“We’re gonna do a song, that you never heard before”
In 1862 the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Lincoln and brought an end to slavery. But then, just eight years later, the Fifteenth Amendment was required to guarantee that an individuals “…race, colour or previous condition of servitude” could not be a reason to deny them the vote. Then, in 1965, it was necessary to introduce the Voting Rights Act in an attempt to bring to an end the Jim Crow laws; barriers that, on the surface, appeared to be politically neutral but which, in reality, were entirely racially biased. Even today it is clear that certain local and State laws can be seen as attempts to suppress the political engagement of the black vote.
Throughout the Civil Rights era in the United States voices were raise in opposition to racism at local, State and Federal levels of government and to defeat it on the streets and in the communities where black Americans lived. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael and thousands of other risked, and gave, their lives in pursuit of freedom and equality. That movement reached its peak in the 1960’s and yet in 1981 a black man was lynched by Klansmen in Mobile, Alabama.
Everything changes…everything stays the same.
Then in 1990 new voices began to be raised, bringing attention to the ongoing struggle of the black community in the USA. Instantly vilified by the media and labelled as no better than terrorists who glorified violence and dismissed by the comfortable and ignorant as having “nothing to say about my life” these new kids on the block were the most revolutionary force in the history of popular music. They didn’t wanna hold your hand. They didn’t give a shit about Elvis. They didn’t rhyme moon with June. They were prophets of rage and revolution.
They were Public Enemy.
In 1990 I was a 17 year old kid.
A child really.
I lived in an almost exclusively white town and despite my family having climbed the ladder to lower middle-class status the truth was that I didn’t fit in with the people around me. I was very definitely a child of a working class background. I had grown up poor but oblivious to that fact because everyone else around me was poor too. Council house, a father who worked on building sites and a mother who worked in a hospital. No foreign holidays unless you count the odd weekend in Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast as foreign…and you could make a good argument for doing so. But by the time I was a teenager my dad had started his own company, we had bought our own home and my youngest brother was living a life of comparative privilege compared to the one that my other brother and I had led.
It would have been easy for a kid like me to dismiss Public Enemy. The tired and, whether you like it or not racist, arguments about their not being “real” musicians or their lyrics not saying anything to you about your life would have been simple for me to adopt. Fortunately I had grown up with parents who had railed against the sort of racism that the Civil Rights campaigners had fought. My life had been soundtracked by Motown, Atlantic, Stax and more. My parents revered Smokey, Marvin, Aretha, Mavis, Diana and the rest. Racism was rejected in any form. I knew a bit about the experience of black America thanks to my folks and to my own reading. I also knew about being poor, about being harassed by the police, about not fitting in and about the lack of voices who sounded like mine in positions of power.
When I heard the voice of Thomas “TNT” Thomas, impassioned and forceful, at the start of “Fight The Power” I knew I was listening to something…important. But the moment that changed everything, that awakened in my childish mind an understanding of the world as it is as opposed to being as I had experienced it was this;
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
‘Cause we don’t know the game
The cosy, liberal, assertion that people are the same blown out of the water by a furious voice from the streets. How can we be the same when our lives are so different? How can we play the same game when we don’t know the game? This was what punk thought it was. “I am an anarchist, I am an antichrist” is a neat line…but this was a call to insurrection, a rallying call for a group of people who had been disenfranchised, beaten, broken and bullied to get up, stand up and…fight the power.
Chuck D became the most important voice to have entered my life to that point…yes, even more important than a certain Mancunian miserablist. Where Morrissey had given me a sense of comfort, an acceptance of myself and had opened my eyes and ears to art, music and literature in ways that would have been denied me without him, Chuck D was expanding my understanding, politicising me and forcing me to confront the reality of the world around me.
What about the opening lines from “911 Is a Joke”, solely performed by Flavour Flav;
Going, going, gone
Now I dialed 911 a long time ago
Don’t you see how late they’re reacting
They only come and they come when they wanna
So get the morgue truck and embalm the goner
Nearly thirty years before Ferguson, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and Black Lives Matter here were voices describing the failings of the government, the authorities, the emergency services to value the lives of black people. Holding a mirror up to my perception of how justice works and to my belief that all men are created equal…and shattering those same perceptions and beliefs.
One of the key moments on the album is “Incident at 66.6 FM” where real callers to that radio station give their views on Public Enemy. It is, at times, genuinely terrifying and, at the same time vital and important. “I saw these guys warming up for the Beastie Boys…I thought it was one of the most appalling things I have ever seen, there were two gentlemen in cages of either side of the stage with fake Uzi’s…and when I see somebody who is wearing one of their shirts, I think that they are scum too.” wails one caller. His opposition is not to the music but to the idea of armed black men saying things they are not “supposed” to be saying. This isn’t ancient history, this isn’t some good old boy in the deep South clinging on to the last moments of segregation…this is 1990.
You may well think that The Beatles and Elvis and the Stones and The Sex Pistols and The Clash and The Smiths and Oasis and blah, blah, blah, were the most important band or that they are the greatest…the greatest thing is a matter of personal taste, I guess, but when it comes to importance I don’t see how you can look past Public Enemy. There will be a long line of people getting ready to tell me how I’m wrong and how The Beatles sold this many records and The Smiths inspired this many bands and Oasis played to this many people…those people are missing the point, maybe deliberately, because without black voices none of those things would exist and Public Enemy is the sound of those voices demanding to be heard, demanding their place, demanding an end to exclusion.
Elvis was a hero to most but he
Elvis was a hero to most
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
“Fear of a Black Planet” is a history lesson, a prophetic glimpse into the future and the most thrilling, exciting and, again, revolutionary record in popular music history.
Fight the power.