Kevin Powell, former Real World-er, grows up, takes stock, and talks back

by Adrienne Martini

"And I, too, am in for more changes. I recognize so clearly now that this has been the pattern of my life. 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, and most of all, someone who is always trying to find and tell the truth as I see it."

—Kevin Powell, Keepin' It Real

Seven years, three books, and countless bylines later, Kevin Powell still sounds like the same passionate crusader he appeared to be during the first season of MTV's The Real World. Since season's end, his resume has grown, now reading like a laundry list of publications that any writer would kill to work for, including Rolling Stone, George, Playboy, and The New York Times;Powell was also a senior writer at Vibe. One of his strengths is his honesty, a trait evident in his collection of searingly personal essays, Keepin' It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics.

In seven years, his voice, both written and in person, has become stronger, more focused, richer somehow. The young, angry black male—a persona that was created both by Powell's actions and the editors of the series—has been replaced by a sharp, mature man with an easy laugh who speaks straight from his heart about race, about activism, and about pop culture.

"Every life experience is a great experience," Powell says of his involvement in The Real World. "I have no regrets. And what it did, being in my mid-20s at the time, going right to Vibe, being a writer with a national byline, and the world knowing what you look like—you can't turn that down. The thing that is annoying at times is that people think it launched my career. I was writing in college, earlier than college. I was actually working on my first piece for Vibe when we were taping that show."

Most of us, however, get to leave our years behind us as we grow older, barring relatives with home movies and parental photo albums. To the rest of the world, we all have the opportunity to change from year to year. Not so for Powell, whose early 20s are constantly replayed and rediscovered by new viewers who don't realize that time has passed.

"It's a trip because people expect me to be the same, especially when I go to colleges. MTV will show stuff over and over—I mean we'll never change and Kurt Cobain will never die as far as MTV is concerned," Powell says, punctuating the thought with a laugh. "When I'm on campus, they'll expect this guy with a lot of hair on top, the overalls, the whole thing—and I'm in a Hugo Boss suit and a very conservative haircut."

In the time that has passed since he and his Real World cast-mates graduated to the real, real world, Powell—in addition to his writing career, which included a book of poetry, recognize, as well as co-editing an anthology of young black writers—has also become a powerful lecturer. He travels to 30 colleges per semester and will be coming to speak in Knoxville on February 9 about "Get Up On It," a non-profit organization he helped create in order to stimulate activism and voter education among younger people.

Powell explains: "When I was a staff writer at Vibe magazine a couple of years back, we—myself and an editor named Rob Kenner—came up with idea. I'm covering Tupac Shakur, Lenny Kravitz and young black kids and young white kids are plugging into the magazine. I just felt like we should be doing something more than just profiling celebrities.

"Part of it is—I was an activist in college and I'm still very active in my community in Brooklyn. So we created this section called 'Get Up On It.' Every month we did a Q&A or an essay with people like Mario Cuomo or Jocelyn Elders and on current issues like abortion rights, affirmative action.

"Then when I left Vibe in '96, I took the name with me," Powell laughs. "We just got our first grant—from the Beastie Boys. They have this thing called the Milarepa Fund in California and we were one of the non-profits they picked in New York. Our basic goal is to be a little bit broader than Rock the Vote in terms of trying to raise social consciousness among young people, specifically young people in the inner city. Our website will be up in the next few weeks and we plan to be very active in the next year, in terms of not just voter registration but voter education."

In fact, Powell views lack of participation in the political process as one of the biggest problems facing younger folk.

"It's weird," he says, "I'm 30 and 10 years ago, a lot of us in college felt like our generation was about to be like the '60s again. A lot of stuff was going on. Apartheid. The Reagan Era—whether you loved Reagan or hated Reagan you had an opinion about Reagan.

"Now there's concern about things, there's a desire to do something, but a lot of young people that I've encountered aren't sure about what to do and, as a result, don't do a lot of stuff. I've been amazed about the level of apathy on a lot of college campuses. But do think there is a desire for betterment.

"I think a lot of people are disillusioned about the leadership of this country. Obviously, the stuff that's happening with Clinton has made a lot of people wonder what's going on. In my own community, the black community, we have Marion Barry and the corruption and abuse of power and getting in trouble for sexual conduct—it turns a lot of people off. What I tell a lot of younger people is that leadership is waiting for us, really. It takes us realizing that we do have the ability to empower ourselves and our future."

Still, though, there are other problems facing today's youth, namely the gap that still exists between different races. Have things improved in Powell's opinion?

"I have a lot of white friends, if that's what you mean," he chuckles. "Individually, and I always say this, a lot of us relate to each other—and I'm speaking specifically about the relationship between blacks and whites, because I think that's the ongoing dysfunctional drama in this country.

"Yes [the relationship has improved], because I can say 'hey, my mother only had a fifth grade education. She was born in South Carolina, came up from the South, and that affected her ability to do anything really meaningful with her life, outside of having to quit school to work. My grandparents were illiterate and my great-grandfather was lynched. So I'm the first generation to go to college. That's progress.'

"On the other hand, I look at what happened to James Byrd in Texas. To the little black girl in Nevada. What happened here in New York City, the Haitian immigrant you've heard about. And, then some of the lectures I've gone to the questions during the Q&A section, white students will get up and say 'why does history matter?' and 'The Civil Rights movement is ancient history.'

"And I will say to people that we still have some serious issues to deal with, trying to right a historical wrong. We did some things but it ended. The Civil War ended. The Civil Rights movement ended. Obviously now, Affirmative Action has been turned back and there's still a huge gap in perception of race and racism between black and white America, with a few minimal exceptions. That's where there's a problem to me, how we see things. How I see things is usually a lot differently than how my white peers see things, and vice versa."

It is these differences in perception—whether they be between blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor—that are the focus of Powell's work. He candidly speaks his mind. He lectures. And, above all else, he writes about all of these topics.

In "A Letter to My Cousin Anthony," a heart-breakingly honest piece written to an estranged cousin who was a soul sibling, Powell's clear intentions break though. It is the voice of a man who knows the importance of words and who has learned who he is.

"For the record, Anthony," Powell states, "I do not—after all these years of reflection and self-reflection—hate anyone. Not white people. Not black people. Not myself. What I do despise greatly is being placed in a rigid racial or cultural box, regardless of whether it's whites or blacks doing the placing. I don't like to be labeled or pigeonholed, because I now recognize that there are many ingredients that make up who I am. Nonetheless, I am very proud to be African American and, in fact, wouldn't care to be anything else. Or anyone else, for that matter."