Kevin Powell’s Skill to Be Real

BK Nation Founder Finds True Purpose

Posted Oct 26, 2015

Kevin Powell, used with permission
Source: Kevin Powell, used with permission

It takes skill to be real;

time to heal each other

    — “That’s Just The Way It Is” by Tupac Shakur  

Kevin Powell is one of the most powerful voices of his generation.

From his seminal interviews with Tupac Shakur, to his poignant discussion of recent violence in Baltimore, to his founding of the non-profit organization BK Nation, Powell has held a mirror up to society and has helped us confront issues such as racism and poverty.

And in his new autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell, he places these societal issues in a vivid and searing personal context. Powell illustrates how abandonment, abuse, racism and poverty destroyed his self-concept, leaving him feeling hopeless and depressed. But despite these challenges, his personal story is ultimately one of hope with a very clear statement:

No matter what we face, if we can find our sense of purpose, we can build the best version of who we are – our real self.

The eminent psychologist, Carl Rogers, proposed that in order for people to grow in a healthy way, they need supportive environments in which they experience consistent empathy from others. An individual grows to his/her potential when s/he can experience and work within this type of supportive environment. But an unsupportive environment can do the opposite—destroy an individual’s sense of self.

Throughout his life, Powell faced many forms of stress that research has shown to damage mental health and development. Powell’s father abandoned him and his mother, leaving them in poverty. His mother would often physically abuse Powell as a form of discipline. And he regularly faced racism, including being called racial slurs as well as being beaten rather than protected by police officers.

What was particularly striking about Powell’s account of his life was how common these stressful events were, to the point of being commonplace. Powell told me, “When you’re a kid growing up in that environment, it doesn’t feel abnormal. I don’t think I really started thinking about it until after I became an adolescent. I went to an integrated school with people with backgrounds that were different from mine, racially and class-wise, and I saw how they lived.”

“And that made me think about my situation. We used to joke when I was growing up that if you grew up in an inner-city environment or poverty or what we called the ghetto…If you are ten years old, you have to add about five years to that, your experiences are so different. And you’ve experienced so many things that the average kid hasn’t experienced. You see kids out at midnight or 1 in the morning on a school night,” he said.

“It’s just a different reality.”

For Powell, while he faced many forms of adversity, what appeared most salient to him was what he described as a lack of love from his parents and society in general. “A lot of people didn’t know how to express love or it had to be on their terms…My mother, she expressed it the best she could, but that was very limited. People weren’t always there for me. Either they weren’t physically there, like my father, just gone—not emotionally available,” he explained.

Most psychological theories of development highlight that love and connection to others are crucial to well-being. Powell sees this as a universal need. “I’m Black, but I can tell you from my experience—I get emails and have interactions with kids who are White, Black, Latino, Asian—and the common theme is that they are looking for someone to listen to them. They are looking for someone that respects who they are and they want some sense of love,” he said. “And that’s what I was looking for.”  

“That’s a human story to me. That’s a human experience.”

The absence of a supportive environment left Powell feeling hopeless, angry and depressed and that he didn’t even exist to others. “I was always depressed. I was always sad. When I was a kid, people used to say I didn’t smile much. I always had a frown on my face or I was mad.  I was mad about our circumstances, our poverty. I was mad about my father not being there. I was mad about the conditions we had to live under.  There was always this kind of hopelessness,” he said.

“Did I feel invisible? Oh, yeah. My life didn’t matter.”

Powell found himself in in a cycle of not being able to express love or accept love from others. “There were self-esteem issues; during my first week of college not being able to express emotion or accept a hug from someone because I didn’t know how to do that,” he said.

And yet, Powell stood resolved to change his situation. Many children who grow up in difficult circumstances show resilience, or the ability to use a wide range of skills to cope with stressful events. One of Powell’s core skills to claim his identity and his life was hard work. “There were no real options; you had to figure it out. You hope that you can make it, because of the situation—and so the only thing I knew how to do coming up was work hard.”

One of Powell’s early opportunities to put his philosophy of hard work into effect was when his mother first took him to the public library and got him a library card.  Literacy and education may be one of the most effective means of combating the cycle of poverty, and research suggests that access to libraries may improve standardized test scores and other educational outcomes. At the library, Powell found something that not only engaged him, but also was consistent—form of “love.” 

“It blew my mind. To this day, I don’t do Kindle, I don’t own an iPad. I have shelves of books. To me, it’s symbolic of what the library represented to me as a kid.  It was liberation. It was freedom.  It was an explosion of my imagination. It was love. Books were the one thing that gave me love. And it was unconditional, if that makes sense,” Powell said. “It may sound weird to people, but I got lost in those stories. I was imagining myself being Hamlet. I imagined myself being one of those characters in Poe’s short stories. I loved that stuff. I’d imagined myself being one of Dickens’ characters. It was liberating.  And when I got to college and discovered Black writers—to see that I could actually do this because there were concrete examples like Langston Hughes or Zora [Neale] Hurston.”

Recent research suggests that reading literary fiction actually improves one’s ability to be empathic. Part of the explanation is that becoming interested in a fictional character will engage an individual in understanding others’ emotions and motivations such that they will develop more empathic skill.

Powell explained how this process developed for him, “I just finished this summer The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. I hadn’t read the book since college.  I’m not a woman. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman, someone who identifies as a woman. However, empathy and compassion came through, so I could feel their stories,” he said. 

Having experienced a new sense of empowerment, Powell embarked on the next step of his journey by becoming an activist. He addressed social issues both on his college campus at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and in the world. This included working with fellow activists such as Lisa Williamson (a.k.a. former Public Enemy member Sister Souljah) and current Newark mayor, Ras Baraka, to speak out and organize protests against racism. This included protesting the university’s involvement with corporations that directly or indirectly supported apartheid in South Africa. Powell later went on to become a member of the first cast of MTV’s The Real World in which he engaged in some of the most frank and honest discussions about racism that had been seen on television at that point in time.

His commitment to activism in combination with his love of books inspired a natural career choice—journalism. Journalism gave Powell not only the opportunity to validate his own perspectives, but also the chance to effect change in the world. Powell went on (and continues) to write for major outlets such as Esquire, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post.

“My job as a writer and an artist is to paint the picture. I tell the truth. People ask me, ‘Did this stuff really happen?’ People have been in shock. Some folks, they had no idea. That’s part of the problem: We are so disconnected from each other in New York City, in this country, because whenever you turn a corner, one block is a very affluent area and then another block is a poor area. They had no idea that a Kevin Powell existed across the street and he might one day end up being a writer,” he explained.

Powell became most famous perhaps for his work at Vibe magazine, reporting on a hip hop culture that Powell has described as “the most important youth culture on the planet.” It was at Vibe that Powell began getting sought-after interviews with hip hop superstars including an interview with Tupac Shakur while Shakur was in prison. Powell was and continues to be one of the central voices in documenting and interpreting the complex interaction of art, culture and activism that is so crucial to hip hop music.

And yet, Powell described how this success at Vibe didn’t heal some of the wounds he’d experienced because he felt as though the same racism that he’d faced throughout his life was still present at Vibe. Powell still felt that in order to cope, he needed to present to the world a façade that was not his authentic self. Research suggests that people can often feel like “impostors” and that “perceived fraudulence” can be associated with increased psychological distress.

“I never felt like I was doing it completely on my terms. For a period of time, I wore this mask, this journalist who was doing all these cover stories. But underneath it, my activism felt frustrated because of racists at the magazine and how Black folks at the time weren’t allowed to be editors or run the magazine, which I thought was crazy, given that it was hip hop culture that was created by people of color,” he said. “I felt like I was participating in some kind of a game in the entertainment industry or the media industry.  And that made me miserable.”

“One of the problems I even have now with publishing companies is that I equate writing with freedom. I equate art with freedom, so when I feel like my freedom is being taken away or someone is trying to control me, that’s when I’m not happy. And my time at Vibe—I didn’t know how to use my voice in a way that was effective,” he said.

“As much as I value my journey—I don’t say career—I value that period. And if you came to my house, you’d see framed pictures of all the Vibe covers and the Rolling Stone covers and other covers that I did. Some of it was really a façade for someone who was really not happy. So it really hadn’t changed much.”  

Not being able to express one’s authentic feelings can have consequences. Research shows that this type of emotional suppression actually makes negative emotions worse, not better. “I’ve seen so many people go through it with alcohol abuse, drug abuse, both. People who have committed suicide and I had no idea they were depressed at all or sad or any of that,” Powell said.

Powell was eventually fired from Vibe in 1996, which triggered an episode of depression. There is increased recognition that mental health issues such as depression can be just as debilitating as physical disease such as diabetes. In fact, The World Health Organization and World Economic Forum found that mental illness costs the world $2.5 trillion a year and will cost $6 trillion per year by 2030 in large part due to disability including an inability to work.

Powell recounts his experience, “And depression is debilitating. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t have anywhere to live…Depression paralyzes you. You end up in this depressed state, feeling like a failure. And what I remember was people saying to me, ‘Oh, man, you fell off.’ People saying, ‘Your career’s over.’ I really believed that. I felt like that because I also had heard, unfortunately, stories about writers who were hot at a certain point and then they just disappeared. I didn’t want to become one of those people. And that was the one thing that I had…it was my writing.  And it took me a long time to realize that no one can take this away from me.”

Worse, along with being fired from Vibe, a series of other public incidents triggered alcohol abuse and active thoughts of suicide in Powell. He described, “And then Tupac gets killed in September. And then six months later, Biggie Smalls gets killed…Kurt Cobain commits suicide. River Phoenix died of a drug overdose; and these are all people in my generation. You start to feel, or at least I began to feel, what is the point in all of this?”

“Why am I here?”

Powell tried different avenues to continue his work, including two unsuccessful runs for Congress. But what truly helped Powell take another step towards understanding himself was going to Africa. “I had opportunities to go long before to Africa. I think timing is everything. I’m not really a religious person but I really believe in the spiritual. The woman that I thought I was going to marry—but that’s over; bankruptcy happened; failed congressional campaign. It’s almost like Africa fell out of the sky. I thought I’d won a game-show prize—a free trip to Africa. It just happened.”

And this experience helped him connect with a part of his heritage, and himself, in a different way—a way that validated rather than disrupted his identity. “And when I got there, people were like, ‘welcome home.’ It made me draw back on all things I studied in college about Africa—about slavery, about colonialism. And I just needed it, because I realized that it was a part of the journey—not just finding where I came from, my DNA, but also I had to think long and hard about my father and these last few years all over again. And it’s almost like all the pieces came together. And they came together in a very beautiful way that I could not have scripted myself. I think wherever people are from or their ancestry is from, they need to go home.”

“Going to Africa changed my life. It’s one thing to see images on TV, it’s one thing to read a book, but to see if for yourself...I would see people, and they would remind me of images of my family in South Carolina, images of people in the Caribbean, sitting the same way, walking the same way; people who reminded me of my mother and my aunt and my grandmother. It was really incredible. It really shook my spirit in a way that it needed to be shaken at that particular time in my life.” 

“I was searching. That’s what life is about.”

“I feel very blessed, going to Africa…that has humbled me in a way that I had probably not been humbled since Vibe. The difference now is it’s not a destructive humbling; it’s a humbling where I’m very thankful for every day that I wake up.  What could I do now to serve the universe, to serve people?”

There is substantial evidence that finding a sense of purpose predicts longevity and well-being. One research study followed more than 6,000 people over the course of 14 years, with more than 500 dying during the course of the study. Those who died were less likely to have a sense of purpose. More, those who help others are also healthier and happier. A meta-analysis of 17 cohort studies shows that volunteering is associated with lower depression, improved life satisfaction and well-being and that volunteers have lower mortality rates over time.

Powell found his sense of purpose on his own terms when he founded BK Nation. The mission of BK Nation is to combine activism, pop culture and social media to create projects, campaigns and forums to address important social issues. And at the core of Powell’s mission with BK Nation is to provide the empathy, the connection—the love—that he was not able to have as a child. “What I hope people understand is that we have to create spaces for young people where they don’t have these kinds of pressures,” he said. 

Part of what sparked Powell’s starting BK Nation was to move away from working within the confines of someone else’s vision and to create his own vision that he felt was authentic. “I had a conversation with Eve Ensler from New York, who lives in Africa part of the time.  I love her. I think she’s an amazing woman. And she said to me, ‘Kevin, you just need to create an alternative. Create what you want to see.’”

“She explained to me what she’s doing in Africa.  She’s doing work with empowering women and helping them be the leaders that they already are...That really put a fire under me.  I have to build something. I feel like my life has totally been separated in some way—the activist side, the service side, the writer/artist side,” he said. “But putting them all together, that’s why there’s monthly forums. That’s why we’ve been in Ferguson. That’s why we have  Why not make it all together as one entity?  These are my passions.  I love art.  I love culture.  I love helping people.  Why separate it?  Let’s work with other people who also feel the same way, who are also about bridge-building.  We always have diversity; it’s an intentional diversity.  I think we should all come together.”

And he’s been thrilled with the results thus far. “It’s been incredible.  I’m shocked when people say, ‘BK Nation—I went to your event.’ We just do it.  We do the work. We love people. We care…To me, it’s social capital that’s so valuable. Because we had some incredible people come into our space. And…if we can’t answer a question, we have folks who can answer that question. We have a network of folks who can say, ‘Hey, here’s the GED programs or the after-school programs’ —whatever it is. And we have these loose networks around the country that are really incredible, as we build this thing.  It’s been intensely slow focusing on New York, but eventually out around the country,” he said.

“Our motto is—and what we really believe is—‘We the people.’  That’s what we really feel strongly about, whether we are supporting elected officials or faith-based people — preachers, rabbis, imams— but let’s not take power away from the people.  People need to know that they can do a lot of things themselves, and that is critical for BK Nation.”

One of Powell’s interests is helping boys and men find their identities, particularly as a way of addressing sexism. “I wish that when I was growing up I knew a different way to define manhood. I had no clue.  I just fell in with definitions that boys are given, particularly heterosexual boys…There are some very destructive, backwards definitions — the violence, the disrespect, the abuse, the hatred of women and girls…And I think it does a great disservice to us,” he said. “…I feel a sense of responsibility as a man who is an ally to women and girls to listen consistently, to learn to own my mistakes when I make them. I have privilege. I have gender privilege. And to really think long and hard about what kind of manhood definition do I want to leave this world with. Where do I want to take this thing? Challenging these old constructs around race, around gender, around class, around identity.”

“And if we’re really opposed to oppression, we’ve got to be opposed to all forms of oppression.” 

Powell also took another step towards healing by seeking therapy. There is evidence that psychotherapy of many forms can be useful for a range of mental health issues. Depression treatments, such as cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal psychotherapy have demonstrated efficacy comparable to medication.

“I’ve been in therapy myself for 25 years or so…it really saved my life in a lot of ways. Because I don’t know if I could have written a book like that if I hadn’t had some kind of counseling to process all of that stuff.”

And in part, through therapy, Powell has found a new way to manage his emotions. “It’s a lot to grapple with, especially when you’re a kid, and for me, it came out in fits of anger and rage and violence because I didn’t know how else to express what I was going through,” he said. “Now, I say, hey, that doesn’t work for me. But I had to find the agency to speak for myself in a way that affirmed who I was and my humanity and my identity; but at the same time, did not destroy other people’s humanity. I didn’t have those tools at the time. So, I raged. I exploded.”

“I can’t believe I’m still the same person.”

Yet Powell recognizes that he’s got his work cut out for him—he sees barriers in helping people change. “This fear of change; fear becomes like a prison. And people don’t realize that they become imprisoned by these definitions we’ve been given that have been passed as traditions, almost like the baton in a relay race.  Passed from family member to family member,” he said.

“I’m just holding up a mirror.”

“And I feel like that fear of change across the board is why people get stuck. We get comfortable and we don’t have to think about stuff.  Like James Baldwin says, people don’t want to think about these things. But if you think about them, it might mean you want to take action. But most people don’t want to take action.”

Having a long history of managing unsupportive environments, Powell feels ready to face the inevitable critique that comes when people try to change people’s perspectives. “When someone comes along who’s action-oriented, we start to criticize and dis that person. ‘What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with him? Who do they think they are?’ Or we make them feel like they’re crazy or they’re weird. I’ve always gravitated towards people who folks said are crazy or weird.  They have names like Bob Dylan, like Joni Mitchell, they have names like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X and [Martin Luther] King. Those are the people I’m interested in. They didn’t care what people said about them. People who are not afraid to go against the grain.”

“Because what’s the point of life if you are not actually going to live it?”

Ultimately, Powell is looking forward to his continued journey, starting with the publication of his new book. And his optimism is based in part because he’s finally found where he feels like he belongs – where he can be his real, authentic self. “Was it exciting to be in your 20s and have your name on the cover of magazines? Oh, yeah – it was incredibly exciting.  It was exciting to know people like Tommy Hilfiger and Quincy Jones and Tupac and all these iconic figures. It was incredible,” he said. “But I didn’t have anywhere near the kind of peace that I have right now, where I’m very clear on what I’m doing, what my focus is. I knew vaguely…I was an activist in college into the early ’90s, then I was a writer. Now I can say all of my lives have merged, and there is no separation of those things. I think I’m in a really incredible space now.”

And he will continue to focus on loving himself and others. “You really have to find it within yourself, I think ultimately that is what the book is about…that you can be this person that serves others but you really have to make sure that you have a foundation of self-love. Otherwise, you are going to be in trouble over and over again. I always had the feeling like you’re on this journey by yourself,” he said.

“I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.