The hip-hop pioneer discusses the current state of the rap culture and his new digital album, “The Black in Man.”
Hip-hop artist Chuck D
Tavis: As a founding member of the renowned hip-hop group, Public Enemy, Chuck D has always used his musical artistry as a way to investigate what needs to change in this country.
His latest solo release, “The Black in Man,” continues in that vein, calling out so many of the current crop of rap artists for selling young people a steady diet of materialism instead of promoting pride. Let’s take a look at a clip from the new digital album. The song is called “Give We the Pride” and features one Mavis Staples.
Tavis: You know, most folk don’t last in this game as long as you have. To what do you attribute a 30-year career [laugh]?
Chuck D: Paying attention to Miss Mavis.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Chuck D: 30-year career, but she has a 50 or 60-year career and I’m enlightened and enamored with. I have an opportunity to be able to stay in currency with people like that. And that’s the inspiration to keep me going on. Just look into our history. Look into our catalog of giving. And that is one of the greatest feelings in my life.
And we started that project talking about it like more than 10 years ago and we finally came together. It was a bunch of people, divided souls. These guys were producing. It just happened in a wonderful way in spirit.
Tavis: But you will admit and acknowledge, though, that hip-hop music has a way of discarding artists relatively quickly. I mean…
Chuck D: Especially in the United States. But all I do is look at that map behind you and that’s one of the things that Public Enemy was able to do.
The minute we got our passports, which is a privilege and also is derogatory because it makes it alien to visit the planet earth without permission, we ventured out to the world with the word. And that was the thing that was the saving grace for Public Enemy.
Tavis: One has to be impressed when one realizes that you all have toured in 83 countries…
Chuck D: 96 countries.
Tavis: So I’m off now. I’m a little behind. 96 countries?
Chuck D: Well, it happens when you keep going on.
Tavis: I’m a little off on my count.
Chuck D: No, no. You’re fine.
Tavis: But that’s a lot of countries, though, Chuck.
Chuck D: It’s over 200 in the world. We’re halfway there. Brother Osborne Muhammad used to always make me envious when he used to tell me the amount of countries that he visited. We have these conversations in Ghana.
I said, “Brother Osborne, how many countries have you been to?” He said, “Oh, I’m at 161.” And that always gave me the impetus to just like try to strive forward. Also, we’re going because the music is around the world. Music is the universal language.
You know, I tell people, I said, yes, I’m determined to be Black in America. I’m Negro on my birth certificate, but in truth, I’m a human being who’s an earthizen ’cause I’m citizen of the planet earth and I’m a culturist because culture brings that human race together and knocks government law to the side.
And that’s been first and foremost what we been trying to push out as being, yeah, you know, we are equal too. We’re equal people too. And we’re fighting the music to prove that.
Tavis: I want to talk about fighting the music in a second. What’s the most significant or one of the most significant takeaways from your being able to see firsthand how your music plays, is embraced, in so many countries around the globe? What’s the takeaway for you from that?
Chuck D: Human beings versus maybe unfair government, unfair rule, abuse of authority which we even witness here. Abuse of authority as with the Mike Brown murder and just how a police state has taken over a sense of government of the people.
And we’ve seen that the words that are spoken through song sometimes can actually give a universal law to people by challenging the things that are unjust and unfair. We didn’t make it up. But it’s also something that we have to learn that, before us, there’s a Curtis Mayfield, there’s a Pete Seeger. You know, people who we’ve lost in human life, but their spirit still lives.
So it was something that you have to pay attention to. If you’re gonna be about it, then you should learn where it comes from. And we’ve been fortunate and blessed to be able to take that page and be able to make it perpetuity.
Tavis: Since you went there with the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, what’s your sense of the relevance of the lyrical content in “Fight the Power” all these years later?
Chuck D: When power’s abusing people from really being at the top of their human being, then you have to challenge that. And people tell you that talk is cheap. Words are not cheap because they motivate action or they even motivate defense. So when it came down to that, it’s not just the same old story, but it’s almost reverting back to the old story of plantation owners, slaves, don’t go nowhere.
When you have a police force in a neighborhood that don’t live there, people don’t treat their children as if they would their own, and then you got this alien animosity pawns in the game type of thing festering, you know, partially it is our community that has to address our youth in telling them because of your characteristics in this country, you are an endangered species.
You are almost like part of a hunting game. So we have to supply them with the tools of self. And when we don’t do that as a collective and we’re individualized, we got this going from we into me.
It’s an issue that really sometimes sets our youth up to just be fodder for a system where they’re not suffering being killed in the streets from their own confusion, being killed by authority because of the confusion of that relationship or unrelationship or just being thrown in these cages where they almost have three million folks in jail looking to have another two million leading to a prison industrial complex that has turned into the spark for such a big business to bring the USA back on up financially.
Tavis: This will sound strange, but I want to quote Bill O’Reilly for just a second here [laugh].
Chuck D: Okay, here we go. Fellow Long Islander, right?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fellow Long Islander. Only because when he made this comment some days ago, it got picked up in a variety of places. I was not in L.A., but I saw this when it hit the internet. And what he basically said was in response to what you’ve just laid out.
What you just laid out, you would define as truth. Bill O’Reilly says it’s grievance, grievance, grievance. That’s all you hear. Grievance, grievance, grievance. And he’s not the only one that feels that way. He’s preaching to the choir in many respects.
There are a lot of folk who feel even after Mike Brown that it’s always us with a grievance. How do you respond to folk who think it’s just grievance, grievance, grievance every time they hear you or me show up somewhere?
Chuck D: So? So? And? He has grievance. Grievance is the best way of putting it to the fear of action when people actually really realize what it is and they get together and they start to, you know, say, all right, this is what it’s gonna come down to.
So grievance is a good thing and it gives you time to take care of it. I mean, here in 2014 going into 2015, Tavis, you have been the guiding light to many people to clear a lot of misinformation.
We have very few of these sparks that are in this mass media of confusion. So if we don’t pay attention to the sparks that we have to be able to energize and create our own bonfire of energies, then, yeah, I mean, people will continue to talk for us. People will continue to talk at us, down to us.
And that’s why the music really kind of truncates it into a social media world. Music gives you a headline, gives you a story and able to knock that word down and also make you able to nod your head to it in agreement or even disagreement.
So the music can kind of truncate in these times, you know, a point of view to get across, but then it’s gotta cut through big business which is a big problem with me today. I don’t blame the rappers. I blame their corplantations that make them sign.
99% of them take up and they soak up all of radio. They soak up all of television and then, at the end of the day, people want to blame teenagers and youth or people in their 20s for being confused. The media has totally been misappropriated by people who spook by the door.
Tavis: I promise I’ll give you all the time left in this conversation to blast corporate America in one second…
Chuck D: No, no, I won’t. Too many things to talk about.
Tavis: I may even join you in that [laugh]. But before I jump to that, though, you said something a moment ago that I want to come back to before we move on because I agree with you.
Music is pregnant with power. It is pregnant with power to do a lot in the world. I wonder, though, if it has the power, though, to do what I think needs to be done that hasn’t yet been done in our society, and that is to find a way for fellow citizens, particularly those of color, to not have their humanity contested every day.
See, this Michael Brown thing in Missouri, for me, is not so much about Black and white or even wrong and right as it is about the contestation of the dignity and the humanity of these brothers and sisters across the country.
Does music have the power to spark that conversation? And if not music, how do we get to a basic fundamental respect for the dignity and humanity of everyday people?
Chuck D: I think it’s really quick. I think when it comes down to music, if it’s one-sided and it’s a dictation as being a reflection, usually the dictation turns into a reflection, which is unfair. And then people kind of look too much into a music or too much into a speech to actually do the real work of paying attention to people that do the real work.
You know, there’s people every day that do the real work of trying to bring people up. But if they’re obscured and at the same time people are just getting — we’re not talking two or three years.
We’re talking about there’s a 15 and 16 or 20-year period of the same old thing. I mean, how long is youth, youth? They ain’t youth for long. You know, if they’re going into their 20s and 30s and consider themselves youth, that’s an individual brainwashing thing that’s taking place. It’s another discussion.
But how long is youth, youth? You know, when somebody says, well, I’m 27, I’m 34 and I’m still young. Who told you that [laugh]? My question a lot of times, people are like, well, who told you that? And they usually can’t find somebody that told them. Well, I’m saying. You’re saying what? Who told you that you’re young?
Yes, you’re young in comparison to, but you’re not young into your accountabilities and your responsibilities to the realities of trying to, you know, look out and step up and help out and man up or woman up. So I think that challenges these things that’s coming out, you know, through these signals.
People doing real things and paying attention to people that do real things and listening and figuring out how do you actually put it into action from conference. I mean, when your show comes on, I go to the YouTube and I figure out how I’m gonna download it.
So if the business I’m in — you have a conversation with Berry Gordy. You have a conversation with Gamble and Huff. You know, I keep these things in my hip on replay to pick up and keep with me so I can go into action with the tools of learning what I dig.
Tavis: So let’s get back to this corporate conversation. And my first question is whether or not this is something that happened over time and it’s gotten progressively worse or whether it’s always been this way where the corporations have the final say. Hadn’t that always been the case?
Chuck D: It’s always been the case, but we’ve also had defenses and we’ve also had community to also tell you what’s the deal and what’s not the deal. You know, what to like and what not to fall victim to. We don’t have the safeguards up there against those situations.
You know, my simple word to actually explain what a corporation is in the millennium is a corplantation where people are slave employees and kind of like happy to be attached to one as opposed to challenging it. I’m saying even in the music — mainly in the music business.
I mean, people want to be secure. If you don’t have a sense of yourself, then you want to have somebody that tells you who you are. We used to allow our community and family to tell you who you are, but this is who you is, you know? Now people figured out their worth is based on what job or what position or what finance is telling you who you are in this society.
One of my suggestions I tell people to break that symbolically, if you could, get a passport and find out, you know, imagine if 15 million Negroes across the United States get a passport, that challenges Homeland Security ’cause they’d say where these Negros gonna go [laugh]?
It’s becoming more and more difficult to actually get a passport than it was in the last century. So that’s something that Black folks could do in this country.
Everybody get a passport not to go to that party in Cancun or to jump off in Toronto, but to be able to say we are citizens of the world. We’re earthizens. We’re tied to the diaspora. And although I might not have any plans to go anywhere, I might not have no money to go somewhere, but symbolically in my head, I’m attached to this diaspora with an action that I did.
Money is no excuse ’cause we got gear and we got grims and all these things that we purchase as part of the consumption of the United States of America, not America which you gotta include Central and South which they don’t. So USAers, you know, can at least make an attempt to get a passport and watch the government try to say “Who dat?” [Laugh]
Tavis: Since you raised that a couple of times, Chuck…
Chuck D: Simple thing to do, yeah.
Tavis: Simple thing. Since you raised that a couple of times, though, what to your mind would be the takeaway for fellow citizens, certainly people of color, African Americans, to get a passport and actually use it?
I mean, I think that travel is one of the great educators, but that’s my own sense. So since you’re pressing this issue, what do you think the takeaway would be if more of us used those passports to get outside of America and look back on it?
Chuck D: Well, number one, outside of America just means getting out there in the state of mind. People are already outside of America in many ways because of the internet. As a matter of fact, the internet just doesn’t invite you to the rest of the world. It invites you into another world which is for even dangerous reasons, a word that’s concocted and created within.
Without even getting into that, what we could do is have a state of mind to be able to know that there’s a world out there. There’s people out there. There’s ways out there that we could adapt to figuring out how do we get together at least.
We’re not a majority in this country, although you look at television and it’ll show you like, okay, the majority of — oh, well, there’s Black people in every commercial and there’s Asians in almost every commercial.
Yeah, but behind the scenes, it’s like, you know, predominantly still a white crew. And we say, okay, what’s the ratio makeup of the United States of America? And it’s been distorted for a long time.
I’ve said what Black folks could do to get a step up into at least closer to being equal, even if we don’t want to come together, is to understand that we have an international state of mind that we know, you know, the struggles and different places and different people, and our people.
How much we might be talking Africa is like how much Africa you talking? Africa is a gigantic continent full of millions of people that’s just not a footnote in your internet blogs or American news. And what do you want to take from it? And what are you gonna give back to it? That’s very important.
And being I’m in the area of culture, that exchange is more often than not. And also that exchange is usually so complex that even the corplantation big business kind of keeps their foot out because they don’t know how to make that work.
They never figured out how do we make, you know, 15 million Gambians figure into this rapper’s album sales [laugh]. They can’t figure that one out. It’s organic. There’s like what stacks. You couldn’t really figure it out. If everybody paid a dollar, there was 100,000 people at the L.A. Coliseum and the business people was like we can’t make that work, though. I mean, can we get more than a dollar [laugh]?
So Black economy, when it comes down to a lot of different things, it’s like sometimes it’s cool for them not to figure us out so easy before we figure ourselves out for survival.
Tavis: Before I turn to your project, this new digital project, I want to talk about “The Black in Man” which I’m fascinated by that title which we’ll get to. Is there no accountability tonight that you want to apply toward the artist? ‘Cause you said earlier, “I’m not mad at the artist, I’m mad at the corporation.”
Chuck D: I didn’t say I was mad, though. I said I don’t blame the artist.
Tavis: Okay, fair enough.
Chuck D: I believe that the question is like the question I told you. How young is young? When somebody say I’m young, I didn’t know, I say, Dude, you’re 27 years old. You ain’t four. You want somebody 16 telling me like I’m young? You ain’t three.
No. They’re 16, 17, 18 years old. Yeah, men and women, young men and women, you know. We teach a classroom. It helps sometimes calling a 15-year-old a young man or a young woman instead of, okay, we got these kids up in here trying to teach them.
So I challenge artists all the time by saying, okay, look. You wanna be grown in this aspect. How you not gonna be grown in that? You wanna be grown in whoop-whooping. I understand that. You wanna hoo-ride and all that, but accountability and responsibility gotta go with that too when you’re grown. So make that mix.
And they don’t have the managers that tell them that anymore. They don’t have the record labels that tell them that anymore. They feel that, when they want to bring these people in, they don’t feel like they’re family and that’s a problem.
You know, Berry Gordy when he had Motown felt that those artists were family even when they grew into different things. You know, I treat them like my brothers, my sister, my kids. There will be some arguments and there will be some lessons learned.
Gamble and Huff, the same thing. I just think that the separation of we into the individuality of me is the gang signals that went the other way when they should be from me to we. And that makes it — you know, if they’re initially not better, it just makes it understandable of what it is and what it ain’t.
So when it comes down to artists, I tell them do you really spit what you believe? Do you really spit what you believe? You’re 33 years old. You know, don’t be giving me the 14-year-old story, man. That’s the truth that’s like radiation. So I challenge artists very much with themselves, you know.
When it comes down to their owners and their corplantations and these companies, very simple and very briefly, I said, look, when you say you can’t make them be more accountable or responsible, one thing you do make them do — and this goes for every single company out there — they make them sign a contract.
If they said they can’t make the artist, you make them sign a contract, don’t you? And indisputably, they can’t say crap to that. Every single artist you see out there on the high level signs a contract. So all this you can’t make them accountable and responsible to the area of which they come from, that’s a bunch of crap, man.
Tavis: In the minute and half I have left, let me circle that. I could do this all night talking to you, as you know. “The Black in Man,” love the title. What’s behind that? Why’d you go with that?
Chuck D: Johnny Cash was The Man in Black.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Chuck D: I’m the Black in Man. I can’t remove this. You know what I’m saying [laugh]? You know, Johnny Cash was a truthful cat, you know. You know, a big fan of his. Just like Curtis Mayfield and James Brown and Miss Mavis Staples, Miss Yvonne Staples.
You know, the message in music is that there’s fantastic music that’s behind us that is our future and all we gotta do is pay attention to it.
Tavis: How would you describe the project musically? What’s on the project?
Chuck D: 37 minutes of mind, nerve, rhyme and community.
You know, we kind of built it around Miss Mavis. You know, the songwriters and the producers, we made sure that Miss Mavis has the lion’s share of the song. That was just a joy.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that your career has lasted long enough that this is the way you’re releasing product now as opposed to vinyl?
Chuck D: Well, Rapstation.com, we have our own radio stations, spit digitals out on aggregation system and the delivery of whatever we want to do. And we help a thousand artists at a time. You know, you got to make up your own rules. We don’t ask for anything.
It’s like the James Brown thing. We don’t ask for anything. We’d like to be able to say that the big situations kind of ease up and level out for the independent, but that’s not their thing. So we always gotta fight them. We gotta fight the power.
Tavis: Fight the power. I love it. Rapstation.com is where you can find Chuck D. The new project is called “The Black in Man.” I am always, Chuck, honored to have you on this program…
Chuck D: We could talk for days.
Tavis: Anytime we talk, I’m elevated and empowered. So thank you, my friend.
Chuck D: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.