Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
‘I get up from having my ass kicked, therefore I get up to kick some ass,’ is how the book, Fight the Power – Rap, Race, and Reality, ends. It is an unusual ending, but this is no usual author.
Chuck D, front man of the controversial rap group, Public Enemy, is in Glasgow on a short UK tour to launch his book. ‘It’s a manifesto,’ he says, ‘it sure ain’t a passive introduction to this world, nor is it an autobiography. I’ve never stressed the importance of me. I am a man first and a black one to the core. If those facts offend some, fuck it. Fight the Power will ruffle.’ Eschewing the staple of pop stars’ books – sex and drugs and drugs and sex – this individualistic rapper has produced something more like a textbook.
Wearing a shiny track suit, trainers and a baseball cap, he is engaging and slightly avuncular. He dispels any stereotypes of Americans never getting off the tourist track on visits to the UK: ‘It’s good to be back. I’ve been in Glasgow a few times. Up in the Barrowlands we did some great shows, some of the longest shows ever, we really ripped some shit.’
Ripping shit and kicking ass are phrases that might sum-up hip-hop. It began in the US as response to the social destruction and deprivation wrought by Reagan and Bush. Their policies tore into the economic and political gains made by African-Americans in the previous two decades. In the 1980s, urban black youth grabbed the mike and began the fightback with a language of love and rage that has travelled the globe.
Covering everything from graffiti art to breakdancing, with rap music as its most dynamic voice, the vision and aspirations of the black working class found expression in the resistance culture of hip-hop. Public Enemy was the elite guard of this ‘blacklash’ and, after 10 years of rapping, scrapping and mapping across the globe, Chuck D has taken time out and swapped the microphone for a pen.
Born in Queens, New York City in 1960, he grew up in the inner city until he was 11. Then with his parents he moved to the suburbs of Roosevelt, Long Island. After graduating from Roosevelt High School in 1979 he studied graphic design at neighbouring Adelphi University. There he missed classes to work for the local DJ operation that developed his ability as a rapper and honed his hip-hop skills. In 1986 he formed Public Enemy. Now the group has an international following of more than 20 million fans.
He writes from the heart and shoots from the hip about black power, media manipulation, Africa, education and – his favourite – the moguls of American business or, as he calls, them ‘the corporate pimps of soul’.
Chuck D uses any medium necessary to get his message to the widest possible audience. As well as the book, he has multimedia projects on the internet and he works for Murdoch’s Fox TV as a roving reporter. ‘TV news is the last racist frontier. Sometimes you’ve got to work within the system to make advances,’ he says. And despite the censorial power of news executives he claims to ‘have 100 per cent editorial control, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.’
The stereotype of the thuggish, hard-core rapper is something that Chuck D fights against. He says he has never taken drugs or had a drink of alcohol in his life. ‘I’m offended that few know that my peers are worldly, engaging, entrepreneurial, have travelled, have families, have college degrees, and pay taxes like everybody else. I’m here to set the record straight,’ he says.
In Fight the Power, which draws heavily on his own experiences, he spins through issues, flipping easily from analysis to anecdote, from private to public. He pauses only to take two-footed swings at anything he sees as an obstacle to the development of a just and equal society for all Americans.
Referring to an education system that refused to acknowledge the heritage of African Americans, he writes, ‘I clearly remember having to read Ethan Frome and Great Expectations. Fuck Ethan Frome and fuck Miss Haversham. Why did I have to read that shit instead of some James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston?’
‘It’s blatantly clear,’ he argues, ‘that the majority of black and white see the world from diametrically opposed points of view.’ Using rap as the frame of reference, his street-talk offers a welcome inside view of US race politics. ‘In a way the world of rap could be seen as a microcosm of American race politics, there is a crisis in both,’ he says. ‘People have fallen into the trap where they think that everything is OK under Clinton. Successive American governments have pacified our youth, and people are readily susceptible to ignorant views perpetuated across the media.’
Listing ‘Contract with America’, the onslaught against affirmative action programs, the Welfare Reform Bill and the Crime Bill, he says that ‘an increasingly hostile climate has developed in America towards black people and their struggle.’ This should be coupled with the developments in rap music. Hip-hop has suffered from a corporate take-over in the last few years. A once exclusive avant-garde voice of rebellion has been largely adopted and adapted by the mainstream. It is a billion dollar business with white middle-class American kids accounting for as much as 85 per cent of sales. Yet according to Chuck D, ‘the power brokers of hip-hop, the majority of them are white.’
While African Americans have restricted access to producer roles, young and impressionable rappers are pumping out negative images of black people – what Chuck D calls ‘niggativity’ – under pressure from music executives who want to cash in on genres like gangsta rap with its propensity for bigotry. The media goes along for the ride, ignoring all other areas of the music. ‘Rap is being raped,’ he says. With big money involved, the corporations care nothing for the soul of hip-hop; their only concern is with profit.
There is nothing new there. But in this case, it is slightly different, with big business exploiting a radical movement. Rap’s schizophrenic nature means that it is both the voice of alienated and rebellious black youth as well as the marketing of social discontent by record companies and ad agencies. ‘The political economy of hip-hop – its capacity to open markets, maximise profits and commodify legitimate grief and unrest is the material basis that drives it forward. However, the nature of hip hop, its political soul, is to provoke and agitate,’ according to Clarence Lusane, writing in Race & Class.
Chuck D points to this dialectic, but does not highlight it. He sees the problem as one of exploitation and he identifies its racial aspect, yet his immediate solution is to maintain the same system and to replace white producers and executives with black ones. ‘This is the perfect chance for black people, especially young black people to organise and control [rap],’ he says.
Typically hands-on and pragmatic, this could result in less racial discrimination against African Americans, but some commentators suggest that the material exploitation of the artists would continue. ‘The commodification of black resistance is not the same as resistance to a society built on commodification,’ writes Clarence Lusane.
Chuck D’s approach is in tune with recent changes in the struggle. In the last few years, access to power through financial muscle has become a major aim in the African American community. Self determination via efforts to boost the black economy has made commercial rights the focus, rather than civil or legal rights. It may be that economic justice is as important as social justice.
Although he sees economic power for black people as extremely important, he does not see problems simply in racial terms. His vision goes beyond that, as he says, ‘We are thinking about coming up and whatever foot we perceive to be on our shoulder, that’s the foot we’re going to try to knock off even if it’s a black foot. Whatever the issue, it is always a case of the haves and have nots.’
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced