Having first met Kevin Powell in 1992 when he was first coming to national attention as a cast member of MTV’s first season of The Real World, he and I later worked together as writers for Vibe magazine. It was the golden age of so-called hip-hop journalism, and Powell made his mark with a number of features including covering Colin Powell (no relation), the infamous Tupac Shakur rape trial, and later reporting on the late MC throughout his Death Row Records era.
Politically active since his days as a student at Rutgers University in his home state of New Jersey, Powell has also written and edited 10 books, including last year’s Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King. While he’s had two unsuccessful runs for the United States Congress (in New York’s 10th congressional district), Powell hasn’t allowed these setbacks to deter him from his mission of educating the youth on various issues, including racism, police brutality and self-improvement.
Earlier this year, Powell invited me to join the editorial board of his latest venture, BK Nation. Beginning as a political and community website publishing blogs and essays, BKnation.org is administered in collaboration with editorial director Michael Cohen, whom Powell has worked with since 2008. And their ambitions for BK Nation far exceed the Internet.
At a launch party in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in early October—attended by various writers, educators, and artists—Powell informed the crowded room, “BK doesn’t stand for Burger King or Brooklyn, but instead means Building Knowledge.” A few days after the event, I spoke to Powell via email about his long-term plans for BK Nation.
EBONY: What is the origin of BK Nation? Is this connected to your work in politics or is it separate?
Kevin Powell: BK Nation is a new national organization that began as an idea in my head in the late 1990s, with a different name altogether. It was called Get Up on It, and was actually a section of Vibe magazine I created, where I had been a staff writer for several years. The point of that section was to provide a space for political and social issues. After a promising start and great interest, I moved away from Get Up on It until I ran for Congress here in New York City in 2008, and again in 2010.
Although I did not win, I came away from those campaigns determined to help build and create an organization, a social movement, that would be progressive, multicultural, and, again, about solutions and actions. In the words of the rapper Drake, “We started from the bottom, now we here.”
EBONY: What do you see as the goals of BK Nation?
KP: To be a clearinghouse of information, resources and services for people, all people. To teach people how to be leaders in their own lives, their own communities, instead of waiting for others to do it for us. We will do this with our website over time, which will grow to include postings for all 50 states. And we will do it as we grow chapters around the country, starting here in New York City. Each chapter will have to work on BK Nation’s five core projects: the Education Project, the Leadership and Civic Engagement Project, the Arts and Culture Project, the Health and Wellness Project, and the Job and Small Business Project.
So we are going to be an ever-active organization, with work happening both online and offline in our community.
EBONY: Talk a little bit about the website and giving people a voice.
KP: The website is the first thing we built. I have personally witnessed so many people in my travels across America as a writer, speaker, and activist, who feel their voice does not matter. We are saying with this website, “Yes, your voice does matter, and here is a platform you can use instantly.” And the response has been incredible.
While in New Hampshire for a speech just a few days back, a young woman tweeted me. She lives there in New Hampshire and just wanted to say she was a survivor of domestic violence. Well, after a few more tweets and emails between us, her blog is now up on the site about what she survived. It’s a very powerful piece. And she says she had not written anything since the eighth grade. So that is what it is about for us. To bring together established writers and thinkers and activists with people like her.
EBONY: Who are some of the key people working with you on this project and their contributions?
KP: No one famous, honestly. Just everyday people who care. We have been very quietly building BK Nation for the past three years, since my last Congressional campaign in 2010. Some folks I have known for years, and some contributors have come to us from Facebook, from Twitter, or we’ve met them at BK Nation’s live music shows or our political rallies.
It really has been beautiful and powerful to witness the coming together of such diverse people, in every sense of the word diversity, for the cause of serving others. I have not been this happy and passionate about my life work in years. That is the truth.
EBONY: Where to you see BK Nation in 10 years?
KP: As a full-service national organization with chapters in all 50 states, and even some chapters overseas. As a major media website. As a major space for writers, musical artists and other creative minds. As an incubator and support space for younger leaders. This is the vision for BK Nation, and this is why our motto is, “The leadership is us.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.