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Chuck D raps on racism, music

Nicole Zook | Monday, February 6, 2006

Controversial and influential rapper Chuck D – founder of the group Public Enemy and well-known music Web site rapstation.com – filled the house and fought the power Thursday night with a Black History Month keynote lecture on “Rap, Race and Reality.”

The lecture, which was filled to mass capacity with a ethnically diverse crowd, was sponsored by the Office of the President, Office of Student Affairs and Student Government, said Student Senate Minority Affairs chair Rhea Boyd.

“A lot of the events for Black History Month this year are centered around culture and music – and who better to speak on that than a legendary rapper?” she said.

Born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, Chuck D delivered a touching and humorous “vibe session” peppered with profanity – “this ain’t no [expletive] Gipper speech,” he warned the audience before beginning.

Gipper speech or no, D was up front about his wide variety of topics, which included black culture, rap’s history, the worth of a college education and the state of the United States today.

“America is reaching the point where antilectualism and dumbassification are coming into vogue,” he said. ” I spent a lot of time outside this country, and the rest of the world is a beat ahead.”

D, who has traveled to more than 56 countries, said one of the biggest problems with the United States today is “world geography” and said 18 percent of Americans do not have a passport. He also said he was surprised by people who told him they “didn’t know New Orleans was a black city” after Hurricane Katrina hit.

“How the hell you gonna lead the world if you don’t know where the world is?” he asked.

D said the “three things that divide the world” are country divisions, language barriers and race.

“There’s one human race,” he said. “Every human being has a complex array of issues year to year and month to month.”

D said especially in America, “celebrity has become a drug … and people that’s doin’ real things, they ain’t gettin’ props for it.”

“When’s the last time you saw a black student on TV? ‘Different World’,” he said. “You’re seeing less and less intelligence on TV. [Black students] get no love from society, [even being] as intellectual as you are striving to be.

“Hollywood, from the left side, is dictating how you gonna talk, how you gonna dress, how you gonna look. And intelligence ain’t even rewarded on the damn campus.”

D cited people judging football and basketball players as athletes but not students as part of the “disrespect to the black community in this country.”

He also discussed the influence of television on reality, giving the example of rappers showing bravado in videos and movies leading to black students attempting to look and sound the same when surrounded by white students on campus.

“We have the oxymoron take place – the latter day oxymoron of the collegiate thug,” D said. “What the hell’s a collegiate thug? You can’t have sewage and a bottled water company from the same river.”

D questioned how rap and hip hop music are “being used for all this insanity” in race issues and the image-consciousness of the country. He gave a history of race and music that started with slave spirituals and ended with rap music today.

“These things don’t just start up from nowhere,” he said. “That’s what Black History Month is all about, not just to inform the black people, but [everyone].”

In the days of slavery – as now – D said black “music and culture was a lifeline.”

“Your music is life, keeping you strong to keep far away from death,” he said. “The music is the code of life, code of survival, far away from death.”

D compared the strides of racial progress to a wound that still exists today.

“If the jab of slavery was 3-to-400 years, how long do you think the bleeding’s gonna be, or the wound, or the mark?” he said.

Many blacks who could not stand to live in the South even after the Emancipation Proclamation moved north, D said, following the Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis to Chicago – and taking their music north with them, including blues and jazz. Those cities became centers for both blacks and music.

In the 1920s and 30s, race records became hot sellers, but during WWII no records were made and Jim Crow laws harmed the black community. But in the economic boom following the war, black music, including blues with speed and jazz jump blues became popular. In 1952 Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues, D said, ushering in a whole new era of music.

Soon, rhythm and blues radio stations were being broadcast nationwide – and it wasn’t just blacks who were listening.

“You think this music is just going to black people?” D said. “Back then, white kids had to sneak it on.”

D cited Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters and Fats Domino as “guys [who] built rock and roll.” Although the rock movement of The Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones “[started] all the way across the ocean and had to come over here” and the soul of Ray Charles and James Brown led to the “faster, smoother, more polished rhythms” of disco, D said, it all started in the same place – American black music.

“[The music] still comes up from that seed of jazz and blues in Congo Square in New Orleans,” he said.

By the time rappers starting using microphones over disco beats, New York City – where D was a student at Adelphi University on Long Island – had become a breeding ground for rap music, which D said also takes its roots in the music of the South.

“It’s traced all the way back to being a feeling of love,” he said.

With that understanding, D’s group Public Enemy used the power of rap music to spread clean messages to kids in the 80s, especially around the time crack was becoming a major epidemic in mainstream America.

“We did ‘Night of the Living Baseheads’ and we knew [kids were listening to it],” he said. “[I thought], ‘I’m gonna find out if I can use rap music to make drugs look nasty.’ For some reason, [rap] was connecting [kids’] souls together.”

Today, however, D said that while the music is still reaching young people of all colors, it is sending a much different message than back in the time when he began rapping.

“Obviously, something is propped that doesn’t need to be propped,” he said. “The industry of thugism [banks on] jail and death … and jail and death is making a lot of money in this country. It costs you a lot of money to get buried, it costs you a lot of money to get locked down.

“Rap music is not a culture. It’s a subculture coming from the black culture. Culture is to be shared. Culture comes out of the interaction between human beings,” he said. “[Black people need to] not jump down and dance in the trenches that have been made for us. [Rap has] always been a pull-up music.”

D called for a return of “class and dignity” to be brought back to rap music and the shallow American reality-television culture, and said change needs to begin with students educating themselves and asking questions about the world around them.

“The real estate of the millennium is people’s minds and people’s souls,” he said. “Do you control what you feel and see or does it control you? Make your decision and be strong behind it. Control yourself, and leave here with your own mind.”