There are few rap songs as important to modern culture as Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," a rallying cry against political indifference. Well, it's been 20 years since PE's frontman Chuck D helped scare the hell out of white America, and a black man now sits in the Oval Office thanks in large part to record black turnout last November.
"We had numbers [on our side] this time," Chuck says of the election, a few days before Obama's inauguration. (His own daughter, he notes, was able to vote for the first time in 2008.) But, he admits in spite of his satisfaction, he didn't think the U.S. could get here this fast. "It's one of those things when you look at your family, when you know where you come from, you know this is that thing your family never thought would come in their lifetime. Especially my dad, my mom. Personally, I thought [it could be] maybe 10 years away."
Many would attribute Obama's election to the slow cultural shift generated by Public Enemy, along with countless musical artists who preceded them -- including Harry Belafonte, Marvin Gaye, and the Isley Brothers (who sang their own "Fight the Power" in '75). If music did indeed play a part, however, Chuck scoffs at thanking MTV.
The achievement should be laid on the shoulders of those that came before him, he said, men and women whose songs make up Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement, a three-CD set to be released by Time Life next Tuesday. The music reaches from the early days of Southern Sons and Billie Holiday through to latter-day soul by the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, up to that of Chuck D himself. In the set's introduction, Chuck explains, "You don't get a black president overnight. Songs like [these] ... make you understand the collective voices that makes it happen."
But Chuck, who's become a sage-like senior in the rap community, won't deny that his own role in the revolution fills him with pride. "More than anything, I think it's obligation and social responsibility," he says. "I always thought it was the responsibility of the artist if you're grown. If you're 13, 14, you're absolved from that. But if you're 30 years old, and you can't speak to grown people about grown-people shit, then the art is in vain."
When pressed about the impact Obama's election might have on black America, Chuck remains cautiously optimistic. Obama's election should inspire black communities to further unite into powerful constituencies, he says. It should "inspire the promotion of more diverse artists" in hip-hop, too.
The longer one speaks with Chuck D, the more clear it becomes that he hasn't given up on hope. Still, his pragmatic -- some might even say pessimistic -- approach to events can make him sound like a Doubting Thomas who's seen the glory of a savior and still wants more. Obama's victory is an accomplishment, he stresses, but it's certainly not the end of the struggle.
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"I do a lot of my living outside the United States, and, over the last 10 or 12 years, I've seen the U.S. fall back and actually be behind the rest of the planet," he says. "In this election, the U.S. finally caught up." Now the country has the "great opportunity to rise up to the stands and political ideals Barack Obama has set."
There's still one nagging question, considering that "Fight the Power" was and remains an anthem against the Man -- the traditional white repressors. With Obama sitting in the White House, does his new role inherently make him the Man, too? "In a way, yes," Chuck agrees. His campaign "never really had a face on it. It was a theme without a face."
Doubting Chuck. He believes, but he's not ready to lay down his mike just yet.
-- Cole Haddon