As I was listening to Public Enemy’s magnum opus (I do believe that is the official Son of Byford stance), I found myself reflecting on how certain songs and prophetic observations made on the album still hold sway in American society today. How things really haven’t changed that much from 1990 to 2015. Here are a few of my reflections:
“Burn, Hollywood, Burn”
Whenever Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube come together for a track, then you better damn well pay attention. This song is all about how Hollywood, throughout its history, has relegated black people, especially in mainstream films, to the roles of servants and chauffeurs. Hollywood has retrograded its black actors, actresses and crew to the status of pre-Civil Rights era roles and positions. As far as Hollywood is concerned, in the age of Driving Miss Daisy, black people should still play second string to the white majority.
And if you think this mentality has disappeared in Hollywood and you haven’t been convinced by such films as The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Help, I think you need to take a harder look. Much in line with PE’s critique of Hollywood, another MC, Sho Baraka, commented on this same trend in Hollywood on a track entitled “Jim Crow” from his 2013 album, Talented 10th:
Hollywood wants to pimp us to get dough
Exploit us, but give us money
Somebody say “Ho!”
Let’s thank them movies and them TV shows
Be a token or I’ll play an Uncle Tom role
Or be a magic negro until the day I’m gone
Help the white man reach his goal
But never reach my own
Or an oversexed male
Even a coon
A young man who loves ignorance
Praising his doom
And then take the recent Oscar snub of Ava Duvernay in the Best Director category for her critically acclaimed and praised film Selma. Duvernay got more critical and popular approval than most of the directors who were included in the category. The snub was so bad that even Forbes columnist, Scott Mendelson, wrote an opinion that found the irony of the whole situation:
Selma is not the first “based on a true story” picture that has come under fire for historical inaccuracies. But it is the rare black-centric historical drama told explicitly from the point of view of its black protagonists. So it is both ironic and infuriating that it has now been defamed because of the (I would argue false) notion that it isn’t nice enough to a really powerful white guy who plays a key supporting role. More importantly, it is a rare big movie, even if it was merely a $20 million independently financed production, which comes from the lens of a female African-American filmmaker.
He goes on to say that in the last five years Hollywood is finally getting to where we are getting important cinematic efforts from black male directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen, but the Ava Duvernay snub is a direct affront to the entrance of African American female directors. African American males and females are still underrepresented in Hollywood and Hollywood still largely favors white males for making profits at the box office.
One of those moments on the album when Chuck addresses those of his black brothers and sisters who hold their white significant other up above and superior to those of their own community. Yet Chuck D shows that the mating of black and white shouldn’t lead to hatred, but the superiority of white over black should be hated and shunned.
I try to tell my people
There should not be any hatred
For a brother or a sister
Whose opposite race they’ve mated
No man is God
And God put us all here (yeah)
But this system has no wisdom
The devil split us in pairs
And taught us White is good, Black is bad
And Black and White is still too bad
Not to call out people in my own family, specifically, but I think their hesitance towards people in their family, including me, marrying someone who wasn’t white is pretty telling of the context in which I live in the Panhandle of Texas. The language of whites and blacks shouldn’t be together is tamed down. It has creeped into more subtle argumentation surrounding the hardships of “cultural differences” and “having a child who is mixed race.” Most of my family and friends do not mean to be directly racist and the arguments do have elements of truth, but the undercurrent of those arguments still hold the same core commitment: “wouldn’t it just be better if you kept to you own race? It would be so much easier.”
Just goes to show that Chuck D’s reflections about mixed-race relationships still hold true, at least from many white perspectives, that whites really should stay with whites and blacks with blacks and crossing those racial borders transgresses some standard of class, race or status, which, in turn, demarcates a level of superiority and inferiority between the races.
“Who Stole The Soul?”
Chuck D, on one of my personal favorite tracks, takes a stab at white cultural appropriation of black forms of music. Some of the big names are Elvis’ appropriation of the style of Chuck Berry and Rolling Stones’ appropriation of black blues and rock artists. It’s not so much that white artists are being influenced by and using those traditionally black forms of music as it is the complete erasing of their influences once the white versions become profitable. Say what you want about The Daily Beast, but I think Amy Zimmerman sums it up quite well when dealing with the most recent example of this whitewashing of black cultural forms of music–but, in this case, hip hop–in the being of Iggy Azalea:
When Azealia Banks went on Hot 97 and complained “that Iggy Azalea shit isn’t better than any fucking black girl that’s rapping today,” she wasn’t just talking about Iggy Azalea and her Grammy nominations. The process of co-opting black music and selling it back to the adoring public in whiteface is as American as apple pie. Ragtime, blues, country, jazz, soul, and rock and roll were all pioneered or inspired by black artists. The twang we hear as emblematic of white country music is actually the direct descendant of black folk music banjo. Artists like Mick Jagger and Van Morrison obsessively revered and imitated African-American blues and rock musicians. This type of musical inspiration isn’t inherently bad—it’s practically unavoidable.
What’s disturbing is the fact that the names, faces, and recordings of those early black influencers have been all but erased. Sometimes this phenomenon has a one to one ratio, like when Chuck Berry’s rock and roll star was totally eclipsed by Elvis Presley, a white man who could “sound, feel, and perform black.” In this way, inspiration becomes appropriation, which leads directly to theft and erasure. White musicians are rewarded for their ability to imitate their black counterparts, and decades of black achievement and musical genius are swept under the rug, forgotten and ignored.
Once Elvis, Vanilla Ice or Iggy become popular and profitable, suddenly modern forms of “blackface” apparently become socially and morally acceptable in the American music industry.
“911 Is A Joke”
Though Flava Flav is speaking about EMS response times here, the underlying assumption running through this track is the passive aggressive demeanor of response services & police towards any parts of the community largely dominated by black populations and other minorities. The underlying message in those response times? “We don’t really care about you as people.” If they thought their lives were really worth saving then the late response would be the exception to the rule, not the rule.
Going, going, gone
Now I dialed 911 a long time ago
Don’t you see how late they’re reacting
They only come and they come when they wanna
So get the morgue truck and embalm the goner
They don’t care cause they stay paid anyway
They treat you like an ace they can’t be betrayed
A no-use number with no-use people
If your life is on the line then you’re dead today
Latecomers with the late coming stretcher
That’s a body bag in disguise y’all, I’ll betcha
I call ’em body snatchers cause they come to fetch ya
With an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya
They are the kings cause they swing amputation
Lose your arms, your legs to them it’s compilation
I can prove it to you watch the rotation
It all adds up to a fucked up situation
Things haven’t changed, really, in the attitudes of those who are given the responsibility of protecting, serving and saving lives. Sure, it may be different in smaller cities and towns, but in the major metropolitans things like this are still rampant. EMS may be more off the hook, now, but response services include the police department as well. If Ferguson, NYC or Cincinnati are telling of real corrupt undercurrents of the militarization and racism of police forces in their interaction with black and other minority populations then the underlying sentiment is the same: “We don’t really care about you as people.” The only real shift is from passive aggressive to full aggression towards minority populations. 911 is still a joke when it comes to how they treat minorities compared to the majority white populations. I still maintain that Flava Flav’s central assertion still holds true. At the end of the day, black people are still dead because of a failure of those who are supposed to be serving, protecting and saving lives.