Excellent interview with Chuck D and his wife Gaye Theresa Johnson. It raises to our awareness the importance of black radical politics and black activism for a history that is not America’s as white liberals claim, but that is that of the black people in that country. Obama might be a symbol of that struggle, but neither does he acknowledge the roots of the wave that swept him to the presidency nor is he part of that tradition. He might still be subject to racism, but being the product of Ivy League education and identifying himself with the conservative Democratic political structure, he never was or will be part of that political struggle that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and many others represented.
CHUCK D, RAPTAVIST, MEMBER OF PUBLIC ENEMY: I’m Chuck D, along with my wife, Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson. And this is the house I grew up in, but, you know, now it’s been transformed many times over. It’s, like, a sound compound, studios. And posters of musicians on the wall, such as Bob Marley. He set the precedent. You know, I mean, you name Bob Marley, just the meaning in music, and being able to make reggae just a strong message to the people, and him being impressed by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, amongst other musicians in soul, and rock ‘n roll as well.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: How old were you when this became meaningful to you?
CHUCK D: Bob Marley? Around 11, 12 years old, when he becomes a mainstream artist—”I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy.” That was before Clapton.
DR. GAYE THERESA JOHNSON, BLACK STUDIES DEPT., UNIV. OF CALIFORNIA SANTA BARBARA: I think nobody brought colonialism to the people like Bob Marley did. There was an incredible line that he has in a song called “Wake Up And Live,” and he talks about rise, you mighty people, from your sleepless slumber. I think that he understood and tried to bring to the people this notion that, you know, we’ve all been asleep, and we still are, but that this sleep is sleepless in many ways, because many of us are nagged by the feeling of being colonized, whether it’s physically or psychologically.
JAY: What’s this on the wall? “Stolen from Africa”.
CHUCK D: This is actually the oldest hanging poster in this room. But you’re only talking about, like, maybe ten years old, but it says it all: “African Holocaust”, “Stolen from Africa”, “100 million people”. It’s great to be black on the high points, as in the post-Obama days, but when you really want to think about being black, you know, being black was no benefit at this particular time. We’re talking about what is still owed just because we were judged by the color of our skin.
JOHNSON: What is most important for people to understand is that, you know, payback is not something that is about just some event that happened, some historical event like slavery. I mean, we’re talking about people who are still living off of the legacy of white entitlement and empowerment. And so what we’re talking about now is not, I think, what media tries to cast as, you know, monetary reparations or some kind of guilt trip on white society, but instead, you know, understanding that people still live at a disadvantage and that that needs to be corrected. So it absolutely has everything to do with Chuck’s music.
JAY: Does the new political climate with Obama as president do anything towards that end?
JOHNSON: I think symbolically it does some things towards that end, but I think that, unfortunately, folks allow symbolism to substitute for material realities that need to be introduced for people to feel equal in society and not just have the appearance of equality.
CHUCK D: Artist by the name of Paul Stone put together a poster. You know, he’s a fantastic caricature/portrait artist. And I kind of got yours truly as one of the hip-hop greats. This is, you know, Mix Magazine, the artwork reminiscent of Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, you know, that whole—. [snip] Oh, this is, you know, touring in Newcastle, UK. The interesting significance of this is that Newcastle has that same bridge as the bridge in Sydney, and also the bridge, the railroad bridge over here in New York that actually ties Queens to Manhattan.
JAY: You grew up in a little house in Roosevelt, Long Island, and you became a world star with very political poetry.
CHUCK D: We learned from the best. I mean, back when I was growing up, there was really no allegiance to just one type of music and one type of radio station. At that particular time, coming up out of the ’60s, you had a lot of people that had something to say with their music. They had great skill and a great way, a great penchant for putting words together.
JOHNSON: Consciousness is not something we can leave at the door. I mean, the Love part of the ’60s and the ’70s is very important, but there was also a love for the people who have been through brutality and struggle and, you know, that that’s a part of the love: to love your people is to also express the hate that they have endured and to be real and true to the kinds of politics and realities that they continue to endure, and yet, despite all of that, also continue to express, you know, these very humanistic qualities of the black community.
JAY: How much does your dialog—. You guys are talking all the time with each other. How much does your dialog with Gaye affect your work?
CHUCK D: Oh, my dialogue with Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson affects my work every day now, since we’ve been together. So, I mean, I mean, I’m getting ready to go into my 20th year of lecturing at colleges, but I have to kind of ask her, kind of like, you know, “Are things right?” You know, what do we see today? You know? What do we see today that’s different from three years ago, and what do we kind of, like, see that will kind of, like, set precedent three years from now? So, I mean, she’s the total three-quarters of my whole brain, mindset, which is a great thing right now, ’cause a couple of years ago I was, like, you know, reaching a point of saying, okay, you know, I need to sharpen my point of view, and I could be getting burned out. But what is kind of cool being burnt out, when you’re a lecturer, because you can always dip back into the music. Gaye and I really found ourselves. And that was a good thing.
JOHNSON: Louis Armstrong is somebody who I think a lot of people misunderstand, because so much of what was presented to the world about Louis Armstrong was in caricatures of black people and black life. But, meanwhile, Louis Armstrong was always quietly making an incredible impact. And there’s this great story about how, two weeks after the Little Rock, Arkansas, incident in 1957, Louis Armstrong was on a stopover on a tour of his in Grand Forks, North Dakota. And as usual—I mean, this was not some kind of random or—you know, this was not some kind of a random choice or an anomaly—as usual, he’s quietly making history. He was the first person to stay in the hotel, the first black person to stay in the hotel that he was staying in, and quite purposefully. Grand Forks, North Dakota, known to Louis Armstrong as well but not advertised until he was asked by a journalist, was also the home to the judge who had desegregated Little Rock, Arkansas, school contrary to Orval Faubus’s desires. And so Louis Armstrong was interviewed by a journalist two weeks after, exactly 2 weeks after the Little Rock, Arkansas, incident, in Grand Forks, and [Armstrong] had a lot of things to say about Eisenhower, about whether or not he was going to go to Israel to perform as part of the goodwill mission to sort of advertise the kind of goodwill, Cold War moment between the United States, the Middle East, and Russia. And he was so critical that, when this article came out, there were many radio stations that promptly threw away all of his albums. But this was something that was normal for him.
JAY: What exactly did he say about about [inaudible]?
JOHNSON: Well, he had agreed to do the trip, and it wasn’t just Armstrong, but there were a lot of jazz, black jazz musicians who traveled to Israel as part of State Department tours. But he had agreed to make the trip and hadn’t made it yet, and he said at that point that he had rethought it, because, he said—and a lot of it was, as journalists later put, expletives that he expressed with regard to Eisenhower, saying that, you know, “This country’s full of shit, and they have no regard for us.” And he said, “You know, when I see what they’re doing to my people in the South, I don’t want to go anywhere and say anything good about the United States to anyone.” And the next day, when the journalist came back with a copy of—because by the time he got back to the press room, it was too late to release the story. So the next morning he came back and he showed the article to Louis Armstrong, and Armstrong wrote “solid” at the bottom of the article and signed it and said, “This is exactly what I said. Publish it this way.”
CHUCK D: And also, musically speaking, I mean, his phrasing is the way we still sing the music today—or rap it. You know, his phrasing, you know, when you phrase and sing lyrics, rapping is derived from singing phrasing. And as far as the solos, you know, that shaped music as well from the musical standpoint. So his lyrics and his music just is the foundation of the music today.
JAY: Make the leap from Louis Armstrong to Malcolm X.
CHUCK D: The stare in the faces of intimidating circumstances in America at that time was just rattling. And Malcolm X, Gabe Pressman, who’s a—
CHUCK D: —journalist in the New York area for a very long time, Minister Farrakhan, and just the Nation of Islam, up in Harlem, being asked about, you know, what are you guys talking about and why are you guys so angry? And, you know, if you relate this poster for that poster, then this poster in 1963 makes sense.
JOHNSON: We’ve always been taught in such a linear way about not just black history but history in general. And so if stories don’t fit together very well, then sometimes we don’t want to hear them, because we think they’re not consistent enough to get across the kind of sentiment that might prove that we’re more human, that we have integrity, etcetera. So people often shy away from the kinds of stories that are about dissension and conflict within a community that you hope will always be presented as cohesive, because it’s vital that we be presented as cohesive. But, I mean, Louis Farrakhan and—at that time, Lewis X—and Malcolm X, I mean, this is a perfect story of dissension in the black community and even violence in the black community in a time when we needed peace and cooperation. But if it wasn’t for that kind of conflict, some of those kinds of politics that have come to mark the biggest successes of Malcolm X in the remaining three years of his life after this, and Louis Farrakhan in his long career of activism and preaching and all of the things, the various things that he has done—. You know. And there’s a story, too, that illustrates this, I think, this conflict in the ways that we’re taught history and the way that we perceive history, and that is, in 1960, you know, that Malcolm X was the one who really saved Fidel Castro at the UN meeting in 1960 from being out on the street, because he came to New York just a year after the revolution in 1959, and he wasn’t allowed, he and his delegation were not allowed to stay at the hotel that they had reservations in. And so what does Fidel Castro say at midnight? He says, “Call Malcolm X. I know he’ll help us.” And so Malcolm X brings Fidel Castro to Harlem to the Hotel Theresa and all his delegation. And Harlem welcomes them. And this is another page in history that, you know, folks—black people have always been so careful about their affiliations with communism, because they’ve been at once trying to enter society, and then also rage against it. And so their relationship to socialism has always been very ambiguous. But here was a moment in 1960, just two years before this photo was taken, when it came together, and only just for a moment. Fidel Castro and Malcolm X had never met before, and they never met again in person. But their stories and the constellation of what they each brought to the table that night made sense to the Cubans that were there and to the people of Harlem. And so these apparent conflicts, even if they are actual conflicts, are often rehearsal for future successes.
JAY: One of the things that’s been said about Malcolm X near the end of his life is that he started thinking and talking more about class, not only about race. How does that impact both of your thinking?
CHUCK D: None of these men are begging and looking for love. They ain’t looking for—like, hoping that people like them. It’s like, no, we demand respect. And that was kind of jarring. And I think that Malcolm built that conversation into, like, okay, look, we demand some respect for all of us as a people who have been squashed underneath the thumb of the oppressor. But also at the same time they’re saying, okay, you know, build a constituency with the embracing of love. And I know I might be jumping the gun here, but this means as much to me as a black man in America leading into the prideful moment I felt with Barack Obama. And I’m not saying—to me it’s personal, as a black man in America who’s been here nearly 50 years. I mean, that’s personal. So I went to the Million Man March, which is somewhere in the middle of here, in 1995. And that Million Man March signified to look inside myself to be accountable and responsible to my surroundings and my family and what have not. And Barack Obama in 2009, you see the black family as a symbol. You sees he resonates in the way that he talks. You know. So someone that knows, that knows what these things are about, automatically hear him whether he says it or not. He doesn’t have to be asked, like, “So, well, were you at the Million Man March? And what do you think about, you know, Farrakhan?” And, you know, it’s ridiculous for somebody even to ask him that unless they want to just sort of try to create some kind of issue or some kind of problem. So I just think, as far as I’m concerned, he ain’t got to say anything. He ain’t got to say that he kind of liked Public Enemy back in the day. He doesn’t have to say that. He doesn’t have to. You know, those that know and those that hear it hear it.
JOHNSON: I think what’s so incredible about that is that when I watched especially the early speeches of Obama, I thought that he must have modeled them off of the speeches of Malcolm X, because there are so many times when their whole sensibility, the embodiment of power and empowerment and poise, was something to me that looked like a duplicate of Malcolm X. I can’t imagine that Obama and his campaign managers did not study the speeches of Malcolm X, which is very ironic, because absolutely their politics appear to be diametrically opposed. But if it wasn’t for Malcolm X, we can bet Obama would not be here today. Also, I was going to say that I find it—I’m always struck by how rap music is presented to the world as a creation of black men who are very loose, who don’t know the English language very well, or who have somehow bastardized it, who represent a sort of thuggery or a sort of, you know, closeness to the ground and the streets. But what is rap music if not a mastery of English language? And that is something that Malcolm X, I think, gave us probably more than anybody else. I mean, I think a lot of people can speak to Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois being giant black men in their time who rhetorically were, you know, unmatched. But Malcolm X was someone who learned how to speak by reading the dictionary and prison. And so, you know, there was a kind of organic development of his mastery that I think speaks to his legacy in rap music. But also, you know, Barack Obama cannot claim the rhetorical triumphs that he has had without a model like Malcolm X.
JAY: What do you make of the political difference? You gave the example of Castro in Harlem, and it wasn’t very long ago Obama talked about Cuba and Castro and Venezuela much the same way all US presidents have or US political leaders have, and on a whole range of issues Malcolm X would’ve disagreed with a lot of the policy positions—and so, of course, do many African Americans and others today. But what you make of that? ‘Cause there is both things happening at the same time, this sense of legitimate pride, but political disagreement, but serious disagreement.
JOHNSON: Malcolm X had this wonderful speech about the tree and its roots. And he was saying, you know, you can’t love the tree and hate the roots. You know. He was talking to black people and say, “How can you, you know, say that you love yourselves and hate everything that you came from?” And I think that, you know, this is still an apt metaphor for the way that Obama has treated Venezuela and Cuba and, you know, so many of these other places that are in the news in particular kinds of ways in this very moment. I think that, you know, Obama’s someone who believes deeply in our system, and I don’t think that he’s ever said he doesn’t. I think he’s said from the beginning that he’s a conservative Democrat, and at best. And I think that Malcolm X never believed in the system, and the legacy of his speeches, of his scholarship, of his activism are the people who know that this system cannot work because of its roots and because of the way that it’s carried out. Obama believes in it. I don’t think we do.
CHUCK D: The reason that there’s a glimmering of an opportunity and a chance here, because although the distance between 1963 and ’64 and 2009 seems like a long period of time, it’s really not, but at the same time, that this is an opportunity to not just make changes in the system but make changes in the world which would force changes in the system. In the 40th year of this photo, taken place in October 1968—I was eight years old at the time, which was about six months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which I was seven at that particular time. And these two footnotes, with the significance of last year and the 40th commemoration of the assassination of Dr. King and John Carlos and Tommie Smith throwing their fists in the air at the ’68 Olympics were kind of, like, I wouldn’t say, like, underplayed, but I think it’s something, as far as those that know, should actually bring it out front. And that’s what I tried to last year. So as much as I, you know, praise this accomplishment, I also talked about the importance of these things being a precedent to what happened last year with Barack Obama being elected president. Barack Obama’s presidency has stood on the efforts of many before him. You can’t remove Reverend Al Sharpton and what he did in 2004 and how he spoke, and you can’t remove Jesse Jackson, how he spoke and ’84 and ’88.
JAY: Or maybe Reverend Wright.
CHUCK D: Yeah, or Reverend Wright. I mean, you can’t diminish a lot of the things that have been done in the past by the contributors to build to this point where Barack Obama is at. And you just want to be able to believe, if it does bear fruit, that the fruit is for everybody and all the people instead of just a select few. And so far the system has always been worried about the status quo and the select few. If the select few have a problem, then all of a sudden there’s a problem. If the select few don’t have a problem, then it’s the running of the bulls ’80s. You know. I look at the R&B period of 1980s—and that was Reagan and Bush—it was a terrible period. But to people that, you know, were in the stock market, they made a lot of money, they talk about all those glorious times, and I’m like, well, who the hell were they talking to? And it wasn’t talking to me. You know. I made my music in the ’80s to, number one, rage against the machine. So I had reasons to make what I made at that particular time. I wasn’t going to jump—I’d just jumped on the thing because this was the hot thing to do.
JOHNSON: There’s a lot about this poster that I love, and there’s a lot about it that I just hope people don’t go to sleep on. First of all, Rosa Parks did way more than just sit. I mean, this is a woman who, 11 years before, was thrown off the bus by the same bus driver for doing the exact same thing. And she has a legacy of organizing that starts way before this. And, of course, we know that black women were the ones that were behind the bus boycott in Montgomery, but she was trained by Septima Poinsette Clark, who was a teacher and a social worker and who was at the Highlander School in Tennessee. And Rosa Parks learned from her. And it’s not, you know, but a few months after Emmett Till is lynched that the Montgomery bus boycott becomes the most eloquent articulation of the lynching of a teenager, of a child. So there’s much more going on than Rosa Parks sitting. And the reason I mention that is because Martin Luther King knew that when he became the appointed spokesperson, appointed not just by men, clergymen, but women as well who had been involved in this movement way before he came on the scene. And how young he was—this is another thing that I think a lot of people miss. He and Malcolm X were both only 39 when they died. And Martin Luther King was in his late 20s when he began this organizing with the Montgomery bus boycott. The point I’m trying to make here is that, in this constellation, that we have a force of history, a long, long history that all of these people acknowledge that they both come from and stand upon. Women, men, children, and in all of their various ways, even when they disagreed, all of these things came together to form what we now very loosely call the “movement”. I don’t know that I agree with the backdrop of the entire poster, which is the American flag. I mean, in many ways, you know, this was something that of course came out of racism that was uniquely American, and these are Americans here, but it’s not something that I think at this moment America can claim as their legacy—I mean as their history, which is, I think, what they’re trying to do with Obama is to say, “Look what what we have accomplished. We’ve grown up.” Even in Obama’s words, too, you know, we—.
CHUCK D: Well, they’d need to get a rolled up poster of that one over there if they’re going to claim—.
JOHNSON: Yeah, maybe the backdrop needs to be the slave ships with everybody packed in tightly. The point I’m trying to make is that, you know, all of this is true. All of these things happened. And what I love about this poster is that Barack Obama is, in many ways, yes, the culmination of all of these things. But will he and the people that are around him acknowledge it in the ways that are true and meaningful and that give dignity to black people, not just white liberals who want to claim this history as their own now, even though they are pro-, you know, policing their—at this very moment, you know, enacting all kinds of policies against fair housing and fair hiring? These are the people we call “liberals”. We hope that the legacy of radicalism that is inherent in the politics of Rosa Parks, King, Malcom X, can also find a home in Obama’s America as well.
CHUCK D: “We fought,” Malcolm X; “We spoke,” Martin Luther King. But you can actually, you know, switch these. You know, Martin Luther King fought. He fought like hell against hell. And Malcolm X spoke. He wasn’t actually going out there and using guns and, you know, using a bat. You know. So, I mean, these could be actually reciprocated.
JOHNSON: I’m watchful of the Obama moment, but there are a lot of indignities, some small, some not, that he’s endured already has a black man in Washington. And no matter what his politics are, he is not immune from racism, and neither is his wife or his children. And, you know, just because he hasn’t mentioned it, I think, you know, it’s the cool points that everybody’s giving him. I think radicals and conservatives and people in between are giving Obama the cool points for allowing us to forget that that history is still present moment. But there are many, many indignities that he has endured, and nobody, I think, can chalk them up to anything else but racism.
CHUCK D: And, you know, just, like, going back to a interview a couple of weeks ago, Larry King is talking on his TV show to a young black man who wants to be a journalist. Matter of fact, he’s 10, 11 years old and actually won a contest to actually, you know, interview people at the inauguration, one of the inaugural balls. And, you know, Larry King tells him, he said, “Well, you know, my youngest kid wants to be black.” And we think that this is a notion that has two sides to it. You know. But when you—it’s cool wanting to be black for all the good things and all the hip things, but, you know, there’s more than just a trend here, it’s more than just this cultural, you know, upshot of, like, wow, now everything is cool. You know. No, there’s another side to that.
JOHNSON: It’s a different sacrifice, I think. I mean, we can list the numerous sacrifices that Obama has and will make, and they will be many, and more than many of us will know, I think. But it’s not the same, in the sense that, you know, Obama is the product of Ivy League education, he’s the product of a particular kind of class sensibility. He’s probably actually more elite than the Clintons in many ways. And what I think has been smart is that he hasn’t tried to claim a background that’s been about poverty, although I think he has tried to claim a grass-roots background that some people who’ve really been there on the ground, who have worked with Valerie Jarrett in Chicago, and who know the kind of sacrifices of grassroots politics that people like her and other folks have made in order to put themselves in a position to run a black man for president, I think a lot of those folks would be very critical of putting Barack Obama visually in that kind of legacy. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks got bricks thrown at their heads successfully. You know. Their children were beat up and persecuted all their lives. Their families paid prices, whether it was, you know, suicide or murder or, you know, mental illness. This is probably not the kind of price that Obama is going to have to pay. Does that make him a more authentic politician or a more—does that make his struggle or their struggle more authentic because they’ve paid a sort of price of brutality? I mean, you know, I think we have to be careful about romanticizing their struggles, but at the same time, I think that in this moment people have to be very careful about equating Obama’s sacrifice with that of King and X and Parks and Evers and Till and all those folks.