Rapping the Vote With Chuck D

The Former Public Enemy frontman on the political power of hip-hop.

Photo: Jamie 70/Camera Press Digital

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Chuck D has always believed in the political power of hip-hop. From his early days as the front man for Public Enemy (which captured black rage at the Reagan era with 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back), his music has been a medium for the message. Or, as D once famously remarked, “Rap is CNN for black people.”

Most recently D has been working to leverage the power of the hip-hop musical culture to build a political movement and an electoral force. In June, he was the keynote speaker at the first-ever National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Newark, New Jersey, where delegates representing 30,000 hip-hop voters created a five-point agenda for urban America, including full funding for schools, prison reform, and an end to tax cuts for the wealthy. D also recently dropped a one-world, antiwar anthem he recorded with electronica avatar Moby, slyly titled “MKLVFKWR” (add the vowels!), and has been spreading the progressive gospel as a cohost of the Air America Radio program “Unfiltered.”

Mother Jones tracked the 44-year-old D across four states and several events, at one point even enlisting Flavor Flav to pin him down. When he finally sat for our interview, D broke down his views on voting as well as thinking outside the American box.

Mother Jones: Public Enemy has a new song out with Moby called “MKLVFKWR.” How do you pronounce that?

Chuck D: “Make love, fuck war!” When I went to Russia, you look at them letters and go, “What the hell?” Someone told me they’re offshoots of the Greek language, it made all the sense to me. So the statement I was saying all last year when I was touring throughout the world was: “Make love, fuck war.” And I said, “Well you could actually say, ‘Make Love Fuck War,’ and say it without saying it.”

MJ: It’s a way to get around the FCC too.

CD:Yeah, if you want to pay attention to the FCC, if you want to pay attention to only one country. But if you really want to use the whole ballpark of hip-hop, it allows you to look at the FCC as being small-fry.

MJ: You’ve said everyone in the hip-hop generation, and in the U.S. in general, needs a passport, that they need to get out of the country more often. But at home, we’ve got an election coming up.

CD: I think a lot of people are saying the agenda should be voting. My thing is, “What about December?”

MJ: What do you mean?

CD: Ain’t no matter which way that the election goes, you should always be prepared. You should be a person inside the world with knowledge of your terrain. And if you lock yourself into the 2,000-by-3,000-square-mile, lower-48 box of the United States, you’re going to be frustrated by its limitations. You gotta think outside the box.

MJ: Hip-hop is a global force, but the media still presents it with a very American focus.

CD: I don’t think a lot of people have been privy to understanding that there’s this talent in hip-hop all over the earth that’s just as good. It’s just that everything out of the U.S. proclaims to be the best, especially L.A. and New York, being that they’re the nerve centers and media capitals of the most predominantly media-emitting country in the world.

MJ: So with “Make Love Fuck War” are you trying to reach a new audience, stoke a different kind of fire?

CD: With each recording you always try to get somebody different to the table. Just following somebody like Ray Charles early in his career, you always try to expand the boundaries. You don’t march to anybody else’s drumbeat. Ray Charles is someone who said, “You know what? I don’t care if you like it or not, this is what I’m going to try to do. You all can say I’m crazy, but this is what it’s gon’ be.” I always took that approach. I’d rather have a hundred thousand or a million people saying I’m nuts and I’m crazy for my musical choices and what I’ve said lyrically, than a million people all raising their hand on the first day.

MJ: That’s counterintuitive to pop stardom.

CD: A lot of times black folks look for love in all the wrong places. You’re always looking for somebody to love you, be accepted, and there’s the insecurities that are even transmitted through rap. Everyone is trying to aim to please too much. Number one: They’re trying to please whoever signed them to a contract. Number two: They’re trying their best to appease a gigantic audience and they get this false magnification of love. I came from a thing which nowadays would be the exception to the rule. I came from a mother and father who always made me secure in my beliefs, and that’s where the love came from. Which made me look at everything else as, you know, procedure. What am I doing records for—love of millions? Do your thing. They will come.

MJ: You gave the keynote speech at this summer’s historic National Hip-Hop Political Convention. I was wondering what your impressions were, having been a powerful influence on a lot of the activists and organizers who attended the convention.

CD: People finally said, “When do we grow up?” If they can send you to war at 18, maybe it’s beneficial for some people to think that most of us gotta go to war for our own existence. So I was just amazed at these young adults speaking up for themselves, even if it’s disrespectful to be amazed over something that grown folks should do. I know they are the exception to the rule, and my props go to them as being courageous, as being able to be focused and centered and giving enough to actually work on something that is so beneficial to so many. We don’t see enough of that. We don’t see the people who are doing real things getting enough props. We often see politicians who are everywhere but nowhere at the same goddamn time. You know the kind of person: You see them everywhere on television but nowhere in front of your face.

MJ: For a generation of young people growing up in a post-Civil Rights era, culture and politics look a lot different than they did 30 or 40 years ago. Do you worry that too many black leaders are trying to be a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. to the hip-hop generation?

CD: [Sighs.] I think right about now we have to beware of marketed Malcolms and Martins. Real people do real things. A collective of a whole bunch of people who do things in their own locale, in their own neighborhoods—the sum is bigger than the parts, and the parts will grow. There are too many leaders anointed because they have a public voice—television, radio, or record, or whatever. That even includes myself. In the past, I’d say, “Don’t anoint me when you can anoint yourself.”

MJ: Let’s talk about voting. You’ve been involved in Rock the Vote and Rap the Vote, but you’re like a lot of people in the hip-hop generation, you’re skeptical about what good it can really do.

CD: Of course voting is useful. But then again, I don’t put a big glow to it. Voting is about as essential as washing yourself. It’s something you’re supposed to do. Now, you can’t go around bragging, expecting to get props because you voted. That’s stupid. You don’t see people running around trying to get props because they washed up. “I washed today! I took a shower today!”

But if you don’t vote, you can’t go around if something goes wrong saying, “Aw man, stuff just stinks!” Well yeah, something stinks because you ain’t smelled yourself. You supposed to take a shower, dude, or you gon’ stink! The hip-hop nation is supposed to vote, because if they don’t, something’s gonna stink: The draft gets voted in, cats get pulled off to war, the average person is gonna get shot up.

MJ: You’ve got a line on “MKLVFKWR”: “Power to the people not the government.”

CD: I think governments are the cancer of civilization. And the minute that we see seven or eight women get in a circle and start a war, I’ll be shocked like a motherfucker.


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