As the news broke of the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction list, I could not contain my smile. The list includes well deserving and possibly overdue rock bands Rush and Heart, but also a personal favorite: Public Enemy. As I mentioned before as a college music education major I was not a fan of rap music. However, a select few rap outfits caught my attention and I liked what they were doing. One of those rap acts was Public Enemy. From the beginning there was something about their music that was appealing to me.
Public Enemy really met major success in the 1989 when Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing was released and their song “Fight the Power” anchored the film and took on a life of its own. Amazingly here we are years later when an extremely anti-establishment rap act is now embraced by a large international fan base and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When Public Enemy was new to the music world, I understood who they were and what they were doing musically. They were political, idealistic, socially influential, yet controversial and militant. As a young black man who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, I understood exactly what Public Enemy was saying through their lyrics. The message they were sending was one of black pride and empowerment, the words coming from the civil rights movement and leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Black Panthers, and Louis Farrakhan. When I listened to Public Enemy I understood my generation, and most likely the next generation of young black men and women were the target audience.
Nevertheless, Public Enemy music reached the white suburban young folks and a waiting European audience that pushed them over the top. The anti-establishment rap group who spoke of Fighting the Power is now embraced by the power of millions of fans. The group has lived through major controversy and accusations of anti-Semitism and homophobic statements throughout the years, not surprising when a musical group takes on politics and social commentary as their backdrop. In thinking back to Public Enemy’s beginning I wondered if Chuck D and Flavor Flav ever thought the day would come when their music would be loved the world over. Perhaps, the major international success did not just happen by chance, but by careful design.
One thing I always like to point out to persons is that rappers are not unintelligent. Such statements are generalizations and undermine the art of rapping. The fact is that all artists come from various walks of life and it is difficult to gauge brilliance until a creation comes to fruition, very much like painters, sculptors, poets, novelists and others. There is the possibility that the group members of Public Enemy understood the times surrounding their start, and realized the audience would evolve and “learn” to accept their art. The political climate when they started was quite different from today, but just maybe they believed their audience would emerge as a result of world events and appreciate the lyrical message without experiencing the racial oppression. It’s hard to say for sure, but for now many of us who remember the start of Public Enemy can just smile. We can enjoy this day when this Public Enemy receives love from millions worldwide.