join this political movement?
Definitely. Other groups will play a part. But one of the things that I’m calling for and trying to outline in the book is that the black community — young black hip-hop generationers — are not organized enough to begin to create a movement that would parallel the ’50s and ’60s civil rights and black power movement. I put so much emphasis on African-Americans because we have not yet created a national organization. I talk about coalition building in some parts of the book, but you can’t even begin to think about coalition building with other groups when you don’t even have one solitary serious national organization. I’m very critical of the Hip-Hop Action Network, but to their credit, they have stepped out there with a national group that’s trying to articulate some of these issues. But if someone from the entertainment industry spearheads it, it’s going to be more likely to fail.
You’re more interested in the people from the local and student activist groups that are emerging.
You have many local activist efforts emerging. Like the group in Selma, Ala., that created the Joe Gotta Go movement — they helped to vote Mayor Joe Smithermen [a former professed segregationist] out of office, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights on the West Coast headed up by Van Jones, Black Cops Against Police Brutality, the Inner City Games Foundation headed by Donna Frisby Greenwood in Philadelphia, Listen INC in Washington. But these local groups don’t have enough of an awareness of what other groups are doing similarly around the country.
There’s a student activist movement. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, they have Hip Hop Generation and they put on a conference annually called Hip Hop as a Social Movement. The first year they had something like 2,000 participants, the year after that, 5,000. They celebrate the four elements of hip-hop, they are raising issues of politics and they have a multicultural and coalition-building agenda. Hip-hop clubs are beginning to emerge on college campuses in the same way that black student unions emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
So you don’t think that young blacks at universities shy away from activism?
No, not at all. One of the things that happened to our generation is that we’re so immersed in celebrity culture that the media has gotten to the point where something is almost not newsworthy if it isn’t tied to some celebrity, especially for blacks. So the Russell Simmons group gets a lot of attention because Russell Simmons is involved with it. Because rappers turn out and support what he’s doing. But I don’t think it’s any more meaningful than what Van Jones is doing, or what Delacey Davis [founder of Black Cops Against Police Brutality] is doing.
But young whites of this generation are in a unique position in terms of political activism and in terms of putting these issues on the national agenda. Young whites who are into hip-hop have to make a distinction between whether they’re into hip-hop as a pop culture phenomenon, or whether they’re into hip-hop as a subculture of black youth culture. If they’re into hip-hop as a subculture of black youth culture, then they have a better understanding of some of the issues that young blacks are concerned about — education, employment, incarceration — because those are the issues being addressed in the lyrics. We need to see that consciousness manifested in the polls.
Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.More Suzy Hansen.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)