Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Public Enemy made me care about people who aren't like me

When I was very young, like 9 or 10, I discovered Public Enemy. An older kid in the neighborhood got me on hip-hop, and I was hooked.

Other kids in the neighborhood gravitated toward NWA. And for sure, NWA was really good. But for me, immediately, Public Enemy was what I wanted.

I'm not totally sure if I was a kid who listened to lyrics and thought about them, or if Public Enemy was a group that made me pay attention to lyrics, but however the relationship transpired (I think it was the latter), PE made me think about things that a white, middle class kid in the suburbs didn't think about naturally. The shit Flavor Flav was talking about in "I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga" was not exactly in the forefront in suburban Massachusetts, where minorities were legitimate novelties. In "By the Time I Get to Arizona," Chuck D forced me to confront the idea that not everyone thought MLK was awesome. PE's visual message was potent, too. Their Black Panther aesthetic didn't frighten me -- it resonated. Why were these people so angry? Everything where I was seemed pretty okay.

References in hip-hop by groups like Public Enemy made me scour my public elementary school library for what the "KKK" and "lynching" where. My teachers weren't very excited to tell me, but the librarian at Burrell Elementary School, whose name is lost to me but whose catch-phrase when classes entered -- "books on the book drop, bodies on the rug" will be emblazoned upon my memory through the later degrees of dementia -- was happy to help. There, in tiny chairs around long tables, I learned about America's history of violence and oppression. I learned that I liked history, and I felt the pangs of juvenile disappointment that Massachusetts didn't have any great battles in the Civil War to right the wrongs of my heritage. It was a long road to finding my state's role in abolition. It was a longer road to finding an appreciation in our road to independence. It was a longer road still to appreciate Boston's role in segregation well into the late 20th century, and that road led me to the social and political positions I now enjoy.

If I were to trace my growth as a person, my social interests, and my begrudging acknowledgement of privilege, I cannot say it was some great teacher I had, though it is true that I had great teachers. I cannot say that punk rock made me see them, though punk rock gave me a really personal view and helped me to relate to the struggles of others. If I was to point to what made me realize that life was easier for me for no reason at all, I'd point to Public Enemy. Those guys scared the hell out of people, but they did it with a voice that screamed equality and empowerment rather than violence and revenge. It is why, as a pre-teen, when my mother took away all my rap tapes because she was afraid of the message, I was able to convince her to let me keep Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black. There was no misogyny there. There was no violence against innocence. Public Enemy was a call for revolution. It wasn't peaceful all the time, but it was never unjust.

25 years later, I still don't totally get how I can help stop injustice, but I do know that I am supposed to bring the noise. I know that because of Public Enemy.

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