Chuck D Talks Barack Obama, Black History

There are few rap songs as important to modern culture as Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," a rallying cry against black communities for their political indifference.

Well, it's been 20 years since frontman Chuck D helped scare the hell out of white America with that track, and now a black man sits in the Oval Office—thanks in large part to record black turnout last November. Today, as Black History Month comes to a close, the hip-hop icon reflects on the election.

"We had numbers [on our side] this time," Chuck says.

But, he admits, in spite of his satisfaction, he didn't think the U.S. could get here this fast.

"It's one of those things when you look at your family, when you know where you come from, you know this is that thing your family never thought would come in their lifetime. Especially my dad, my mom. Personally, I thought [it could be] maybe 10 years away."

While many would attribute Barack Obama's election to the slow cultural shift generated by Public Enemy and countless musical artists that followed them, D balks at the notion that MTV or the mainstream music media had any effect on the outcome. Instead, he points to the efforts of the artists who came before him, the men and women whose songs make up Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement boxed set released late last month. In the introduction to the package, Chuck explains his stance: "You don't get a black president overnight. Songs like [these]...make you understand the collective voices that makes it happen."

But Chuck, who's become a sage-like senior in the rap community, won't deny that his own role in the revolution fills him with pride.

"More than anything, I think it's obligation and social responsibility," he says, expanding on what drove him to become a lyrical activist. "I always thought it was the responsibility of the artist, if you're grown. If you're 13, 14, you're absolved from that. But if you're 30 years old, and you can't speak to grown people about grown-people shit, then the art is in vain."

When pressed about the impact Obama's election might have on black America, Chuck remains cautiously optimistic. Obama's election should inspire black communities to further unite into powerful constituencies, Chuck says. It should "inspire the promotion of more diverse artists" in hip-hop too.

But will it?

Chuck, you begin to realize the longer you speak with him, hasn't given up on hope. But his pragmatic—some might even say pessimistic—approach to commenting on recent events makes him sound like a Doubting Thomas who's seen the glory of a savior and still wants more.

Yes, Obama's victory is an accomplishment, he says. But it's certainly not the end of the struggle.

"I do a lot of my living outside the United States, and over the last 10 or 12 years, I've seen the U.S. fall back and actually be behind the rest of the planet," Chuck says. "In this election, the U.S. finally caught up."

Now, he adds, the country has the "great opportunity to rise up to the stands and political ideals Barack Obama has set."

But there still remains one nagging question: Considering that "Fight the Power" was and remains an anthem against the Man (which is to say the traditional white repressors), does its message change now that there's a black man sitting in the White House? Does Obama's new role inherently make him the Man too?

"In a way, yes," Chuck says. His campaign "never really had a face on it. It was a theme without a face."

Ah, sorry. He's a Doubting Chuck. He believes, but he's not ready to lay down his mike just yet.

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Cole Haddon