“I had a lot of nightmares writing this book,” 49-year-old author Kevin Powell says of his recently released memoir, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. “It’s hard to think about the rats all over the place, roaches in your food, your father disowning you or your mother beating you because she is so wounded by the world.” Having known Powell for over 20 years—since the moveable feast Roaring ’90s, when we were both writing for leading hip-hop publications The Source and Vibe—reading his brutally candid autobiography was often painful.
Over the years, Kevin and I have had numerous conversations, either in his office at Vibe (where he might be riffing about the dopeness of Jodeci one minute and plotting to overthrow the magazine’s White editors the next) or over cocktails at some open-bar industry event. Still, he never talked about his early life: growing-up in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the 1970s; fighting through child abuse and poverty; his years in post-college therapy; or the many devastating experiences he suffered before escaping to New York City at the age of 24 to make his name as a writer.
Although the friendship Powell and I share has been through a few rough patches (including a few years when we didn’t even speak), I’ve always admired his courage as writer as well as the sense of romance he had towards the profession and craft. There was seriousness to his manner, whether performing spoken-word at the Nuyorican Poets Café, writing about pushing his girlfriend into a door in the pages of Essence, or talking about the random racism Black folks deal with on the regular when he was on the first season of The Real World.
However, no matter what people might’ve thought of thought of Powell personally (he’s felt love and hate from his peers in equal measures), he’s always strived for honesty in his work.
“We have enough liars out there calling themselves writers, artists, activists, preachers,” he says from his apartment in Brooklyn. “Telling the truth was something ingrained in me by my mother and from reading Malcolm X. Both of them gave me the courage to tell the truth.”
Indeed, Kevin’s mother Shirley Powell, who migrated to east coast from South Carolina in the 1960s along with her sisters, looms large in his memoir. She is the woman who taught him to read, taught him values, stressed education and, according to Powell, beat the hell out of him whenever she felt like it.
“The only thing my mom reads is the Jersey Journal and the Bible, so she hasn’t read the book,” he says. “But I did dedicate it to her. I had a book launch party in Jersey City, and I gave her a copy. She read the dedication and told me she loved me. I choked up.”
A few months after we first met in 1992, Powell was cast on the first season of MTV’s groundbreaking reality show, The Real World. It was more like The Surreal World, with Powell portrayed as confrontational in many of the edited scenes. As Complex writer Dimas Sanfiorenzo wrote in 2012, “Throughout the season, Kevin was the serious roommate who didn’t mind dwelling on racial issues. His ‘angry Black man’ stereotype reached its zenith when he famously bickered with Julie, who claims that Kevin, a true firestarter, threw a candleholder at her.”
Watching the program when it originally aired, it was interesting that the majority of Powell’s active artistic life outside the apartment wasn’t represented on camera.
“I don’t regret being on the show,” he says, “I thought it was a good idea at the time, because I thought it would give me opportunities for more speaking engagements. None of us went on the show to become famous.”
But famous he did become, which brought other problems. I can remember going to a party with Powell at Clark Atlanta University in 1994, when were both in Georgia covering Public Enemy. Minutes after we walked through the door, students swarmed him like a star. “Fame is interesting and a lot of people have problems dealing with it,” he says. “It’s not like they give you a blueprint. Look at what Pac had to deal with. I got lost in all of that stuff.”
The poetically written first half of The Education of Kevin Powell, which reads like the memoir equivalent Ice Cube’s classic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, deals with Powell’s younger days striving in various Jersey City tenements and enduring the wrath of mom dukes. Its second part sheds light on his various careers, including running for congress twice in Brooklyn as well his years as a journalist, which began with him writing an op-ed piece for Rutgers University student paper after he and a friend were racially profiled. Later, chronicling urban culture (primarily rap music) during the golden years of hip-hop journalism, Powell would go on to become one of the leading journalists of that era.
“I never started out to be a hip-hop journalist,” Powell says, “but, reading about the music fascinated me. I loved The Village Voice writers of the late ’80s, early ’90s, people like Nelson George, Greg Tate, Joan Morgan, Carol Cooper, Harry Allen, Barry Michael Cooper, all these great writers. But I wanted to be more like [journalist] Peter Noel, who was a conscious brother covering the community. I wanted to be the people’s journalist.”
However, after receiving a call from Harry Allen inquiring if he wrote about music, Powell lied and said yes. Allen referred him to an editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who assigned Powell a feature. “My first music piece was on Intelligent Hoodlum. That led to pieces in the LA Weekly and later my senior writer job at Vibe magazine.”
Vibe launched in 1993 under the media umbrella of Time Warner Inc., in collaboration with Quincy Jones. Alongside rivals like The Source and Rap Pages, Vibe published wonderful journalism and essays from writers Scott Poulson-Bryant, Joan Morgan, Chris Wilder, Sacha Jenkins, Karen R. Good, Bönz Malone, Sheena Lester, Robert Morales, kris ex, dream hampton, Cheo Hodari Coker, Touré, Danyel Smith and myself. None of us set out to become “hip-hop writers,” but that was what the crew was labeled.
Former music editor Sacha Jenkins once told me he hated the name the term, but most of us didn’t care. We were just happy to be writing professionally. In the same way that Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray were guided by jazz, the Beats were weaned on bebop and rock writer Lester Bangs by Metal Machine Music, our generation was inspired by the poetics and beats, as we strived to be Rakim/MC Lyte/Marley Marl on the page.
In retrospect, with the magazines coming out monthly, we feverishly churned out copy; literary agent Marc Gerald once comparing the productivity of the “hip-hop writers” to that of the pulp writers of yesteryear.
“We all came from different backgrounds, but the one thing we shared was a love for hip-hop and a need to document the culture,” says Powell. Of course, while the coolest music (from rap to soul to trip-hop and whatever else was sizzling) was covered, these same writers also penned political essays, nostalgic think pieces, book reviews, comic strips and essays on film. When Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, Powell penned the poem “Reality Check” (“there is more to our teen spirit it smells like distorted childhoods and diapered friendships and parents”) in his honor.
Working together, partying together, socializing in the Hamptons dressed in white… for many of us with a sense of literary history, that period was our Harlem Renaissance/Black Arts Movement. Many a night, Powell and I would have wild conversations about a few of our favorite writers—Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin. We traded gossip over endless rounds of free drinks, both of us soon to drown in our separate seas of alcohol.
Once, when I was having beef with an editor, I said to Kevin, “I wish we could all get along like the Harlem Renaissance folks.” Kevin laughed. “I’m sure they didn’t all like one another either,” he replied.
These days, many of the pioneering hip-hop writers have moved on to careers in novels, academics, TV writing, screenplays or some other life far away from the freelance hustle. For those of us who like writing articles and essays, the road has been never been easy. Unlike many of the White writers who we once worked beside, who’ve gone on to general market (read: White) publications, very few of the Black writers have been offered the same opportunities. Back in the ’80s, Robert Christgau at The Village Voice made an effort to find more writers and editors of color. But few of today’s leading glossies seem to care.
“Many of the newer writers I read don’t know anything about the culture or the history of hip-hop or hip-hop journalism,” Powell says. “They have never read Greg Tate or Lisa Jones or Lisa Kennedy or Nelson George, the people who passed the baton to us. And the lack of diversity in mainstream publications is horrific. A lot of Black writers from our generation have produced excellent bodies of work. But they’re not being called to write for Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair, because it’s about power and privilege.”
While Powell has written cover stories for Rolling Stone (Tupac Shakur) and Esquire (Dave Chappelle), but neither publication has ever invited him back. “They might put Idris Elba or Kendrick Lamar on the cover. But they’re not going to allow any Black writers to write the stories. That’s where the racism kicks in.”
During Powell’s years at Vibe from 1992 to 1996, he wrote 10 cover stories, edited a political section, and also became the regular textual documentarian of fellow complicated brother Tupac Shakur. He covered the Thug Life king extensively, from court appearances to prison cells, from bullet wounds to Death Row Records, to his death in 1995.
“I can remember being impressed by him when I first met Pac, and 20 years after his death, he is a global icon. Our relationship went on for three years, and he kept saying I was like Alex Haley to his Malcolm X. In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Well, I wanna be X too, homeboy. But I hear you.’ I think Pac understood he wasn’t going to live a long time and he needed to be documented.”
When Tupac Shakur died on September 13, 1996 at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas (a night most of the hip-hop literati was attending D’Angelo’s platinum party for Brown Sugar in New York City), Powell was at the hospital. “I was so impressed by him, because he was a conscious brother who also knew how to communicate to heads in the ’hood.”
The Education of Kevin Powell offers an honest portrait of Powell’s life as a writer and activist, his complexity as a person, and his continuous development as a man. Solemnly, Powell says, “This book is about my journey and my healing. With all of my heart, I wanted to write about love and growth. I also hope that young people coming behind me read it so they don’t make the [same] mistakes.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.
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