Chuck D isn’t trying to be woke

Chuck D isn’t trying to be woke

With help from Ella Creamer, Rishika Dugyala, Jesse Naranjo and Teresa Wiltz

A photo illustration shows a torn paper background with a photo of Chuck D.

POLITICO illustration/Photo by Getty Images

What up, Recast family! One-time mayoral candidate Rep. Chuy García endorses progressive Brandon Johnson ahead of the Chicago mayoral runoff, few Florida Republicans on Capitol Hill are willing to say who they will back in 2024, Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump…oh, and Happy St. Patty’s Day. Today, we’re chatting with hip-hop royalty.

Chuck D, founding member of the legendary rap group Public Enemy, is in a reflective mood these days.

This year marks hip-hop’s golden anniversary. Just last month he rocked the stage along with other rap luminaries including Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, Ice-T and LL Cool J during the Grammy Awards’ 13-minute tribute to the genre.

Some of these same titans of hip-hop appear in the four-part documentary series that Chuck D produced, “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World,” a joint production between the BBC and PBS. That title, of course, bears the same name as Public Enemy’s 1990 hit.

While the series explores the origins of hip-hop and why different artists, from DJs to graffiti artists to B-boys and B-girls, were drawn to the artform, the series itself is inherently political as it explores hip-hop’s political awakening, especially in its early decades.

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Now 62, Chuck D says that politics and life are cyclical.

We talk about the so-called racial reckoning sparked after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the political changes he says wouldn’t have happened if not for hip-hop. He talks about how the genre gave the protests a cadence and how, just like the music is embraced by cultures all over the globe, so were the protests.

He shares his views on current politics, including how the term “woke” is being co-opted. He also talks about focusing on other ways of influencing the culture through “Livin’ Loud,” the hip-hop pioneer’s first art book and his soon-to-be launched app, Bring the Noise.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

THE RECAST: Obviously the release of your documentary coincides with this year being the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. But it also serves as a reminder that the genre has always been rooted in documenting sociopolitical strife and struggle. What point were you trying to drive home with that aspect of the documentary?

CHUCK D: Well, we wanted to tell the story along my timeline and what influenced me. My parents always encouraged me to be independent and encouraged me to be in the arts. I was born in 1960, so the first 10 years of my life was such a turbulent decade of change.

Assassinations took place. People you look up to and all of a sudden they’re gone from a bullet. I remember in my first grade class [in 1966] we had to cover how President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed only three years prior. And then all of a sudden his brother runs for president and he gets shot, our hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gets shot [in June and April of 1968, respectively].

I was part of the Black Panthers lunch program and their leaders were shot — like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago. And activist leaders Angela Davis and Huey Newton were jailed — I mean this is the first 10 years of my life, so it was seismic to my existence. It came out in the wash with me expressing myself in the musical art form of songs in the ‘80s.

Bobby Seale speaks in a crowd next to a person holding a sign reading

Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale, lower left, speaks at a Dec. 8, 1971, rally in support of Angela Davis outside the courthouse in Palo Alto, Calif. | RWK/AP Photo

People look at the film “Black Panther” being influential in this century for people who grew up with it. But I was [a kid] when Marvel came out with the Black Panther [comic book]. So everything’s coming full circle, but telling that story in “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World,” we wanted to nail those events along my tree line, so to speak.

THE RECAST: You open the documentary with Killer Mike speaking in Atlanta in 2020 after the killing of Rayshard Brooks where he says: “I watched a white officer assassinate a Black man.” A few frames later you set the tone for the rest of the series where you say the 2020 racial reckoning could not happen without hip-hop.

What did you mean by that? Because certainly people would point to like, “Oh, well, I thought it was social media that fueled those protests by sharing videos and images of all those police killings of Black people.”

CHUCK D: Well, social media is the apparatus, it’s the portal, it’s the technology. But hip-hop is the language. You know, how to truncate — you don’t have to get expansive, you can say two or three words and it gets the point across. Which is good and bad because a lot of hip-hop can be picked up and misappropriated and just like, go on a trajectory that you’re like, “Yo, man, this is not even recognizable.”

Chuck D performs on stage at a concert.

Chuck D of Public Enemy performs during the Made in America Music Festival, Aug. 31, 2013, in Philadelphia. | Amy Harris/Invision/AP

You know, Brakkton, it was the first time younger generations had seen authority in action. Like [with pandemic lockdowns that said], “Stay your ass at home and don’t go nowhere.” And in the middle of that, they saw this atrocity in the Minneapolis area, and they were like: “Whoa, this is real?”

What they thought they could do against this sort of generational oppression was: “We’re gonna hit the streets. We’ve seen that before. Let’s see if it works.”

They didn’t anticipate white kids marching with Black Lives Matter signs in suburbia, and across the world too. Because you’ve got places all over the world just waiting to take an account of the United States of America’s hypocrisy. Then you saw who we call 45, we don’t even give him a name, and he was the face of the chaos.

A quote from Chuck D reads

THE RECAST: As we’re witnessing hip-hop aging into its fifth decade, we’re seeing some of its big cultural figures, like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre, become business moguls.

CHUCK D: Every time I hear the fact that these guys are businessmen and stuff like that, I’m like, “Come on now.”

It’s always the same people behind [them] guiding their careers. And the same ones that were there 40 years ago are going to be there 10 years later. And no one ever really seems to know their name and such.

Chuck D speaks in a radio booth.

Chuck D visits “Sway in the Morning” with Sway Calloway at SiriusXM Studios, Jan. 25, 2023, in New York. | Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Same thing in politics. You have the Koch brothers, but who knows them? And how much are they orchestrating and puppeteering behind the scenes.

[Editor’s note: David Koch, a major Republican donor, died in 2019 at age 79]

THE RECAST: Where I was going with the figures of hip-hop question is, now we’re seeing these figures dabble in politics. We’re seeing Kanye float trying to run for president, we see Lil Wayne posing with President Trump during the last campaign cycle…

CHUCK D: Watch out for weapons of mass distraction.

When it comes down to government, real people gotta do real work. We’re in a time where everything’s about a toy or a gadget, that the real work that’s needed and the real work that has to be done never seems to be in the conversation of everyday talk.

There are people who are like: “Chuck D, I think you’re smart, I think you should run for something.”

Fuck no! [chuckles]

Donald Trump and Kanye West pose for a photo in the lobby of Trump Tower.

President-elect Donald Trump and Kanye West pose for a picture in the lobby of Trump Tower, Dec. 13, 2016, in New York. | Seth Wenig/AP Photo

There are people who want that job, who want to do it well. They might have wrinkles in their face and a balding head. You mean you’re not going to vote for them because they don’t look like they’re made for TV? When’s the last time we saw a bald president?

THE RECAST: I gotta think about that. Gerald Ford probably, right?

CHUCK D: Gerald Ford, yeah. Ever since the Kennedy TV debates with Nixon, [Americans] began to just follow what they see, like, “I’m not able to hear what he’s talking about. Because I think I feel comfortable with what I see.”

Once you get into that realm of, you get caught up in the three-card monte game.

THE RECAST: So how do we flip this forward and change the politics of today?

CHUCK D: I can’t tell you. I’m not in politics. I can tell you how we change culture a little bit. Make it a 360-degree experience as opposed to this one-dimensional thing that gets you finger-popping, puff-puff, roll it up and pass it on, you know?

Chuck D and B-Real perform on a roof.

Chuck D (left) and B-Real of Prophets of Rage perform onstage during a free show on skid row, July 15, 2016, in Los Angeles. | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

So this is one of the reasons I’m creating an app that’s going to be released April 1. It’s called Bring the Noise and it’s a “cultural media” app, instead of “social.” We just keep it to the culture, music, art, film. We feel “cultural media” is greater than social media. So Bring the Noise looks like it has a purpose.

It could keep you aware. It could keep you awake. It could keep you entertained. It could keep you alert. Culture is a good thing.

THE RECAST: You’re talking about wanting people to be culturally aware, but the term “woke” is being used by conservatives as a catch-all for anything that resembles liberal ideals. It’s becoming this wedge issue in politics. Do you feel like this phrase is being co-opted?

CHUCK D: I use the word “awake” as opposed to “woke.”

One thing about hip-hop: I’ve watched 50 years of people getting a slang term and desecrating it, trying to sound hipper.

Everybody ain’t gotta try to be hip.

A quote from Chuck D reads

This whole “I’ve got to get on the hip path in order to get people to listen to me is the craziest thing ever.” I’ve seen it before. I’m not bothered by it because I overstand what it is.

I mean, it’s comfortable for adversaries, instead of them [referencing race] you know? I mean, “Negro” could have been the term for “woke” 60 years ago.

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Alright, Recasters, before your celebratory St. Patrick’s Day libations, we’ve got some news before you booze.

Ron DeSantis gestures with his hand while speaking on a stage with an American flag in the background.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters on March 10, 2023, in Des Moines. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Florida Sidestep — “The next president will be from Florida” is the canned response POLITICO’s Olivia Beavers gets when she asks Republicans about 2024. When she inquires who it will be, Ron or Don, well, that’s where the fun begins.

DeSantis Anti-Woke Law — Speaking of the “Ron” in that Ron vs. Don story, Gov. Ron DeSantis enjoys championing his anti-woke bonafides on the campaign trail… I mean his book tour (wink wink). But as POLITICO’s Andrew Atterbury writes, “Florida remains unable to enforce the ‘Stop-WOKE’ law” at the collegiate level.

Chuy’s Choice — A scoop from our Illinois Playbook writer Shia Kapos: One-time mayoral candidate and current Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.) is backing Brandon Johnson in April’s Chicago mayoral runoff.

Jinwoo Chong weaves time travel, pop culture and mystery in a highly anticipated speculative fiction masterpiece, “Flux,” publishing Tuesday. (Sidenote: We’re obsessed with the cover art.)

From the minds of Janine Nabers and Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), “Swarm” is a psychological horror taking fandom to murderous heights. It’s released on Prime Video today.

Eladio Carrión careens around a lush golf course (the “Sauce Boyz Country Club”) in “Coco Chanel,” featuring the legendary Bad Bunny.

The 1998 movie “Drylongso,” following a young photographer who captures portraits of Black men in Oakland as a way of “preserving their image — some kind of evidence of existence,” has been restored and is showing in theaters now.

TWICE move between Earth and outer space in a high-energy visual for “SET ME FREE,” not to be confused with Jimin’s “Set Me Free Pt.2,” another powerful new release.

TikTok of the Day: Snoop Dogg x Scotland

@ladbible Sounded like Black Ops 2 Zombies at the start 🤣 🎥 @Snoop Dogg #snoopdogg #scotlandtiktok ♬ original sound – LADbible

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