Chuck D – the iconic rap pioneer and cultural antagonist extraordinaire – was peeking out from the wings at a Spokane crowd Wednesday, pondering what he called “my elder statesman role.”
“I was an elder statesman even when I was a younger elder statesman,” he said.
He felt, in other words, ready to speak out, ready to disrupt and ready to lead despite the fact that he was in his 20s when his rap career started. Many of the central leaders in the civil rights movement were also young when they took on brave, important leadership roles.
“They were young!” he said. “Dr. King and Malcolm X – they were assassinated at 39! Today, someone who’s 35 might not feel they’re old enough.”
Issues of youth and maturity were on Chuck’s mind Wednesday as he prepared to speak to an auditorium full of mostly young people at Spokane Falls Community College as part of its Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. In particular, Chuck D emphasized to students that they have to see themselves as able and mature and ready to do important things.
“We’re a society that favors the dumbing- and the younging-down,” he said. “You at Spokane Community College – you aren’t youth. You aren’t young.”
In the age of selfies, he said, “We’re all designing our outsides, wallpapering our outsides. … Who’s designing your insides? That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about: character.”
Chuck D was 26 when Public Enemy released its first album. The group quickly became flashpoint artists – militant, aggressive, unrepentantly radical in opposing systemic racism. It also became one of the first rap acts to reach major levels of success, with gold records and critical praise. On the cover of “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” Chuck and Flava Flav posed behind bars. Their anthem “Fight the Power” – the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” – took big, fat swipes at white cultural icons Elvis and John Wayne. “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” Chuck rapped.
When Arizona voters rejected a holiday for Martin Luther King, Public Enemy responded with “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” an angry blast whose video imagined an armed response to the decision and explicitly connected it to King’s assassination. MTV played the video once. The national media engaged in one of their regular violence-in-rap hand-wringings, and pundits declared that Public Enemy was working counter to the spirit of King.
On Wednesday, Chuck argued that provocative art has always gone hand in hand with activism, particularly when it comes to civil rights and the African-American experience. The wellspring of rock and roll and rap is the blues – the expression of a people whose political and cultural voice was otherwise silenced. Chuck grew up in Queens in a home where the musical heroes sat side by side with the cultural ones – from MLK to the more radical voices like Huey P. Newton.
“The music and the activism were intertwined as one,” he said.
Chuck’s appearance at SFCC was sponsored by the Black Student Union. He spoke for around an hour, shifting loosely and seemingly impulsively from subject to subject. He didn’t talk much about himself or Public Enemy – “You can Google me” – but touched briefly on many subjects, ranging from inequality (“Never have so many been screwed by so few”), to technology (“Be on top of technology. Don’t let technology be on top of you”), to rampant materialism in hip-hop (“I’m more important than my damn car. Y’all are, too. If you get to where you’re less important than something you bought, you need to check yourself”), to laser eye surgery (“I don’t got a fancy car, don’t wear jewelry – I got Lasiks. Pretty dope”), to the absence of women in modern hip-hop (“Where are the women? Take women out of anything, and you’ve got a penitentiary.”)
But his main advice to the audience was perfectly suited for an elder statesman: Value intelligence and character; work hard in school; help those who are younger than you; pursue your art with honesty and independence; reject the “caveman” thinking behind racism.
He also provided a sterling, flesh-and-blood example of something that’s easy to forget: The civil rights movement was, in historical terms, not that long ago. There is a rush among some to declare racism over, solved and done – black and white footage, ancient history.
Tell it to Chuck D, who was in third grade when MLK was assassinated.
“I still got ‘Negro’ on my birth certificate,” he said. “You gotta fight to be a human.”