author – activist – faculty – mom
2005. I’m performing at the Planet Hip Hop Conference at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ. I’m sitting in an intimate room with one of my most influential hip hop icons, Chuck D. It wasn’t a performance; he was just giving an informal talk about hip hop. And throughout his talk, hardcore old school hip hop fans would yell out opening lines to his lyrics. And call and response style, everyone else in the room would finish the verse. Halfway through his talk, I yell out the opening line to “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, “I got a letter from the government/The other day…” I said never and everyone roars along with me: “I opened and read it/It said they were suckers/They wanted me for their army or whatever/Picture me given’ a damn/I said never!”
In my early teens, I was a peace activist in the mostly white anti-nuclear movement in Berkeley, CA. I found most of my black peers to be concerned with sports, fashion, and socializing. One of the reasons I was attracted to my first boyfriend was because he was a draft resister, the first black draft resister I ever met. But Public Enemy was the voice of my black hip hop awakening to . In that song, Chuck D bridged my two worlds: he was a black man espousing an anti-military, anti-US imperialist perspective within the pro-black hip hop music that I loved.
So it’s been an interesting challenge for me as a writer–no longer being that wide-eyed young girl hip hop fan–coming out publicly and disagreeing with something Chuck D said and calling him out publicly about his sexism. As a fan, I couldn’t initially see his sexism, or didn’t want to see it. But I eventually did become disillusioned. But the love that I’ve always had for him and his vision has meant that I haven’t ever criticized him publicly on a national platform. So, even now, I feel disloyal. Which is part of the internalized sexism that many of us have as black women. Even when men aren’t supportive of us and don’t validate the reality of our lives, we have to be there for them and protect them and not air the dirty laundry. Even though I’ve criticized other black men publicly before, from R.Kelly to Obama, Chuck D is the one that to whom I feel a more personal debt and a duty to be loyal. And it’s good to notice that I’ve disagreed with him thoughtfully, respectfully, in a principled way, with compassion. But the brother is wrong.
And that same song that I loved so much has a femicidal ending. Here’s an excerpt about that from the piece that appears today in xojane.
In the fantasy narrative of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Chuck D assumes the first person of a draft resister who ends up in jail, steals a gun, takes six corrections officers (C-Os) hostage, and leads a daring escape.
6 C-Os we got we ought to put their head out [kill them]
But I’ll give ’em a chance, cause I’m civilized
Got a woman C-O to call me a copter
She tried to get away, and I popped her [shot her]
Now who wanna get nice?
I had 6 C-Os, now it’s 5 to go
What happened here? The female officer is the one who gets shot? What happened to being “civilized”?
I’ve written about sexism in hip hop before, and specifically my moment of disillusionment with Chuck D. As part of my hip hop theater show about fighting sexism, “Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip Hop,” I recreated the scene at a Public Enemy concert where I felt the full impact of Chuck D’s sexism:
Chuck D: All right, all right. I want all the brothers to put a peace sign in the air. Cuz we’re about peace tonight. Yeah brothers. It’s all about peace up in here.
Me: you tell em, Chuck!
Chuck: That’s right brothers, you look good. Now sistas, don’t think I forgot you.
Me: What do you want me to do, Chuck? Put a fist in the air. My fist is ready chuck! I’m down with the revolution! Whatever you say, C huck! I’m ready to battle! Malcolm said by any means necessary, and you just name the means, Chuck. You just name the means.
Chuck D: I want all the sisters in the house….
Me: I’m ready, Chuck. Just name it, Chuck. You just say the word.
Chuck D: All the sisters in the house….to scream.
Me: [whispers] What? You just want the sisters to scream? What kind of revolution is that? That’s what every rapper wants women to do. Every stupid sexist sucka mc. I thought this was supposed to be about knowledge of self, Chuck? You can’t really mean that’s all you want from me. This was supposed to be too black, too strong. That’s too whack and too weak. What about the revolution, Chuck? I was ready.
But even as I criticized Chuck D in my theater show, I knew he would never come to Oakland and see it. Part of what makes this article different is that today’s social media means that he and I are more connected than before. So when I tweet about this, if I use Chuck D’s twitter handle, or even if I don’t, he may read my words about him, and take offense or have an epiphany or respond critically. And there’s something unnerving about that.
In my xojane article, I am critical of his perspective on fathers and fatherhood. And yet, the feelings of disloyalty I have toward him are typical of those a daughter would feel toward a father. A classic dynamic in heterosexual families is for the father to dominate, and for the mom and kids to whisper their discontent to each other. For all of Chuck D’s limitations, he was one of the only black men in hip hop who was consistently creating content that didn’t sexualize women and who focused on uplifting the community. There was a refuge that I took in his work and his words as a young woman, and, given the climate and landscape of hip hop at the time and later, I will always be grateful to him for that piece of his integrity. At the same time, I won’t settle for a limited vision of liberation out of some sense of black family loyalty.
Recently, black women have been pushed toward loyalty when Obama rolled out his racial justice initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, and it only addressed problems for boys. Just as many black women like Kimberle Crenshaw, Britney Cooper, African American Policy Forum and many others have pointed out, young black women are targeted also. To that end, and to go with the xojane piece, this black mom stayed up way past her bedtime designing a new image, a parody of the Public Enemy logo, called “Public Feminist.” Enjoy.