A Notion of Three To Hold This Up


 

The second in the rap negritude series. The first is here, in case you need to catch up. Again - this proceeds mostly unedited from a paper I turned in about a week ago. I could've (and as you'll see, should've) written four times this much on the topic. The Kanye segment suffers even more from attenuation. May be quite a while before you see it. Enjoy!

I want to return to a Chuck D quote from the introduction. When asked to reflect on the politics he and his band were endorsing at the height of both their popularity and their controversy, Chuck hesitates: “I don’t know what I was. I definitely wasn’t a capitalist. And I definitely wasn’t an American." The absence of commitment here speaks magnitudes. Because whatever his affirmative position - should it have been the NOI or Farrakhan - it was nothing if not resolutely “a black thing,” as he tended to say in It Takes A Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet. This gives us two poles by which we can understand the band: black and not capitalist, not American (read: not white).

Chuck hesitates in part, I argue, because - like Bambaataa - his art was larger than any one ideology. But we, as listeners and readers, should not hesitate, not with the thesis I’ve sketched. Chuck’s admission to a negative politics invokes at least two of the theorists I've mentioned. First, Frantz Fanon, who constructed a whole dialectic out of negative politics. He charged colonialists with always already “placing white culture in opposition to the other noncultures” of their colonization, and in turn dissolving the primary national bonds needed to articulate and mobilize a consistent political framework:

Colonialism did not think it worth its while denying one national culture after the other. Consequently, the colonized’s response was immediately continental in scope. In Africa, colonized literature over the last twenty years has not been a national literature but a ‘Negro’ literature. The concept of negritude for example was the affective if not logical antithesis of that insult which the white man had leveled at the rest of humanity. This negritude, hurled against the concept of the white man, has alone proved capable in some sectors of lifting taboos and maledictions.

I get the impression that this “hurled negritude” isn’t in concept far from the one we’ve credited to Afrika Bambaataa: blackness foremost, however embodied – ideology precluded on the principle of its composition from being anything like a logical antithesis to a white monoculture that can and does claim for itself coherent historical narratives. Hurled blackness, in other words: “everything but the kitchen sink” blackness, in the absence of the historical narratives denied by colonial interference. Should there be any doubts about this reading, Fanon says much the same a little more succinctly (which is to say with necessary blanket political implication) in Black Skin, White Masks:

I meet a Russian or a German who speaks French badly. With gestures I try to give him the information that he requests, but at the same time I can hardly forget that he has a language of his own, a country, and that perhaps he is a lawer or an engineer there. In any case, he is foreign to my group, and his standards must be different.

When it comes to the case of the Negro, nothing of the kind. He has no culture, no civilization, no ‘long historical past.’

This may be the reason for the strivings of the contemporary Negroes: to prove the existence of a black civilization to the white world at all costs.

This dialectic is everywhere for Public Enemy. For instance, in the summer of 1989, when Professor Griff’s rambled anti-Semitic treachery reached fever pitch in the press, Chuck was forced to defend his outfit’s “crazy-quilt” of black nationalism (NOI, Farrakhan, Black Panthers, Jesse Jackson, obscure strains of illuminati-baiting, the S1Ws and their pan-African militarism, and Aretha Franklin) as “not anti-white,” but instead “pro-black." Without a sufficiently rich cultural history to draw from, “no long historical past,” Chuck D and Public Enemy were making art and (their own) history by the only means available to them - again, a concept noted and predicted by Fanon:

By integrating the former slaves into African civilization the African intellectuals accorded [sic] them an acceptable civil status. But gradually the black Americans realized that their existential problems differed from those faced by Africans. the only common denominator between the blacks from Chicago and the Nigerians or [Tanzanians] was that they all defined themselves in relation to the whites.

Listening to Public Enemy’s records in this shade allows us to exceed Chuck a bit, as it helps clarify into finer resolution the shape of PE’s polemics. For one thing, their “everything but the kitchen sink” negritude differs greatly from Bambaataa’s, is narrower. Yes, street violence (especially black-on-black violence) was a principal antagonist for PE, but so is the white machine - if only because it is the lone figure against which an American Afrodiasporic movement may be based. Public Enemy’s house is a black house. Musically, this imposes substantial limits on their range: for instance, the rare white sample is almost always ironic or arch. And it’s a little harder to get funky after Bambaataa’s cuddly parking lot commune was steamrolled by Chuck’s fleet of Oldsmobile 98s.

Or, it would be harder to get funky if not for mega hype man, Flavor Flav - by any account rap music’s least compatible crew member. Flav brings me to the second theorist of major consequence in the PE universe: W.E.B. Du Bois. If Chuck D’s professed negative politics and Professor Griff’s unceremonious dismissal from the group on round charges of anti-Semitism indicate that the band struggled with the double-consciousness of the veil, then the antics of William Jonathan Drayton prove that Public Enemy is the veil embodied. Let Chuck explain:

Public Enemy was carefully balanced on a set of dualities, with Chuck at the center of each. Chuck and Hank constituted the musical axis. Chuck and Flav were the focal sonic and visual points of the group. Chuck and Griff confronted the media. In 1988, Chuck had described his role in the group to New Music Express:

“I’m like the mediator in all this. Flavor is what America would like to see in a Black man - sad to say, but true - whereas Griff is very much what America would not like to see. And there’s no acting here - sometimes I can’t put Flavor and Griff in the same room.

I’m in the middle. When Griff says something too much, I come to the rescue of white people; when Flavor does something, I come to the defense of Black people. I do constrain them, but not much, because Public Enemy are the only Black group making noise outside of their records.”

Talk about a 'twoness,' a 'contradiction of double aims.' But it is an essential split - for both their artistic and cultural achievements. Indulging either extreme would’ve failed. A homogenous platoon of Black Panthers - allegedly the early vision of Griff, who objected to Flav’s membership - would certainly have lacked the emotional buoyancy needed to cut an acceptable club hit (not to mention requisite for crossover appeal into the huge and rapidly growing white consumer market). While too many Flavors would’ve turnt up like a band of Waka Flocka Flames… not exactly the stuff of a civil rights convention.

But at a more significant level, the band’s strange composite  is a triumph because it animates the troubled black consciousness Du Bois so finely sketched in The Souls of Black Folk. While Du Bois - likely out of calculated self-preservation - did not anticipate the pro-black fervor of the green-black-and-red S1W militants, he surely imagined the Chuck/Flav dichotomy: the black intellectual, capable of looking over the veil to inspect and address its implications, as foil to the raving minstrel, one flaunting a foreign wardrobe and screwy pidgin English.

It’s a three-way division of black representation: Griff and his S1Ws, clad in pan-African fatigues invoke the French resistance to the politics of assimilation; Flav, the snarling court jester, as the manufactured image of a black man in the Du Bois’ America; and, finally, Chuck, the casually and confidently dressed mediating influence, bisecting two poles of deterministic politics – and exactly the sort of individual Du Bois had hoped would help make up the Talented Tenth.

Don’t believe the hype? I do. College grads, all of them, immersed fully in the black radical tradition, they may well have planned the arrangement: 

“The core of what would become Public Enemy—Carlton “Chuck D” Riden-hour, Bill Stephney, Hank “Shocklee” Boxley, William “Flavor Flav” Drayton, Richard “Professor Griff” Griffin and Harry “Allen” McGregor—were all born between 1958 to 1961, and had moved to the Black Belt by the early ‘70s. 1980 census data showed that over 40 percent of white New Yorkers lived in the suburbs, but only 8 percent of Black New Yorkers did. In other words, they were part of the race’s “talented tenth,” the very embodiment of the brightest hopes of integrationists.

It’s this variability of expression that makes Public Enemy’s music better than Bambaataa’s, despite the band’s self-imposed sampling limitations. Verse to verse, Chuck could come at you with the stuff of a highly-informed lecture or, if he wanted to, mobilize the S1Ws with some pissed off military guff – or, out of nowhere, Flav may crash headlong into proceedings with some well-meaning nonsense like “yeaaaahhhh boy,” or “man, let me tell you something, man… you know what I’m saying, man?” Add to this The Bomb Squad – a production team with an encyclopedic grasp of African American music for sample, and you arrive at the Public Enemy aesthetic: a panoply of black American voices articulating whatever from an infinite pool of black tropes and identity. This is what Fanon meant by hurled negritude.

At their best (which is to say the stretch of albums from 1988’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back… until 1998’s Spike Lee soundtrack to He Got Game) Public Enemy distilled from these elements some of the very finest rap music ever made. Listening, and pulling these constitutive parts from the music is one thing, but to witness the machinery in full effect is to watch Spike Lee’s chaotic interpretation of “Fight The Power,” PE’s first single off the hotly anticipated follow-up to Nation of Millions, the infamous Fear of a Black Planet (a vicious album now ironically exalted in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry as “culturally significant”). What follows is a reading of that music video:

The seven-minute extended cut begins with 72 seconds of Universal International’s coverage of the 1963 March on Washington – narrated in a robust bass by Ed Herlihy. The footage is familiar: sepia-toned, grainy – a depiction of thousands, mostly black, crowding the National Mall with picket signs and horn-rimed glasses, waiting for Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver an address. In summary, the narrator casts the display as profound and hopeful: “…seems as if the demonstrators were finding strength in each other, and discovered their cause was a bond.” He goes on to say that you couldn’t have found a beer in the city that day if you tried, that all the protesters, and “the twenty million negroes” they represent, needed was song and community. The effect is kitsch.

Cut to Chuck waving away the image of MLK to interject “Yo, check this out, man. We rolling this way: that march in 1963? That’s a bit of nonsense. We ain’t rolling like that no more. Matter of fact, young black America – we rolling up with seminars, press conferences and straight up rallies. Am I right?” An all black crowd yells out support. “Word up,” he continues, “ain’t going out like that ‘63 nonsense.”

A few things to note, right off: this appears to be an unexpected rejection of MLK or, even worse, the civil rights movement more generally. But it isn’t – in fact, can’t be. The song Chuck is about to sing is stitched together from samples of Syl Johnson, James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, The Soul Children (ft. Jesse Jackson), the J.B.’s, Bob Marley, Afrika Bambaataa, more James Brown, the Dramatics, Bobby Byrd, Trouble Funk, Rick James, and finally James Brown… again. “Fight The Power” is, if anything, a deliberate homage to black artists whose reputations are inseparable from the CRM struggle. The point is clear: none of this is possible without them.

So why the beef? Because Public Enemy wouldn’t have to be Public Enemy had the March been a success. Appropriately, then, the “Fight The Power” video sets about rewriting history: a mixture of old and new picket signs (contrasting the names of predominately black cities with the names of the guys in the band, “Chuck D” and “Terminator X,” with large pictures of Mohammad Ali, MLK, Harriet Tubman, and, yes, both WEB Du Bois and Frantz Fanon) to, I stress this again, an all black crowd in Brooklyn, away from the oppressive specter of the federal government.

Once assembled, the crowd assumes the mantle of the March on Washington by actually marching behind Public Enemy – toward Spike Lee, who’s orchestrating a slow tracking shot backwards. The three divisions are in full effect as they approach the camera. Professor Griff, outfit in captain’s fatigues and a red beret looks over his solder to the rank-n-file S1Ws, each dressed in similar get-ups (though their black berets are an obvious deferral of authority). Flav foregrounds the middle, an enormous beige clock atop of an equally oversized white hoodie (white sunglasses and crooked white snap cap to match) – his gait a small man’s stab at swagger. And to the right, looking calm and confident, sporting a red Phillies cap and black Oakland Raiders jacket (coast to coast casual with a subtle nod to pan-Africanism) we find Chuck D - the only civilian in this arrangement.[1]

A slow pan across the crowd, getting more hyped – waiting for the scene to unfold. The dramatic cut: to a clapperboard being snapped shut. Lee shouts “playback!” off-screen, as the board is lifted to reveal Flav making a fairly grotesque face, dawning again his white shades. The call for “playback” says quite a few things: as much as we want to believe the film depicts the rally in real time, we’re reminded – consciously – that the event is a harmless simulacrum, a staging that reimagines (in more than one take) instances of the CRM, a moment when the threat of violence was unquestionably more palpable.

Too, it’s a playback. The viewer expects to first see the stage set, with Chuck D and the band at the mic, issuing their revision of the March on Washington. Instead, Flav’s acting the fool. There’s no escaping this: serious as the song is, serious as Chuck and the S1W’s may be – “Fight The Power” is a rap single someone at Motown spent a lot of money to fund. It’s an entertainment foremost, and its playback is a caution: the politics hereof may not transcend the material realities of this medium: PE and Spike Lee are working to take your money. It’s a harsh statement to make, but we should be glad they made it. It’s suspect enough to profit on a re-staging of the March on Washington without first admitting the emperor’s got no bling.

The video proceeds just as my model predicts it should: Chuck takes center stage for the majority of the affair, dancing and gesturing mildly (remember, this is both a protest and a play) but maintaining the air of intellectual substance, authority. When he’s not lecturing straight into the camera, he’s busy scanning the audience – looking after everyone. Flav, on the other hand, changes clothes six times, and reps at least ten different clocks, as many as four at once. Near the video’s end, when the rap’s been replaced by Branford Marsalis’ fabulous sax solo (a nod even further back, before the CRM), Flav rocks his own solo, a disturbing bump and grind by himself in a green and white denim trench coat, while the S1Ws maneuver in formation a ways up stage – mixing kinda beautifully a military drill with some funk groove. Professor Griff, unmoved, stands at attention. There’s absolutely nothing to pull these pieces together except for an incumbent sense of left blackness and general camaraderie – just as I said in my intro.

Hurled in the same way are the songs lyrics, which stage pretty much the same revisioning:

1989 the number, another summer (get down)

Sound of the funky drummer

Music hitting your heart cause I know you got soul

(Brothers and sisters, hey)

Listen if you’re missing y’all

Swinging while I’m singing

Giving whatcha getting

Knowing what I know

Chuck and Flav shout the first line, proclaiming that 1989 is another summer -  not just any other summer – but the twin summer to 1963’s ‘failed’ March on Washington.[2] Then an immediate segue to CRM era music: James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” and Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” are sampled in “Fight The Power;” they get the shoutouts they’ve earned. The fourth line is yet another shoutout: to The Soul Children, whose oft-sampled “I Don’t Know What This World Is Coming To” starts with the plea “Brothers and sisters, hey, brothers and sisters… I don’t know what this world is coming to!” Then Chuck implores his audience to pay close attention, while he drops in the song’s most brilliant lyrical turn: “swinging while I’m singing / Giving whatcha getting” – an undeniable if subtle reference to Malcolm X’s famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech:

Anytime you live in the twentieth century, 1964, and you walkin' around here singing “We Shall Overcome,” the government has failed us. This is part of what’s wrong with you do too much singing. Today it’s time to stop singing and start swinging.

MLK, James Brown, Bobby Byrd, the Soul Children, and Malcolm X – in the first eight lines of a 55-line song. I don’t have enough space in this paper to capture all of it. One gets the sense Chuck and Flav never have enough time themselves to get it all down. But that’s okay. They manage to get out a little of everything, and it’s clear that’s what you need to fight the power. 


 

[1] Notably: the group is flanked to the left by a single file line of young black men dressed in the style of mid-century professors. They’re distinctly out of place, waddling alongside the three confident divisions of PE. Later in the video, Spike Lee zooms in on the professors, looking ruffled and uneasy as they hold back Brooklyn’s increasingly animated crowd. I’m not absolutely sure what to make of their presence in this video. My guess is they are linked to Chuck’s desire to mix intellectualism with pop culture (to host, as he said in the video’s intro, both “seminars and press conferences”) in his new vision of the March on Brooklyn. Point of fact: one of them looks suggestively like Frantz Fanon. However, the scant sources who address these figures seem to agree they’re local affiliates of a Nation of Islam chapter. In whichever case (there’s no reason both interpretations can’t hold) – PE appears willing to fight the power’s that be with a little bit of everything, a little bit of hurled negritude.

[2] Chuck is quoted saying ““Oh 1989, man. I planned for it to be crazy. But shit.” This is clearly a split reference. He intended to follow the success of Nation of Millions with substantial pro-black activity, a genuine second March – but was ultimately brought down when the press hounding him into kicking Professor Griff out of the group. Alas, another failed summer.