Powell, Kevin 1966–
Kevin Powell 1966–
Political activist, writer
Kevin Powell was a poet and journalist before he got international—if sometimes negative—exposure on MTV’s first Real World series. His byline appeared often in Rolling Stone, Essence, and The Source before he worked as a staff writer at the urban-music and culture magazine, Vibe. Powell has developed a keen perspective into hot-button issues that affect blacks and Americans. After he left Vibe in 1996 to pursue his writing Powell produced two respectable anthologies of black writers: In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers, and Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature.
Powell was born on April 24, 1966, in Jersey City, New Jersey, “a year after Malcolm was blown away and two years before a rifle stifled MLK,” he noted in Step Into a World, recalling the assassinations of black leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was raised by his mother, Shirley Mae Powell, who had migrated from the south to raise her son in a Jersey City tenement. Though his maternal parents could not read, Powell wanted to be writer since he was eleven years old. Powell’s childhood was “one long misery session,” he said in Step Into a World, “complete with hunger, violence, and rage.” He escaped by spending Saturdays in Jersey City’s Greenville Public Library, where, as he described in Step Into a World, he “overdosed on music, TV, sports, Hemingway, Poe, Shakespeare.” Powell attended Rutgers University on a financial aid package and once he got there, he remembered in Keepin’ It Real, he “wore my newfound black pride like a medal on my pumped-out chest.” After graduation, Powell spent the early 1990s teaching English at New York University.
In 1992 Powell got his first taste of life in the public eye as a cast member on the original season of MTV’s the Real World, which became one of MTV’s biggest hits. Seven disparate twentysomethings were chosen to live rent-free for three months in a lavish Manhattan loft and to have every detail of their lives and interactions taped, edited, broadcast, and re-broadcast on MTV. Powell was shown having many fallings-out with his roommates, often about issues of race.
Powell was portrayed as an “antagonistic jerk,” according to the Boston Globe and, after all was said and done, was bitter about the MTV experience. “The people were selfish, inconsiderate, and had no respect for people’s differences,” Powell said in the Globe. “I would never, never, under any circumstances, do it again.” He claimed,
Born on April 24, 1966, in Jersey City, NJ; son of Shirley Mae Powell. Education: Rutgers University; State University of New Jersey, 1984-88.
Career: New York University, English instructor, 1990-92; MTV’s Real World, writer, host, cast member, 1992; Vibe magazine, staff writer, 1993-96; author: Recognize: Poems, 1995; Keepin’ It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics, 1997; editor, In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers, 1993; Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, 2000.
Addresses: Publisher—John Wiley & Sons, 605 Third Ave., New York, NY 10158.
as did other cast members, that events were artfully edited to appear more dramatic and controversial, and key moments were left out. Highly intense exchanges between Powell and his roommates were often taken out of context. His big fight with roommate Becky about race was broadcast, while Becky thanking Powell later for opening her eyes to African-American culture was not. Powell was accused of throwing a candlestick at roommate Julie in a fit of rage, but the fact that the incident happened the day the Rodney King verdict was delivered was left out.
The “angry young poet,” as writer Traci Grant described him in the Globe, benefitted minimally, he claimed, from his appearance on the show. He considered the exposure a “Catch-22,” he said in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution —while he was thankful as a young writer to get the attention, he also learned some of the down sides of notoriety. He found that people are “very competitive and insecure and jealous,” he said in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and that the attention he received “was just a lot of hype.” After the show ended, he continued writing for Rolling Stone, Essence, and The Source, all magazines he had been working for before the show. He received much flack for his honest essay that appeared in Essence in 1992, called “The Sexist in Me.” He eventually was hired as a staff writer at Vibe, where he worked until 1996. He also published a book of poetry, called Recognize: Poems, in 1995.
For his first effort as an editor, Powell co-edited a collection of poetry and fiction called In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers, which was published in 1993. Critic Angela Kinamore wrote in Essence, “It’s a well-crafted collection… that should be read by all who want to know what’s on the minds of young people.” Kinamore felt that the anthology, which contained works about politics, hip-hop, and black ancestry, was an indication that there was a “new literary movement coming forth.”
By 1997 the bad memories of the Real World may have faded a bit, and Powell hoped to “put some distance between me and Vibe and MTV” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He published collection of essays titled Keepin’ It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics. In the book’s introduction, Powell states that the book is his way of exploring black and American issues. According to critic Deborah Gregory in Essence, the writer put “many of his ’issues’ under a microscope to magnify the larger isms that plague America.” Critic Mary Carroll, in a Booklist review, wrote, “Powell’s lucid essays give abstract social and cultural issues a human face.”
In 2000 Powell edited his second collection of black writers called Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature. The book features a diverse group of 104 contemporary writers—famous and obscure, aged 23 to 43, and from nine countries and three continents. Inclusion in the book, rather than requiring a certain criteria, was based mostly on Powell’s taste. His picks include “previously published writing he has read and liked,” according to critic Bakari Kitwana in the Progressive, and that selection provides “interesting writing…. that covers an adequate range of issues that speak to this generation.” However, Kitwana deemed the collection “hardly comprehensive.”
Step Into a World, organized under the headings of essays, hip-hop journalism, criticism, fiction, poetry, and dialogue, reflects “the diversity of talent” among a group of writers who are “generally lumped together under the heading of black writers,” wrote critic Vanessa Bush in the Booklist. With the collection, Bush continued, Powell “celebrates the enduring artistry and worth” among black writers. Library Journal critic Roger A. Berger wrote that the collection “maintains a precarious balance between authentic discovery and promotional marketing,” with the “quality and relevance” of the writing varying widely. Kitwana praised Powell’s collection in the Progressive: “If Black America’s divided generations are going to understand each other better,” reading the book would be “a good place to start.”
Powell’s own contribution to the anthology, an essay titled “The Word Movement,” explores a contemporary turn in black communication—he celebrates hip-hop journalism, spoken word, and the works of such New York writers as Greg Tate and Lisa Jones, among others he sees as pioneers of this new literary movement. Powell labels all young black writers part of this renaissance. “I wanted this anthology to be regarded as a definitive text of this era, as the mouthpiece for the Word Movement, much in the same way that The New Negro and Black Fire represented their times,” he wrote in the introduction to Step Into a World. “If I was going to do this, I thought, I would like to cast a wide net in search of some of the best and brightest writers of the Word Movement.”
Powell has accomplished a great deal in his life. In Keepin ’ It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics, Powell wrote: “Over the course of the last decade I’ve been a flag-waving patriot, a Christian, an atheist, a Muslim, a student leader, a homeless person, a pauper, a loner, a social worker, a poet, a misogynist, an English instructor, an MTV ’star,’ a full-time journalist, an egomaniac, a manic-depressive, a bully, a punk, an optimist, a pessimist” But above all, Powell continued, he remained “someone who is always trying to find and tell the truth as I see it.”
(Editor) In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers, Harlem Writers Press, 1993.
Recognize: Poems, Harlem River Press, 1995.
Keepin’It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics, One World/Ballantine, 1997.
(Editor)Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
Henderson, Ashyia, editor, Who’s Who Among African Americans, 13th edition, The Gale Group, 2000.
Powell, Kevin, Keepin’ It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics, One World/Ballantine, 1997.
Powell, Kevin, editor, Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 17, 1997, p. D2.
Booklist, September 1, 1997, p. 40; November 15, 2000, p. 604.
Boston Globe, August 15, 1992, p. 27.
Essence, July 1993, p. 46; October 1997, p. 60.
Library Journal, November 15, 2000, p. 69.
Progressive, July 2001, p. 41.
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