At 12 years old, the thought of becoming a writer or reporter had never popped into my head—yet I loved to read. My love of reading rarely involved text books for school. If anything, in 1992 hip-hop was the classroom and the only homework that mattered was reading the requisite monthly issue of Vibe magazine.
With an issue of Vibe in front of me, entire black universes emerged beyond just my neighborhood; a boy in Detroit could read cover stories on black artists like Tupac Shakur written by black writers such as Kevin Powell.
In some circles, Powell is most widely known as an original cast member of MTV’s The Real World. But his role on that show meant very little to me—and to him, as he reveals in his book. It was his role as a writer and activist that captured much of black America’s attention. Some 20-plus years and 12 books later, he’s still writing.
Last month, Powell released The Education of Kevin Powell, a deep, introspective memoir that covers his years in extreme poverty in Jersey City, his troubled childhood, the Vibe years, his alcoholism, self-destructions and the necessary healing that came from his eventual growth into a mature man. He’s speaking on Saturday, Dec. 12 at Seattle Public Library. We talked a few days ago about where his head’s at these days. The interview that follows is a condensed version of that conversation.
Why did you want to write this book?
Well, you look at what we have to deal with growing up in inner-city America, whether we have both parents or one parent like I did. It’s not an easy life. I grew up without a father, my mother only had a grade school education. We were tremendously poor. People sometimes compliment me on having written 12 books and I tell them my mother had a grade school education and my grandmother couldn’t read or write, so I know that I’m writing not just for myself but for a whole bunch of other people.
I wanted to tell a story that isn’t about me but about this country. It goes from the time I was three years old up until my late 40s, where I am now. It deals with race, gender, class. It was liberating. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written in my life but it was necessary to get it out of me. It’s a book that’s dealing with healing. We have to tell our stories. That’s the only way that we heal.
What are the things that you had to heal from and did you achieve the objective of healing as you wrote the book?
Well, one book isn’t going to do it, but it’s a journey. What did I survive? My mother’s anger—at me, at my father. The beatings, the violence. I survived myself. My violence towards men, which I talk about very openly in the book, and towards women when I was a younger man. I survived poverty.
We live in a country where we’re not even encouraged to go to a counselor and get therapy to deal with our stuff. We’re not going to move forward as a human community, as a family, as a human race if we’re not serious about processing our stuff. I see a lot of damaged people out there who have fancy resumes. And poor people who are wounded by something. There’s mad shootings every single week. Women getting raped or violated every single week. People are traumatized.
How long has the idea of writing this book been with you?
Twenty years. Back in the ’90s when I was a younger writer there was a whole emphasis on Generation X writers who were told by publishers, “Hey we want you to write a memoir.” I could have done that but it would have been a very angry book. Angry at my mother, angry at my father, angry at this world. It would have been one big middle finger posing as a memoir. Something in me said, “Nah, Kev, you need to hold off. Plus you haven’t lived long enough.” So it’s been in my head for a long time. When you grow up in an inner-city environment…I didn’t even get on a plane until I was 24 years old. But even as a child I wanted to share my story. Many people go through what I went through—including right there in Seattle.
How old were you when you genuinely stopped being a boy and became a man?
That’s a deep question, sir. Hmmm, I was in my 30s, to be honest about it. I mean think about it, the first example of manhood I have was my father. He was at least a dozen years older than my mother. She fell in love with him, he didn’t love her. He didn’t even have the decency to show up to the hospital when I was born. She had to take a cab to the hospital to give birth to me. So when you have that as your introduction to manhood, you’re gonna feel hurt when you’ve been rejected, when you’ve been cut off. That’s a big part of the book. We stumble around trying to figure out what manhood is and we buy into this patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic definition of manhood.
I went through four years of college without even reading any women writers. When people started saying, “Hey, bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde,” I remember feeling great discomfort reading them in my early 20s, as I realized they were talking about men like me. I didn’t want to be challenged.
Now I’m very clear that I’m a man and my definition of manhood is very different than what it was 20 years ago. The reason I called the book “A Boy’s Journey into Manhood” is it’s about re-educating yourself. One of the things I say in my book—it wasn’t until I went to college and read the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time, think about this: A dead man in a book became the father figure I was looking for in the first 18 years of my life. I think about that very consciously as I go around the country as an activist. You asked me when did I become a man: When I realized there were a lot of young people paying attention to me and looking up to me in a different kind of way.
This book has a digital mixtape that accompanies it which is available on your website. How did that come about?
We were just thinking of marketing ideas for the book. Clearly I’m a product of the hip-hop era and we have a very different way of marketing stuff. That whole “go somewhere and stand somewhere and read directly from the book”—nah, son. I don’t do that. That’s not happening. What I’m going to do in Seattle on Saturday is we’ll have a DJ, we’ll have some poets spit poetry. I’m going have a conversation, then we’ll pass the mic to the some community folks there tabling.
What Davida [Ingram] and those folks at [Seattle Public Library] have put together, that’s how I like to roll. Let’s make this a holistic thing and let’s get down. If people buy the book that’s wonderful, but it’s really about engaging people. So that’s why we did a mix CD. We’re going to be promoting this book over the next few years with the same model of how you promote a CD. You gotta get out there and touch the people.
I want to ask you about Tupac. As kids in the early ’90s, we all saw the music videos or saw him in Juice, but you’re the first insight I had into him. Does it feel like it’s been nearly 20 years since he passed?
Not at all. That was Sept. 13 . I was there in Vegas. I mean, I did multiple stories for Vibe on Tupac. By the time he was killed I had been fired from Vibe. Rolling Stone sent me out there to cover what happened to him in Vegas. I was there when they announced his death.
What are the biggest lessons you learned from Pac?
I was older than him, I would like to think it was the other way around. [Big laugh] We can’t control how long we live but we can control how well we live. The beautiful parts of Tupac was that he was a hard worker. He read books. There’s no way he could have named himself Machiavelli if he hadn’t read Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was given to him when he was in prison in New York. He was prolific with his output and he was very much about family and he was loyal to his homies and to the communities around him, particularly the people around him who looked out for him when he didn’t have anything.
There were times in interviews he’d say something like, “Kev, me and Snoop, if he and I sell 5 or 6 million records that could be 5 or 6 million new voters in this country.” He realized the power he had with that platform. And he’s given us some of the greatest moments. What’s a better song tribute to mothers than “Dear Mama,” ever? Not just in hip-hop but in pop music, period. What’s a more politically astute song than “Keep Ya Head Up?” When he’s talking about “They got money for war but can’t feed the poor.” And in the same song comes out as a very pro-choice man and says, “We don’t have the right to tell women what to do with their bodies.”
Those were profound moments. But the downside was all the liquor, all the weed, all the cigarettes, at times blatant disrespect for other brothers, most notably with Notorious B.I.G. who loved Tupac and couldn’t understand why Pac was wilding out the way he did. There was also the things with women…
I just think we as men in this country really need to think how we define manhood. We often operate from a script and Tupac was no different from that. I remember saying to Tupac once, “Why don’t you just be careful?” His response was, “Kev, there’s no place called careful.” That’s true, but my response to all the folks reading this is: Don’t give people a rope to hang you with.
The responsibility I have, which is something Tupac didn’t get to do, is to turn the corner and be my best self. What we can take from a Tupac who died early, let’s find the best that they did or the mistakes they made and learn from it. I try not to elevate anyone dead or alive. Tupac and Biggie ain’t never coming back. Martin and Malcolm ain’t never coming back. So what are you doing with your time here?
A Conversation with Kevin Powell takes place at the Seattle Public Library Saturday, Dec. 12 from 6:30–9:30 p.m.