As a passionate author, poet and longtime community activist, Kevin Powell has a deep understanding of the world around him. Known initially to Americans for his appearance on Season 1 of MTV‘s The Real World in 1992, Powell flipped reality show fame to the backburner for a writing gig at Vibe Magazine. Over the years, he also contributed to the likes of Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Esquire and other publications, covering music, lifestyle and politics.
In 2010, Powell is taking a concerted third run for Congressional office in Brooklyn, New York’s 10th District. Taking in the critique from his first efforts in 2006 and 2008, it is evident that the now 44-year-old orator is more than ready to take on the role of an effective public leader.
Of course, the world of politics often entails intense exchanges between the media and candidates. From coverage on Newark, New Jersey‘s trendsetting 41-year-old Mayor Cory Booker to the decidedly more scandalous writings about DC‘s 39-year-old Mayor Adrian Fenty, there is always an eager journalist perched and ready to take on the politician of the day for the next big story.
Is it odd that a zealous young man who once critiqued political values and systemic failures in his community himself would turn to politics as a career? Ironic, perhaps… although Kevin Powell may be even more rightly suited for leadership because of how he has faced and usurped his own controversial trials and tribulations.
In this candid interview with UrbLife.com, Powell took nearly an hour of his time to discuss concerns for his community, the possibilities for the next generation and the ways his own life challenges have strengthened his leadership abilities.
You’ve been very open with your life and the changes you’ve gone through. When you decided to run for political office, were you scared at all, or were you 100% prepared for it?
I’m not afraid of anything, you can’t live your life in fear. I’m not interested in being imprisoned. I grew up in that kind of environment where there was a lot of fear, and people were stopping themselves because they were afraid. I encourage people to get past that stuff.
My hero is Malcolm X, and when I read his autobiography at the age of 18, I was really blown away by the brutal honesty that was put out there in the book. As well, his speeches and when he went to the Nation of Islam and broke away from them and denounced their views, that became a model for me – to just be honest about everything. I think truth telling is a form of healing, and just because you’re going into politics, why lie now?
When I’m out there campaigning every day, I hear that politicians are liars and that they don’t tell the truth, and unfortunately people in leadership positions are getting in trouble around extramarital affairs, stealing money or some kind of substance abuse. Time and again, it always comes back to them being honest with themselves and others, like the whole fiasco with John Edwards, who really destroyed his career by lying about not having a child from an extramarital relationship. It doesn’t make any sense.
Politicians get really dirty when they campaign and fight. Are there any things from your past that you’ve been through that have made you a better person?
The truth is there’s nothing that’s happened in my 44 years on this planet that I haven’t written about or spoken about, there’s nothing to hide. My next book that will be out in about two years will be my 11th book, and it’s a childhood memoir – my life from birth to 24 which was the age where I moved to New York City in 1990. I’ve been here ever since. I’ve written about my childhood over and over again, in my poetry, essays and pieces I’ve written about other people.
I don’t use labels – other than I’m a human being who happens to be of African descent, who happened to be born to a single mother from South Carolina, who happened to grow up tremendously poor without a father in an environment of a lot of violence, confusion, self-hatred, low self esteem and great despair.
When I got to college I found out there were so many poor people in this country, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Native Americans, I began to become aware of who I was as a Black person. You can be a Black person, a woman, a person from the LGBT community; if you can read certain things and be exposed to certain documentaries, organizations and speeches, if you’re open minded about learning, you’re going to have that light switch turned off in your head and you’re going to start to question stuff.
You start to question with a great deal of passion, and some people might label that passion radical or militant, but you’re simply trying to find truth. That Kevin Powell is still alive and well, all of these years later I’m always going to be a truth seeker and a truth teller.
Other times, you begin to realize there’s a difference between proactive passion and a reactionary style. Proactive passion is where I can say now and for the past several years that I love all people. I don’t care what your race is, your sexual orientation, class or religion, I love all people, even though some of the work that I do will continue to be rooted within the Black community, because that’s where I come from.
Reactionary passion is when you’re just lashing out at people in a blind rage and in anger. Not that there’s anything wrong with anger, but there’s something wrong when it’s used to build something, to write a poem or create a publication online or offline or build an organization specifically so a people can have you where it just becomes about ranting.
I’ve been doing this since I was 18… you’re talking a quarter century of me doing this work, and 20 years of it being in very broad and public view, from MTV and Vibe all the way up to now. A lot of people have seen me grow up and evolve in front of them. [laughs]What did it for me, was after I got fired from Vibe in 1996 and I had to make a living, I began to do speeches more frequently outside of New York, and I found myself traveling around the country. All these years later I’ve been to almost all 50 states.
It gives you a very different view of humanity when you’re engaging all types of people. I’m in a Native American reservation one moment, then the next moment I’m doing a Black History Month speech in North Dakota, or Vermont the next moment and there are no Black people in the audience.
I was at a historically Latino school the next month reciting a poem about my Aunt Cathy who had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized in Kansas, this older White woman came up to me crying saying, “I’m Aunt Cathy” and it blew my mind because my aunt was an African-American and this White sister had went through the same thing.
Being militant and radical is fine, but I care about people. I’m madly in love with people. In the past decade or so I really began to look at the work of Dr. King differently and Malcolm in the last year of his life differently. I fell in love with the speeches of Bobby Kennedy and who he became after his brother was assassinated, and I started to pay attention to folks in our communities who just did good things for people. The media and celebrity stuff is fine, but I want to help people. That’s what I feel I was put on this planet to do.
I want to tell the truth, but I want to do it in a way that makes sense and will bring people together and not alienate people and cause harm. A friend said to me,“You’ve got to decide if you want to be a bridge builder or a bridge destroyer,” and that stuck with me.
You moved to New York when you were 24, you were a bright and ambitious young man. When you look at guys today that are that age, do you see much difference in the opportunities that they have, like getting jobs and furthering their education?
That’s an interesting question and a good question. I think about it a lot, because I do so much work with young males. It’s really striking to me as a man who grew up without a father and was so confused about manhood and masculinity coming up, I didn’t know what a man was growing up. I was rough and rugged, climbing trees and playing every sport imaginable, disrespecting girls, unfortunately, as boys are socialized to do in society; because we do live in a very sexist country and world that doesn’t appreciate girls and women as equals.
All of that said, I was given a very serious work ethic by my mother early on, and I took that to heart. I’ve always been a worker, people will look at my campaign and say, “You work hard, you’re doing a lot of work” but people that don’t know me don’t realize that’s how I operate. In my house we woke up at 5:00 AM… 6:00 AM was considered late. [laughs]
When I moved to New York it was with the express purpose of being a writer. I had already spent six years from 1984 to 1990 doing a lot of activism work at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I went to college with Sista Souljah, so we did a lot of work organizing welfare hotels, working with the Bensonhurst [Yusef Hawkins] incident that happened. We were working with rappers like Chuck D and KRS-One, doing Hip Hop concerts, voter registration drives and all that kind of stuff.
This is the era of Jesse Jackson and all of that going on, I was burned out and I had been hanging out and partying as a B-boy. I was used to break and pop, and I was a graf writer and I was also a house music head. I was a serious dancer, I loved partying, I still love partying, but you wont catch me doing more than a two step now [laughs].
So music was already calling me, and I became a writer. When you think about it New York City has eight million people and there are thousands of writers, dancers, painters, musicians, painters, rappers… and I never even thought about it like that. I was just like, “I’m going to go to New York and make my name for myself.”
I just had this focus and this purpose, and I remember I had this mailbox on West 18th Street in New York, even though I never lived downtown. I had a business card that said I was a publicist, I wrote bios for record labels. I wrote Usher’s first bio, I did stuff with TLC and publicity training for Kris Kross, I did a lot of that my first few years in New York. Since I had the experiences of my college life behind me, I had been empowered by all of the books that I read and I thought anything was possible.
The biggest difference I see between then and now is a sense of defeatism that is so hardened in a lot of young men. I started writing professionally when I was 20. December of 1986 I got paid for the first time as a writer, and I was in a hurry. I was trying to get out of the hood.
I definitely had self-esteem issues, we all do. I still go to therapy, but there was something in me that said, “No matter what, I’m going to make this happen.” Right now with a lot of heads around the country, there’s an inability to make eye contact and speak clearly, there’s a lack of a swagger when it comes to their own personal development. They might have it on the basketball court, on the microphone or when joking around, but something profound has happened to a lot of young males of color in our communities, and part of that has to do with what has happened to the leadership.
The leadership is so missing in action, bankrupt and corrupt in our creative spaces. If Hip Hop didn’t exist there would be no space for all of these urban males in our country, particularly Black and Latino brothers, as well as our working class White and Native American brothers to express themselves… there would be nothing.
When I was coming up, I didn’t aspire to be a rapper even though I loved Hip Hop. I’m a diehard Hip Hop head, but I never said 20 years ago “I want to be a rapper.” Everybody now is like, “I want to be a rapper,” [but I was]like, “I want to be a writer.” I didn’t mean a writer who wrote rhymes. I meant a poet, essayist, a novelist, a journalist… It’s almost like the self-expectations have shrunk down to be a rapper, ballplayer, or hustler. That’s the biggest change.
Also, in 1990 I didn’t have all of these online social networking sites like I do now. You were forced to be a lot more thoughtful and everything was more patient. Now everything is so instant that people don’t have the patience for self-development. Everything has to happen now. There are incredible ballplayers and MCs in the hood that can’t read, write or think straight.
Again, the big change is the lack of patience. I meet people that say they want to be a medical assistant, which is a great job and career. I ask, “Why not be a doctor?” and they say, “Eight years of school is too long.” That’s the challenge. We have to figure out in the 21st century how to make people believe that investing in themselves is important, but we have to use the tools that are there, like Facebook and Twitter, to do that now.
Have you seen an inability in leadership [for the next generation], because our generation hasn’t totally grasped adulthood ourselves?
That’s a very interesting question. My mother had me very young, and I wouldn’t have my work ethic as well as my love of books and knowledge if it weren’t for her. She pushed those things on me. But the flipside is there’s definitely some parenting skills and relationship deficiencies that were huge. I see the extreme of people relating to their kids like they’re homies.
But as far as my adulthood, I still have my Timbalands and hoodies, and I’m about to go workout in my baggy basketball shorts, and that won’t change. That’s still a part of who I am, though people will look at me now and say, “Kevin you got really conservative” – when you think back to how I had my hair [styled]and an earring.
But at some point I started wearing suits, the more I realized that I’m out here going around the country making speeches. I may even tuck my shirt into my pants every now and then. [laughs]20 years ago I was one of the cats sagging his pants low. I remember the first time I saw Brand Nubian perform at The Apollo in 1990 and Grand Puba’s pants looked like they were down to his ankles. That was the look, and I was sagging. But now you see dudes in their 30’s and 40’s sagging, and that’s ridiculous to me, because I’m not a kid anymore.
It’s interesting that a lot of kids in the community will call me “Mr. Powell” now, and it just started happening a few years back. I’m not into that, I’m just Kevin, the dude from Brooklyn. It’s not just the attire but it’s how you carry yourself. I’m not that wild young dude anymore. I’m much more thoughtful of the things that come out of my mouth, mindful of respecting other people and now that I’m on the planet to take care of other people. I made a conscious decision years back that I wasn’t going to be entertainment for people anymore.
That’s part of the trip for people between the ages of 28 and 49, like what UrbLife targets, that’s the age range where you should become very clear why you are on this planet. If you’re not getting to it in that age range, you’ll never get there. It hit me in my 30’s when I was fired from Vibe, I needed that because I was a bit crazy. With all of the things we were involved in, some of the things we did right but with some things we were clueless.
I went through three or four years of deep depression around that whole thing, because I didn’t want to let go of my adolescence because then fun was over. I had to now deal with the adult reality that I didn’t have a job anymore and how was I going to make a living, so one of the best things to ever happen to me was getting fired.
I own a condo now. When I was in my 20’s I was like, “I don’t need a condo” and now all of these years later I look back and I was so dumb! [laughs]I should have bought one back then when it was way cheaper than it is now. I’m not married and I don’t have any children, though I do plan on doing both one day, but I have a mortgage and youth that I mentor. I have a whole community in Brooklyn where everyday someone is asking for help, so that doesn’t leave a lot of room for not growing up at this point.
But I think you can be youthful without being adolescent. I’m always going to be a bike rider, playing basketball and I’m dying to do skateboarding. Those things are fun to me, and who says you have to give them up just because you’re getting a bit older. I have friends that can’t stop being with a whole bunch of women and I’m like, “Dude, you’re 40!” [laughs]I may go out and party every now and then, but why are you still in the club every week?
You’ve been very open over the years about the rapper beefs and how you felt the media played into certain people’s deaths. When you look at today’s generation, do you feel the media still plays into those [beefs]? Is it worse than it was when you were at Vibe, or do you feel it’s gotten any better?
It’s the same thing. One of the reasons I quit being a journalist was because it wasn’t my life work. There were many people more talented than me that were passionate about it, and it wasn’t there for me. If you’re really passionate about something, you don’t lose it once it’s there. The second reason is that I got really tired of all of the sensationalism, and I didn’t want to be a part of that unless I owned a publication myself. It takes a lot of courage to do what you and others have done in building your own publication; I had courage in other ways, but not there.
It’s disheartening to me, because there’s this constant need in society, especially with Black and Latino males in Hip Hop, if you have something to say of substance like Talib Kweli, who is my friend and a fellow Brooklynite, you’re not going to get big press. But if you take someone like Lil Wayne who is intelligent and talented in his own way, with tattoos all over, he’s publicly admitted addictions to all kinds of substances, he’s had children by two different women within a couple months of each other, gets in trouble for gun and drug possession and now he’s spending a year at Riker’s Island… that becomes the front page story and what everyone wants to talk about.
Hip Hop is a global culture that belongs to all people, and I’m always struck when I see people who are Israeli and Palestinian using Hip Hop as a way to talk about their historical relationship with the violence towards each other. It’s amazing that Hip Hop belongs to everyone, but the body and base of its images are Black and Latino. Those images are no different than the minstrel images we saw hundreds of years ago, and no different than the blaxploitation images we saw in the ’70s.
If I was an alien from outer space, I came to this country and was told, “We’re going to show you Black people. You’re going to spend a day watching rap videos, and the next day you’re gonna watch BET all day,” you would think all that Black people do is have sex, throw money around, drive fancy cars, the women are hoes gyrating and people are smoking weed, alcohol is splashing, they’re dunking basketballs and catching footballs… and that’s all that they do.
No people should be depicted like that. It’s kind of how in Nazi Germany when Jewish people were depicted a certain way by the media and it justified people doing away with them. I’m not suggesting that’s happening in this country, but there’s a different kind of concentration camp where these young people take in these images and think that all they can be is a gangster, a thug, a pimp, a video vixen or a stripper. That’s no matter the race or culture they come from, and it’s sickening to me.
As Bobbito once said to me, the issue isn’t that these kinds of rappers exist, the issue is the lack of balance. 20 years ago as much as I loved Chuck D and Public Enemy, I loved NWA and Kool G Rap & Polo, and you know what they were about. [laughs]Not that the stuff they said was right, but I was a young person and I loved all of that music that had an edge to it. So I won’t despise people for loving Drake, Nicki Minaj or Lil Wayne, we just need to have more balance.
What is problematic is the corporate controlled media and music industry has been putting out one side for what seems like the last 15 years at this point. Every now and then someone like Kanye may slip through and say something of substance, but it’s not just Hip Hop. American music in general from rock & roll to jazz has disintegrated into this formulaic stuff. I’m a huge rock & roll fan, I loved groups like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but they were able to create music that was different.
When you look at Hip Hop [in the ’90s], in Washington state you got Sir Mix A Lot, go to California you got NWA, Florida is 2 Live Crew and New York is Public Enemy. In Texas you got The Geto Boys, in Chicago you got Common, and MC Breed [R.I.P.] out of the Midwest. There were so many different types of Hip Hop, and unfortunately what corporate folks have done is reduced it down to where if you don’t sound like what’s hot [now], you’re not going to get put out there.
To make it really simple, someone like a Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or even Prince couldn’t exist on a major label today. The Beatles would not have been allowed to evolve or encouraged to go from a boy band to what they became at the end of their careers, which was musically layered and complex. Someone like Quincy Jones couldn’t have been allowed to go from working with jazz musicians to scoring TV and film and working with Michael Jackson’s biggest albums. When you bring it back to Hip Hop, I have a problem with the images and visuals.
Working with the kids, I’m constantly dealing with the images they’re taking in. A kid will go, “Yo son, I’m a gangster, I’m a pimp!” It’s a dumbing down that’s taking place, and honestly I participated in some of that when I worked in the industry. You get excited about the access that you get to parties, celebrities and that whole culture, but at the end of the day do you even know who you are? Who are your real friends and the people that care about you?
So many people, as we’ve gotten older, have gone on to create our own things or we’ve left the industry because it wasn’t for us. Ananda Lewis from BET and MTV, I just found out she got a Certificate in Carpentry now and is doing carpeting. She completely dropped out of the business, it blew my mind. She basically did a Daniel Day-Lewis move when he won that Oscar back in the day for My Left Foot, he wasn’t really into that whole celebrity thing so he dropped out and became a shoe apprentice for years.
That’s where Hip Hop is, and many people don’t understand this is a game that will eat you up and dispose of you very quickly if you don’t do it on your terms. Like Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.”
Before our generation, there weren’t many precedents for how to live as a single parent or deal with children that were the product of a single parent household. In your campaigning and initiatives to help the community, do you see a huge need to help [people]with parenting?
There’s a need for parenting classes all across the country. One of the best examples I ever ran into was out in St. Louis where a principal ran something called Parent University right inside of the school, where the kids are coming to school and he made the parents come to school after work! [laughs]
My mother is a young mother from a different era, she was born in 1943. I remember at a certain point she stopped going out, because if she didn’t take care of me the streets would take care of me, and it would be a wrap after that. Today I meet [parents]who are still going out to the clubs, [laughs]and there’s nothing wrong with going out but you can’t go out every week.
In closing, tell us about the campaign, the events you have coming up and what exactly you want people to know when they come to the polls to vote for you.
Well, first of all, I never thought I’d run for political office myself, even though I studied political science in college, worked on a lot of campaigns and did extensive voter registration throughout the years. But most of the ’90s, my religion and politics were strictly Hip Hop. [laughs]I know I voted because that’s how I was raised, but a lot of the times if I wasn’t in New York, I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t get an absentee ballot, and was kind of indifferent to it.
Somewhere around the late 1990’s, around 1997, I had moved out of Brooklyn into Harlem for less than a year, and I said to myself, “I want to run for Congress.” I didn’t know who was representing the district or why I said Congress, but when I got here, ironically I moved into a house that was owned by a husband and wife, and the husband was running for Congress. The very seat I’m running for now was the seat he was running for in ’98.
The more I got involved in the community in New York City, specifically in Brooklyn, I saw that there had to be changes made because a lot of these folks were missing in action. The same complaints I’m making about the incumbent now were being made 10-12 years ago. It’s just a different platform. I ran in ’08 and we plan to win this time on September 14th. We’re out there grinding every day hard for it. It’s so different than 2008 on so many different levels. It’s not just about legislation, it’s about using the power of that office if you’re a council person or a congressional member, or a state representative.
There’s so much you can do with just a little bit of imagination, bringing people together. In the early 2000’s New Jersey city council person Ras Baraka saw there was a big gang problem in Newark. He brought Bloods & Crips together and asked them if they’d put their guns down if he put them in a job placement program. They said yes. He was the teacher on Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation [of Lauryn Hill] CD, and here he is as a city council person. He realizes it’s not about him or him hooking up his friends and keeping them in the same positions for 50 years, and not training and developing younger leaders. Here he is using his imagination, and I’m running so that we can help people with more resources.
We also do a lot of unglamorous stuff and we’ve been doing it for years… [like]helping people find jobs that just got out of prison. I’m working right now on helping a young man get to college. So many different things! I spent time last week with a woman who didn’t know how to find money to help her daughter get to college, so we put together a package for her to give to the local churches. Most of them do give scholarships, out and most parents don’t know this.
I’ve been a grassroots activist for 26 years and yeah I had the double life of MTV and Vibe and all that stuff, but at the end of the day I’m just a regular person who’s an organizer. I pride myself on being able to mobilize people in different ways, whether it’s Katrina a few years back, Haiti this year, working with men in our communities, anti-violence initiatives, working around domestic violence prevention, that’s what I do.
For more information on Kevin Powell and his campaign for Congress, go to KevinPowell.net
Follow Kevin Powell on Twitter @Kevin_Powell