Who Will Be Our Leaders? Jeff Chang Looks at How Hip-Hop Tried to Deliver Leadership for a Post-Civil Rights World
Chang, Jeff, Colorlines Magazine
PERHAPS THE MOST VEXING QUESTION of the post-civil rights generation raised on Sesame Street and "Roots," King's "I Have a Dream" speech and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and living within the coils of an unsleeping, omnipresent, icon-hungry media has been: "Who will be our leaders?"
"In our hunger for a charismatic, post-King/Malcolm figure, a vacuum existed," Bill Stephney, one of the co-founders of the rap group Public Enemy, says. "I don't think that the times of the eighties were any less politically volatile than at any other point in history. The difference was the vacuum of leadership."
In an influential article in 1996 in Social Policy, the late Black activist Lisa Sullivan, co-founder of the Black Student Leadership Network and one of the first hip-hop intellectuals, laid out the politics--and the stakes--behind Stephney's claim:
According to a wide range of critics, civil rights advocacy led by traditional civil rights leaders is unresponsive and impotent in this post-civil rights period, which is increasingly characterized by racial intolerance, the renewal of states' rights and the dismantling of the federal government's protective domestic social policies and programs.
This harsh critique of the civil rights movement is most pronounced amongst Black youth. Many believe that traditional Black leaders lack the capacity, desire and ingenuity to address the contemporary crises that destabilize Black working-class life and destroy Black neighborhoods and families.
Hip-hoppers embraced the ideas of the exiled and martyred icons of the past while rejecting the legitimacy of their living elders. After Scott La Rock was gunned down on a Bronx street, KRS-1 posed for Boogie Down Productions' second album cover alone, looking from behind a window curtain for enemies below, gripping an Uzi semi-automatic as Malcolm X had his rifle two decades before. In "Rebel Without A Pause," Chuck D had declared himself a supporter of JoAnne Chesimard, the former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member who was about to resurface in Cuba as an exile under a new name, Assata Shakur, and watched her autobiography become a Black bookstore best-seller.
He decided to work Minister Farrakhan's name into his next track, a B-side commissioned for the movie adaptation of Brett Easton Elliss Gen-X novel, Less Than Zero. That song, "Don't Believe The Hype"--with its line, "The follower of Farrakhan, don't tell me that you understand until you hear the man--was rejected. But the next one they submitted, "Bring the Noise," was accepted, and it was even more explicit: "Farrakhan's a prophet, and I think you ought to listen to what he can say to you. What you ought to do is follow for now."
The kids had dumped their gold dookey ropes for African medallions. Some were reading George G. M. James's Stolen Legacy and Carter G. Woodson's The Miseducation of the Negro. Even the hustlers in Harlem had changed their style. Hip-hop journalist Reginald Dennis recalls, "Cats that were straight murderers were playing Self Destruction on their new 10,000-watt Blaupunkt systems."
When Public Enemy came to Philadelphia, the city declared it Public Enemy Day and gave them a parade. "We're in open cars, coming down on Market Street, waving at folks and stuff," says Stephney. "But what struck me, we saw these guys who were at that point in their mid-40s. They had all run back, it seemed, into their apartments and homes and two-story brick houses in Philly and gotten all their old Panther shit out. Got the berets, got the black leather jackets, got their camouflages out and everything. You're seeing these graying forty-something Black men, tears in their eyes, throwing the Black power salute like the revolution has come back."
"I was just like, 'Shit. Okay,'" he sighs. "Yeah, we're the 'Black Panthers of rap.' But when you're as young as we were doing all of this stuff at that point, I was 25, you don't have a clue as to the sort of impact you truly are generating. …