Kevin Powell Brings It | In episode 49 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits sits down with author and activist Kevin Powell.
Author, activist, and MTV Real World vet Kevin Powell’s latest book is a collection of personal essays about race, family, justice, sexism, Oprah Winfrey, Tupac, and Russell Simmons. Kevin was on the original season of MTV’s Real World. This earned him fame at a young age that allowed him to become friends with people like Tupac. Since then, he’s run for political office in Brooklyn and is a frequent commentator on race and politics. He’s working on a biography of Tupac based on a series of interviews he did with the rapper while he was alive. Kevin Powell joins us on Light Culture Podcast to talk about race, music, and his new book When We Free the World.Read Transcript
Kevin Powell describes himself as an artist, a man, a son, a husband, a human being, a very imperfect, fragile person. But he’s also a leader, activist, community organizer, public servant. In other words, Kevin Powell has got a lot on his plate. His latest book, a collection of essays, When We Free the World, is about race, family, justice, sexism, Oprah Winfrey, Tupac, and Russell Simmons. Kevin first came to national prominence on MTV’s The Real World in 1992. He’s been in and out of the spotlight ever since. Running for office and losing and writing 14 books along the way. His long-awaited biography of Tupac Shakur is highly anticipated by me. Kevin, welcome to Light Culture.
Kevin Powell (00:57):
Thank you so much for having me Brother David. Thank you.
You began, When We Free the World, before the Black Lives Matter uprising that were ticked off by the murder of George Floyd. What made you want to lay out the harsh reality of your personal life, as a kind of case study of what it feels like to be black in America?
Kevin Powell (01:18):
I think as people know that the term Black Lives Matter has actually been around since 2013, 2014. It was originally coined by Dr. Marcus Anthony Hunter, who was a scholar at UCLA out in California. And I was involved in the Trayvon Martin situation. I was there in Florida when that went down. I was in Ferguson when Michael Brown was killed. So, these things have been on my mind for some time and then obviously with the rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency and this whole resurgence of white supremacy, anti-immigrant sentiment, antisemitism, Islamophobia, all of it. All this hatred and violence and division we see in the country, I just felt that it was necessary to write a piece, a book, that not only dealt with my own personal struggles around racism, but what was happening in the country around all -isms. Because as you know, all of it is actually interconnected, even though a lot of us think it’s all separated. It is not.
Were you surprised by the uprising?
Kevin Powell (02:16):
No. No, because it was a long time coming. I think that you cannot continue to oppress or suppress any people, no matter who they are. In this case, American people of all backgrounds, as the Trump administration has been doing these first few years of his administration, and not have an explosion. I think it’s a combination of Trump. It’s a combination with what the pandemic has done to all of us. I mean, I’ve lost a family member. I lost friends. Where many of us have suffered through this and then to see a officer kneel on the neck of someone for eight minutes and 46 seconds, which is absolutely horrific, I think that destructs something very similar to what we saw when people responded of all backgrounds in the sixties when the sort of fire hoses and the water hoses and the dogs being sicked on people. When you saw black and white folks get killed together, like they’ve been training. It’s the same kind of sentiment with this video now. So I think that that is all what led to all this stuff happening around the country.
And, what strikes me particularly is that the people still seem to think that the system can prevail. That it’s possible to change the system that has brought us to this point today.
Kevin Powell (03:29):
Well, I think that for me as an activist, and I’ve been an activist for 36 long years, and it started in the 1980s when Reagan was the president. It was the same atmosphere as now. Back then it was AIDS. Now it’s a pandemic. It’s the same level of hate and violence and division and war mentality. And so I think, what has kept me going all these years is, you have to have hope. I said this in an interview early today, I wake up everyday thinking that is possible. I mean, the system is so entrenched as you know, brother David, around old pressing the majority of us and many of us are realizing. And I think again, a lot of white sisters and brothers who’ve awakened in this time are like, “Wait a minute. We’re not even cared about us either.” Trump cares about half the country. That’s the voting block that supports him. He couldn’t care less about the rest of us. And I honestly don’t think he cares about them either.
Kevin Powell (04:19):
Because most of the poor whites don’t share his economic interests. They’re just doing it because of the appeal to white nationalism. So I think that all of that is playing a role in challenging this system. It may be symbolic to some people, but even the taking down of statues. Finally, people saying, “Just enough of the Confederate stuff. Enough of the racist stuff. This is all horrific and this should not be who we are in this country.”
one thing I think that stands out right now as well, and as you alluded to the sixties, was a similar moment, because a lot of the overwhelming support of the white community, which wasn’t really the case, at least based on these polls we read where with regard to Black Lives Matter, that seems to have been a real surge now of support across the board for that movement.
Kevin Powell (05:06):
I completely agree with you. I think that it’s something about that George Floyd video with the office, Derek Shaven, just kneeling emotionlessly on this man’s neck for eight minutes plus, nearly nine minutes. And just looking into the cameras as he’s being videotaped. And this man is saying, “I can’t breathe.” And then his last breaths are for his mother. I don’t know how anyone, no matter what your identity or identities, can’t feel some sense of humanity come out of you when you see something like that. And so it’s been dramatic. I mean, you now have white sisters and brothers, white people know about how they identify themselves, carrying Black Lives Matters signs. Wearing the shirts, wearing the hats, saying they have a white supremacy.
Kevin Powell (05:48):
I’d never thought in my 36 years of being an activist that I would see anything like this. I’ve heard it from old school, white radicals that were of the sixties, but in the modern generation X and millennials, I never thought I’d see this. It’s profound, but it’s absolutely necessary, because just like in the Me Too movement, women have said that sexism… And as long as men don’t help to make an end, the same thing happens with racism, white sisters and brothers have got to be a part of the solution. Black people and people of color did not create racism in this country. We did not. We’ve been the victims of it.
Oh yeah. No doubts. Of course. I don’t think that’s ever been the case, though people have tried to make that the case.
Kevin Powell (06:34):
I believe in love, brother David. I believe in the love of all people. I really mean that. I believe in nonviolence. I believe in peace, but I’d be lying to you to say that my journey from being unwoke, as we now say in these times… We used to say conscious back in the day, to being woke, it included a period of where, yeah, I felt a certain amount of animosity as I was learning about all the history I was not given in school, in the textbooks, in the mass media culture about my own people. And so you’re going to be angry, but the key thing is that it’s got to become something that evolves into proactive anger and love, not destructive anger, where you’re just basically mimicking oppression. You just end up being just like Donald Trump is what I say to people.
Kevin Powell (07:12):
And so I hear a lot of the anger. I get it, I’ve been that person, but it’s got to be something that love is transformative of. V, who used to be Eve Ensler, she’s a dear friend of mine, that created the Vagina Monologues, we talk about it all the time. Love is the solution. And if it really was that available, then we’d have been using it a long time ago.
Love is the answer, man, do you know? John Lennon and others have made that statement, but sometimes it’s hard to find within everything else that’s going on around us.
Kevin Powell (07:41):
There’s so many distractions and when we met back in the nineties, we didn’t have social media. We didn’t have viral videos. We didn’t have any of this stuff and it was already a fast-paced society. And so there’s so many distractions, but I think one thing that pandemic has done for me is like, let’s pick up the phone and talk with people. Let’s listen to people. Let’s actually slow down our lives. Let’s think about what really matters to us. It’s not material things. It’s actually people that matter. Human beings matter.
Kevin Powell (08:08):
And I think, again, George Floyd getting killed in the middle of the pandemic, struck a chord with people across this country because they’re like, “How could this even happen when we’re going through a global pandemic? And our country is the epicenter of it.
Yeah. And, if anything, that his death can actually lead to a better world would be a huge tribute to him.
Kevin Powell (08:29):
I agree. I totally agree.
And even with Trump in office, you know taking the long view, assuming that he’ll be removed, we could possibly argue that this helped get him out. Whereas if we hadn’t had the death and we hadn’t had the movement that followed, chances are he’d still be rolling. And if we didn’t have COVID and all these things that are terrible in our lives and very upsetting and disruptive, but maybe actually lead to something good in the end.
Kevin Powell (09:06):
Well, I agree with you. I think that if you look at American history or world history, the broader context, nothing changes without the people being involved. Politicians, most politicians are not like Bobby Kennedy. They’re not like a Bella Abzug or a Shirley Chisholm. Some of the elected officials who actually were also activist politicians. Most of them are pretty mainstream, straight-laces. But it’s people who make the politicians do their work. It was people who pushed Johnson to the Civil Rights Bill in ’64 to Voting Rights Act in ’65. And I believe it’s people that are forcing these national conversations around race in a way we have not had since the 1960s. You remember that Bill Clinton attempted to do it in the 1990s, but that got squashed very quickly. And it disappeared after the whole scandal happened with him and Monica Lewinsky. So this country actually needs to have this conversation.
Yeah. And taking it to the streets is really the only way to get the attention of the politicians and the people in office. And to make them you know have a reckoning with the way things have been, because for the most part, you know it’s sort of, let’s keep it going. Everything’s fine. We could just sort of patch up this here and there, but once people are in the street… And you could see that anywhere in the world, where people have gone to the streets to make noise and make a claim, then usually there’s some results that come from that.
Kevin Powell (10:31):
That’s right. That’s absolutely right. What we need, I’ll tell you, I think there’s three major areas. One, is the police departments around the country absolutely must be up-ended. The fact that most of them are not even equipped to… They’re not even culturally competent to relate to people beyond their own immediate backgrounds. The fact that it’s just this shield blue or whatever the color is of the uniform, and the fact that violence is the first solution for everything, I would add to it. And people should check out a book called the End of Policing. It’s a very important book to read, the End of Policing, where he talks about the fact that police officers, especially since the civil rights era, have been asked, not just to be police officers, but mental health workers, social workers, conflict resolution specialists, things they actually have not even been trained to do.
Kevin Powell (11:16):
And that’s part of the problem. It’s like the police have become this all-purpose thing and a lot of them actually are afraid of the communities that they police. You can see it during the protest. You see during the protest, these cops are beating a white brothers and sisters. There’s no discrimination. One of the most grueling images for me is the elder white brother in Buffalo, who is 75 years old, and got pushed back and had his head cracked open. And so we’ve got to reform this big time and the streets is the way to do it.
And that throughout the years, recent years, 10, 20 years even, as the economy has gone on, the police budgets have increased on a regular basis.
Social services haven’t really kept up with that. And as the police have assumed those roles in the aggressive way that they have, it’s really created these huge budgets that, I can’t believe that the New York budget is $7 billion for the police. You know, so now at least they’re considering cutting a billion dollars, but wow. And on top of that, the drug war, which also impacts unfavorably into the minority communities. Which also enabled the police to gather resources, make money by taking people’s property and using those laws to their advantage as well. Building up the arms, all the military style equipment that they have, it was all through the drug Wars.
Kevin Powell (12:49):
Oh yeah. I mean, the police have become, have been transformed into a pool, a military. They’re a paramilitary force in cities around the country and you, you hit it on the head David. This really goes back to the Reagan years immediately after the civil rights school, where there was this backlash to the minimal gains that were given in this country. Voting rights, some programs, et cetera. And instead of continuing those programs, which actually benefited people like me. I’m a first generation college student. My mother has an eighth grade education. My grandmother could not read or write. I inherited generations of poverty. Why was I able to go to college? Because of a university in my home state of New Jersey, something called the Educational Opportunity Fund, which was created at the height of the civil rights movement, a social program. And by the time you get to the 1980s, when I’m actually in college, the emphasis is being put on law and order. The same thing that Nixon talked about when he’s running for president in 1968. The same thing that Donald Trump just talked about the other day at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Kevin Powell (13:44):
Which means that we don’t really care about these people. We don’t really care about the American people. Period. All we want to do is control and contain people and they use the police force and the police even need to understand they’re pawns in this they’re being used. And as they’re being thrown out there in the middle of all of this stuff, unwittingly. I mean, many of the police officers, whether they’re white, black, Latinx, Asian, they’re working class. And now they’re pitted against working class people where people were saying, wait a minute, what about the rights of all human beings, all Americans, including working class people. It’s also a huge police state that feeds into the prison industrial complex. It’s all connected, you know,
And at the same time you write this letter in your book, letter to my unborn child, which is very passionate. It’s a very intense book, by the way, all around, your passion comes through and you know, it’s very moving. And this letter to my unborn child where you try to prepare a child that has not been conceived, but in any case, writing a letter for what it would be like for a young black person to come into the world today. So given the world we’re in, do you still feel like you want to have a child?
Kevin Powell (15:03):
I do. I will. I really want to be a father. And I don’t, I need to say this. I come out of the tradition of Frederick Douglas, of people like Ida B. Wells, people like Langston Fuses, Zore Neale Hurston, the beat generation writers. Like Alan Ginsburg, certainly songwriters, like you mentioned, like John Lennon and Bob Dylan and Lord Neuron, Joni Mitchell. Those are the people that influenced me as a writer. And it’s about telling the truth, and the truth is, I would like to be a father, but the truth is if I ended up being a father as an African American person, that child will be black. And whether they’re straight or gay, whether they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. Whether they are male or female or no gender identity at all, they are still going to be black. That’s the bottom line.
Kevin Powell (15:47):
And they’re going to have to deal with racism. And if they happen to be a girl, the sexism, they happen to be queer, the homophobia or transphobia. And this is something that we really have to have conversations with our young people about. The reason why I talk to children the way I do, including in this letter and all the work I do around the country, speaking for the last 25, 30 years, I think most of us lie to children, I think most of us lie to young people. I was lied to. Columbus discovering America is a complete lie. He was a terrorist, George Washington being the father’s country while conveniently leaving out that he was also a slave master along with most of the other so-called founding fathers.
Kevin Powell (16:22):
There’s a lie. And so, not learning about people who are African American or Jewish or Italian or Polish. I didn’t learn about anybody other than the English. You know what I’m saying? And then it became Americans and then it became white and it mostly were males. And they mostly were heterosexual white males. And it all had to do with violence and war. And that was it. And so we are grossly miseducated and we keep passing the miseducation onto our children. And that’s why I wrote the letter the way I did, because I’m like, enough of this. I go to these colleges, universities, and it’s bananas to me, some of the stuff that’s being taught to young people. It’s not a holistic history of America. You know this David, as a New Yorker, that we are a diverse city. I love my Jewish friends. I love my Italian friends. I love my West Indian friends. Because I learned from all these different types of people. But if I’m living in a box and thinking that it’s just me and my identity, I mean, it’s very easy to become a hardcore hater of people who are different than you.
I guess that’s true. I’m sure it’s true, but it’s still hard, unless I guess you’re born that way. As you know, as well, Kevin, the trauma that we carry within us, that we then pass on to the next generation and the generations after, so that there’s this great chain that continues, that creates this situation of bigotry that we’re talking about.
Kevin Powell (18:14):
I mean, it’s very real. This country was founded, quote unquote on hatred, and bigotry, and racism and sexism, classism, and it hasn’t been corrected. This is why we still have the problems in 2020. We’re talking about the 17 hundreds. You know, when this all started, this, this grand experiment and we’ve had a couple of opportunities, David, as you all know to correct it. One was when they were creating the Constitution. But instead of doing the right thing, they left out white people who were not landowners or rich, and they left out women and they left out black people that left that Native Americans. We know that black folks were considered and written into the constitution as three fifths of a human being.
Kevin Powell (19:03):
The second opportunity was a civil war and reconstruction right after that. Well, we know what happened after that. White supremacy rose up again. And all of that was squashed. It is almost like the 13, 14, 15 amendments, which came out of the civil war, didn’t even exist. And so my people spend another basically a hundred years in segregation. And my great grandfather was one of the many folks that was lynched because of the racism of that period in the early 19 hundreds. The civil rights movement was another opportunity for us to get it right. And even that was squashed. I want your listeners to go to YouTube. There’s only six minutes, but listen to the speech that Bobby Kennedy gives a white brother when a black brother, Dr. King was assassinated April 4th, 1968, is one of the most incredible speeches ever where he takes ownership for who he is.
Kevin Powell (19:47):
He talks about what has happened to his own family because of violence, John Kennedy, his brother, the president being killed. But then he also talks about empathy and compassion. And then we got to make an effort to come together. And then we know two months later Bobby’s killed. Because violence seems to be the solution for everything in this country. And that is the fundamental problem with this country. If you listen to Trump’s speech, the other day, it was filled with nothing but violence. You know, these rioters, these looters, these people, well, we got guns too, and y’all need to, y’all know what to do with them. He wasn’t talking about the National Guard. He was talking about regular folks who did things like storm the office of the Michigan governor, demanding that the state be reopened during the height of the pandemic. This is insanity. This is absolute insanity. When hatred and division and violence are the core values of any society. It’s insanity.
Yeah, it is. And I think people are seeing it now. I am optimist by nature,
Kevin Powell (20:47):
I am too.
I believe in rainbows, David. I remember when I was in Hawaii for the first time, years back, I had seen the George Clooney movie of the sentence. I was like, I want to go to Hawaii first night. At the first point I woke up, I saw a rainbow, but I also realized that rainbows don’t happen to come together. Colors don’t happen without the storm that happened before.
let’s move to another chapter in your book, between Russell Simmons and the world and Oprah.
Kevin Powell (21:58):
Why do you say, oh?
Kevin Powell (22:01):
Well, as a man, and this is for all men, whether we were straight or gay or bisexual, however, we identify ourselves. If you call yourself a man, we know that no matter what, our racial background, cultural background or religious or spiritual affiliation. We’d benefit from patriarchy, from sexism, from misogyny that we live in a male dominated, male controlled country in a male dominated, male controlled planet. And that male privilege is very real. And just like I didn’t learn anything about black people, or Jewish people, or Italian people, or Irish people. Or any of the diverse folks that live in New York city when I was going through school. K through 12, and I was an “A” student. I can count on my one hand, David, how many women I learned about. Betsey Ross sewed the flag, Rosa parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, briefly very briefly, Helen Keller, very briefly.
Kevin Powell (22:51):
I just knew she was blind and she could not hear. But if you go through it, the thing about it, I graduated, I won the math award when I got out of high school, I won the English award. How many women writers did I get in high school as I’m studying Shakespeare and Chaucer and Keats and all these folks. Emily Dickenson. That’s pretty much it. And so that’s called sexism. And most of us don’t even realize that we’re socialized to be sexist. So why did I write this essay about Russell Simmons? Because it could be Russell Simmons, or Harvey Weinstein, or Matt Lauer, or Woody Allen, or Bill Cosby. There’s a long list of folks that have benefited from this thing called sexism. And many are defiant. You know, like Russell is. And as I talk about in the piece and, and do everything they can to blame the women as being the problems. They’ll do things to try to discredit the women, to try to smear their characters.
Kevin Powell (23:35):
It has been said to me, by women like Bell Hooks and Eve Flynn. “V” as she goes by now, and Gloria Steinem, that men have to step up. I was challenged with my own sexism, as I talk about it in an essay in the early 1990s, when I was in my twenties, I’m now in my fifties, a very grown man. And I understand that they were right. That this is not going to end until men actually participate in helping it to end it, because half the country and half the world are women and girls. Why is it acceptable for women to do the same work as men in 2020 and make less pay? Why is it acceptable for us to live literally in a rape culture, a culture of sexual violence. Any of us can talk to our mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, girlfriends, there’s women around us, I guarantee you, that have been the victims of some form of violence, emotionally, spiritually, physically, or all three, by those of us who call ourselves men and boys.
But in this case particularly, Russell Simmons is someone you knew. I don’t know if you knew the other people you cited, but let’s say you knew him well. You had worked at Vibe, as you mentioned earlier, and you were very much a part of the whole hip hop scene at that point. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of this. Was this an assignment for a magazine? You had a lot of access to him, he would keep talking to you. So I imagine he was either trying to convince you, or did you know what you were going to say when you started? Or how did the evolution of this whole thing come about?
Kevin Powell (25:04):
Well, I’ll say this to you, I don’t care who the man is. If you’ve been accused by several women of the same thing, I believe that more than likely it’s true. If it’s just one person, then I’m like, “Okay, let’s hear it out here.” But if this needs to be a pattern of behavior, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby, Russell Simmons. Over the period of time, that makes it very suspect. They reached out to me, they asked me, his people asked me, “Would you be willing to talk to Russell? He wants to talk to a journalist that he trusts.” Let me make it very clear. As I said in the article, we’re not friends. We’re not friends at all. Not like that. I know him. I know of him. Obviously, I’ve interviewed him., I’ve been in spaces with him.
Kevin Powell (25:40):
But I agreed to it for medium.com, that’s where originally the piece was going to be as a paid assignment. And I worked on it for a couple of months back and forth. There was a whole lot of stuff going on behind the scenes with the movie and the women involved in the movie. And they were nervous about me talking to them because, “They didn’t know if I was on Russell’s side,” quote unquote. That’s not-
The movie is a documentary.
Kevin Powell (26:04):
… It’s called On the Record. It’s on HBO Max. And it features three women, women of color specifically, who say that Russell Simmons raped them. Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, and a woman named Drew Dixon who’s the heart of the film. And so that’s what it was about. Really trying to figure out what was happening here. And as I said in the article, in the essay I should call it, which was originally going to be for Medium, I talk about how he wanted to give me his file on all these women who were accusing him. I never looked at the files. I’m like, I’m not going to participate in that. Not as a journalist. And I’ve been a journalist for as long as I’ve been an activist, over 30 years. And so I know how to find sources for myself. I don’t need someone handing me or spoonfeeding me something, because I think that’s unethical. I would never do that.
Kevin Powell (26:51):
And eventually I took the piece away from Medium because I realized, hey, this isn’t even the right place for it because they are more interested in the sensationalism of it all. And what I’m actually interested in is the truth of it. And how do we use this story to help people to understand that this is not acceptable behavior and hopefully to move people towards action to end this bad behavior from all of us, not just him, but all of us.
… And you also mentioned Oprah here, who’s up there. Was discussed as a presidential candidate at one point, as somehow complicit in giving him a pass on this.
Kevin Powell (27:25):
Well, she is a complex figure. Oprah’s a product of post-civil rights in America where certain opportunities have been made possible for people of color. That’s reality. I support her and what she’s been able to do as a media mogul, the fact that she’s been able to own her own entity all this time. This is very rare. The fact that she became a black billionaire is incredible to me. But by the same token, I think that no one is immune, no matter who you are or who you think you are, from constructive criticism. And the reality is that a lot of the folks felt that she had abandoned the women in the film when she decided to pull out of the project due to all kinds of wild things being said. There was Russell Simmons’ pressure. It was pressure from the rapper, 50 Cent. From other people. The social media fire that people were coming at her and her friend, Gayle King. Who knows what happened. Really only Oprah knows.
Kevin Powell (28:14):
But what I do know is that these women deserve to be supported. And they needed to be supported not just by a few people, but they need to be supported by people with power and influence like Oprah Winfrey and other women. That’s real to me. And I think that that’s an important thing to say. But at the end of the day, the piece is really about all of us. Like, who are we and how did we even end up in this place where we’re having to have these, not just difficult conversations about race and racism, about sex and sexism. And just like there are black people who participate in the system of racism, there are women who participate in the system of sexism. That’s just the reality.
With Russell also, there was some suggestion that people are picking on the black man who got to this high level of success and that maybe that wasn’t a good thing for the young black people, or in general, to point the finger at Russell when there were so many others as well.
Kevin Powell (29:19):
Well, that’s actually wrong to say because there’s a lot of fingers that were pointed at Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. A lot of people have felt it, as you know.
Kevin Powell (29:32):
That’s number one. Number two. As a black man, as a heterosexual black man, I’m going to say to you very directly, I can’t talk about racism and then turn around and hypocritically become a sexist monster and attacking black women. And there’s been a history of people talking about oppression or injustice in one form, and turning around and being oppressive themselves. It’s just unacceptable. It’s unacceptable. I think the real conversation, because that’s a diversionary conversation, the real conversation should be, “Why is it okay to rape, batter, bruise, wound, injure women and girls in any form? Why is that okay for anybody to do no matter what their race is? Why is that okay? And why are we always trying to silence those conversations when they’re brought up?”
And have you had any reaction from him yet, or Oprah, in regard to any of this?
Kevin Powell (30:18):
No. I’m sure that they all read it, and I’m sure they’re following the trajectory of the book. David, I guess, did I come out of a tradition of people who are about, “Let’s tell the truth.” And it’s not comfortable sometimes. When Bobby Kennedy in 1966 had the courage to go to South Africa as a white man, as a wealthy white man, and use the term white supremacy in 1966 in South Africa, that’s the kind of writer I am. That’s the kind of activist I want to be. That you’re going to just go into the teeth of what’s out there and say, “This is unacceptable.” Even if you ostracize me, I still have to tell the truth. Because the bigger picture for me, is not about Kevin Powell or Oprah or Weinstein or any of these people, it’s really about people. Do we really care about human beings and the human race? That’s the question for me.
And when you ran for office, what was that experience like?
Was this front and center in your campaign as well?
Kevin Powell (31:19):
… Yes. When I ran, I started thinking about it in 2006, but I really ran in 2008, 2010. So I ran twice. And as you mentioned, I lost both times. Which is fine because, the reality is, my soul was not meant for electoral politics. I decided to run because I had spent a year, 2005 and 2006, going back and forth to the Gulf Coast doing Hurricane Katrina relief work. We had created a project called Katrina On the Ground. We had organized and trained 700 young people, college students, to do work in the Gulf Coast. It was an amazing experience. And one of the things that came out for me was, look at the policies that exist and what is happening with these elected officials? Why is it not more happening except for a few that are dedicated to making sure that this situation happening in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast was corrected and was rectified?
Kevin Powell (32:04):
So that’s why I ran. But I certainly ran as a person who came from a working class background. So I talked about education. I talked about supporting small businesses in the community. I talked about things that I thought were important to the community. But what I learned sir, is that even in New York City, which is supposed to be so progressive, so liberal, so forward-thinking, even here in New York City is no different than anywhere down South or in the Midwest of any other part of the country where certain people want to hoard power. Certain groups want to hoard power, and they want to determine when you can run for office. And if you should run for office and who should support you.
Kevin Powell (32:37):
And so the whole thing, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, actually has nothing to do with regular people. It has everything to do, most of the time, with a few exceptions like AOC, and Bernie Sanders, and a few other folks who speak power to truth with just power. And I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is people not power. I’m interested in people having power, not an individual, or one organization having power or domain over a whole bunch of people. Because at the end of the day, you become just a progressive version of Donald Trump. And that’s all it is. And I’m saying that as a lifelong progressive. Most of us who call ourselves progressive are liberals, actually are not progressive or liberal because we really are not interested in anything that’s about changing this significantly for the benefit of all of us. It’s really about just a handful of elite people, controlling everything. That’s what I experienced when I ran for office both times. Absolutely. And they know it.
And that turns you off from trying again?
Kevin Powell (33:31):
I have no interest in it sir. I’ve been blessed to see the country. I’ve been to all 50 states. Small towns, rural areas, big cities, all of it. I belong to the whole country. I’m a citizen of this country, of this world, and I’m an activist. And so I want to be able to move freely. You said it in this interview, look at the fact that it takes people to get the politicians to move. Well, I’d rather be on the side of the people than the politicians. That’s where I’m at.
Your life has been hard in many ways. From your childhood through overcoming all these other obstacles. The case of the women that you alluded to earlier with regard to a case there of violence that you obviously feel very strongly about. Making a recovery from all of that. You’ve gone to therapy, right? You’ve admitted to depression. Do you feel there’s a stigma about all of that?
Kevin Powell (34:36):
Not to me, sir. I think I’m honest. I haven’t been to depression therapy. I go to therapy. I have spiritual advisors. I’m a vegan, I’m a yogi. I’m a skateboarder. I got four boards in this house. I work out every single day. I believe that we’re not even taught in this country as we go through the educational process, how to be whole human beings. I don’t think we are, sir. I think about what Dr. King said in his Vietnam war speech, how we as Americans are moving from being a people-oriented society to a thing-oriented society. Everything is about status. It’s about career. It’s about material things, material acquisitions, to the detriment of us developing as whole human beings. I don’t see anything as hard or bad. I’m thankful for being born poor. I’m thankful for being the product of a single mother. I’m thankful for welfare, food stamps, government, cheese, rats, and roaches, because that’s what it taught me, sir, how to navigate any situation in life. That’s what it taught me.
Including that fateful year of 2018, which you write about, which is this insane situation you found yourself in with your wife?
Kevin Powell (35:44):
Kevin Powell (35:45):
And, you were working in a theater company. Looking at that as another way to express yourself and to get the good stories out there. And suddenly you found yourself
Embroiled in this crazy law case-
Kevin Powell (36:03):
In that same Minnesota that we know about today,
Kevin Powell (36:08):
Yes, sir. Well, I’ll tell you, someone sent my wife a hateful email in the fall of 2017 in the midst of us producing this show called She, which is about ending violence against women and girls and we had a great run at the HERE Arts Center here in New York, which is in Soho and it was terrible. My wife was profoundly affected by it. We went back and forth for two weeks. I looked up the person that I thought was the person who sent the email. I sent a response to them and I sent it to a few other people, but not some mass email or anything like that.
Kevin Powell (36:45):
The next thing I know, fast forward a month later, the lawyer for the woman in Minnesota, a man named Aaron Scott with Fox Rothschild, a law firm, one of the major law firms in the country sends us a lawsuit saying because I was a “celebrity author” and went off on me about all this different stuff and that they were suing us for half a million dollars for “defamation.” We spent the next year going back and forth, including to Minnesota on three different occasions and we ended up on trial in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, Saint Paul in December of 2018 with a white Republican judge and a jury that was all white folks except for an Asian juror and we lost. And we were expected to pay several hundred thousand dollars in restitution for an email. Essentially what this lawyer did a, white brother with Fox Rothschild in Minneapolis St. Paul was he used the legal system to destroy us. And it did. Financially and otherwise it did. And I could sit there right now, David and I could easily hate people because of what we experienced, you know?
Yeah, you could’ve folded at some point.
Kevin Powell (37:57):
It nearly broke both of us. It nearly broke both of us. But I don’t have that kind of mentality in me, but I said to myself, I have to tell the story of what happened. And when George Floyd was killed on the video by that police officer in the same place where my wife and I were on trial just less than two years ago, I said, “Well, look at that.” Everyone who thinks of Minnesota as Prince and all this peace and love and people coming together, that’s not what we experienced, and now the whole world knows this is what goes on in places like Minnesota, because as Malcolm X famously said, he said “South just means south of the Canadian border.” The whole thing is the South.
And is writing, partly therapeutic for you?
Kevin Powell (38:36):
Fully therapeutic, sir, fully. Since I was a child. I’ve been writing since I was a child. Before I started writing as a child, I used to draw. My favorite artist when I was eight or nine years old was actually Salvador Dali. I loved the visual arts. I didn’t know what the word art meant, David, when I was growing up. I mean, again, when you grew up in a poor environment, there’s no art classes. There’s no art schools. You have art in your school, but no one ever said, “Oh, you can be an artist.” That was not something that you even thought you could actually aspire to. You can be a writer. I didn’t know I could do any of those things. I just knew that I loved creativity. That’s what I’ve always been a part of.
The other day I was looking at Elliot Wilson has this email newsletter now and he was featuring your stories with Tupac.
Kevin Powell (39:21):
Is that right?
Oh, you didn’t see it?
Kevin Powell (39:23):
Yeah, you should see it because he had the covers, I guess you did four covers with Tupac at Vibe.
Kevin Powell (39:29):
Yes sir, yes sir.
And you know, Tupac has come up in the demonstrations as well. From what I understand, people have been playing his music in the course of the daily events. So I’m dying to know a little bit about your experience with Tupac and what we are going to learn in your book that we don’t know.
Kevin Powell (39:47):
I can’t tell you the secrets of the book.
Come on, one!
Kevin Powell (39:51):
But what I will say is that I met Tupac in 1993, 27, long years ago, which is really incredible. And as you alluded to in the introduction, I was on the first season of MTV’s The Real World. I had no idea, we had no idea what the impact of that show would be. We had no idea that they would create this whole genre of television that still exists to this day and helped to put someone named Donald Trump in the White House. The reality TV show president, which is insane. But we met and Tupac turned out to be as big a fan of mine from watching the show, as I was of his, and I had talked to Vibe about writing about him and I got the assignment finally, and I thought it was going to be one article.
Kevin Powell (40:28):
It turned into three years, three cover stories for Vibe Magazines and a fourth cover story for Rolling Stone because I was in Vegas when Tupac died and I wasn’t at Vibe at that point. So I wrote the piece for Rolling Stone and little did I know, and as you know, David, because you were at Paper for all those years. When you have pop culture icons like Madonna who Tupac dated, famously they did in the nineties. You have a John Lennon, a Marilyn Monroe, a Janis Joplin. These folks when they die, especially when they die young, they become larger than life figures. Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse. There’s so many names that I can think of. Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison. And it’s tragic and what ended up happening is that the bigger he got, the more people started looking to me because of those articles from Vibe Magazine, Rolling Stone, as some sort of quote unquote expert or Tupac Shakur.
Kevin Powell (41:15):
And so I felt a certain amount of responsibility to represent him and not ever profit in any way. I’ve sat on the audio tapes all these years. I haven’t done anything with the audio tapes. But I decided in the last few years, you know, Kev is time. You need to tell this story because I keep meeting people who really knew him, who have never talked before. People will get that from the Tupac biography. They’ll get some backstories that don’t exist anywhere that I think are going to be mind blowing for folks. And they’re going to get a picture of America through the lens of Tupac Shakur because it is no different than, say Elvis. Elvis came along in 1956, 1955, 56, or the Beatles came along in 64, what was happening in America at that time? Because it’s not about their great music, but it’s also about what they represented and how people connected their identity through these people and that’s what I’m doing with this book.
So do you feel like he’s as relevant today as ever?
Kevin Powell (42:11):
I think Tupac Shakur is one of the biggest pop culture, global icons anywhere and ever. When you go to Africa, which I’ve been to and he is as big as Bob Marley in Africa, that’s saying something very significant given who Bob Marley was and what he represents. As you know, David, there’s not many people you can say that are multi generational global pop icons. Tupac’s one of those people. I’ve literally met people who were born 15 years ago, who were like, Tupac’s my favorite rapper ever. I mean I’m not exaggerating. This is really incredible to me. And it’s not just black people. I’m talking about white, black, every identity.
Kevin Powell (42:51):
There’s something about him. He was strikingly handsome. He was very gifted as an actor, as a rapper, there was a charisma there, there was an ability to speak. The many personalities that he had being a Gemini. And so he resonates with so many different types of people and then there’s also the issues of manhood and masculinity. The fact that he was accused of rape and he ended up going to jail from some lesser offense, but that’s a part of his legacy as well that has to be unpacked. The fact that he’s the son of a Black Panther party member of Afeni Shakur. What she represented for him, and he’s a product of the civil rights movement.
Kevin Powell (43:24):
So all those things make him this incredible figure for different people to enter into, to try to figure out who they are as they’re studying him, which is no different how I feel about John Lennon of the Beatles or Bob Dylan. I was listening to Bob Dylan this weekend and I was just like, man, I’m looking at the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album and I’m seeing myself through his songs because Bob Dylan’s music is timeless. Well, Tupac is also timeless.
And how do you feel about the hip hop community today?
Kevin Powell (43:59):
I’m a hip hop head for life, but I represent hip hop the culture and I make a distinction. There’s hip hop culture and there’s hip hop the industry. I represent the culture. The graffiti writer, the dancers, the MCs, the rappers, the DJs and the fifth element of hip hop culture is knowledge. The industry, which is what a lot of people are talking about, is all the crazy, wild, ignorant, illiterate, dumb, minstrel show type stuff that I think is ultimately destructive to black people and any people who absorb it. That’s what I have a problem with. And I know that there was a time when we used to have balance.
Kevin Powell (44:32):
When we met, David, back in the nineties, there was actually balance. You could hear positive and negative on the same album. Now much of it is negative. It’s not the fault of the young people making the music, it’s the industry or the system, back to that word, that I believe only lets certain kinds of music out because they are very concerned about, well, if we let certain kinds of music out, that’s political in the framework of a John Lennon, early seventies or Bob Marley or anyone else was saying anything that was really woke, as we say in the sixties and seventies, it might actually bring people together.
Kevin Powell (45:03):
Which is why I think there’s been, not just hip hop, but rock and roll, all of it. Pop culture in general has been woefully dumbed down in the last 25 years. We know it, we’d be lying to ourselves if we weren’t honest about that, with a few exceptions. But I think that this movement is forcing people to say, all right, we can’t just make frivolous music anymore, create frivolous art. We actually need to do some things that actually are significant. And I think that’s why this is important because this has been way out of control. With not just hip hop.
Kevin Powell (45:32):
I mean, where’s Kurt Cobain. Where’s this generation’s Kurt Cobain. Where is he? Where is she? Where are they? We need to see these people. I mean, Kurt Cobain was as important to me as Tupac in the nineties. He’s one of our greatest songwriters ever, this is a man, a heterosexual man who was writing about gender issues in his songs. He was profound. We need that now, and it’s coming, I guarantee it is coming because of these protests. The courage is going to come to people that I should say these things now.
Well let’s hope so. Thank you very much, Kevin Powell, for sharing all of your amazing thoughts and your passion with us today. Good luck with your book.
Kevin Powell (46:11):
Well, David, I just want to say thank you because you’re one of our media and journalistic pioneers in New York city and what you’ve done for many years, including giving younger writers like me an opportunity when I was first coming up. I just want to say thank you to you. I’m always conscious of who gave me a shot. So just thank you and I need to say that to you.
All right, man. Thanks so much.
Kevin Powell (46:29):
Have a blessed day.