Chuck D, frontman for Public Enemy, one of rap's most sensationally controversial groups, has a problem with Santa Claus. He's not wild about the Easter bunny, either. More precisely, Chuck D thinks they are symptoms of a culture that still hasn't come to grips with religion as a central force. "Every year at Christmas," grumbled the rapper in a recent interview, "they remind us of the fat Caucasian that supposedly comes down the chimney. At Easter they remind us, not of Christ, but of the Easter eggs and the Easter bunny. At Thanksgiving they don't remind us to thank God, but remind us to be thankful that they stole this land from the Indians."
The rant is typical Chuck D: a mix of politics, religion, and cultural nationalism; belligerent, thoughtful, and incendiary all at once.
It is the religion in that mix that might surprise more casual observers of rap. From the time Public Enemy released their first album of "message rap" in 1987, the group began to transform hip-hop from a musical novelty to, as one critic described it, an "angry, minimalist-with-a-vengeance rhythm of revolution." The political, in other words, came through loud and clear. But Public Enemy preferred to present themselves as "prophets of rage," and like the biblical prophets, Chuck D and P.E. often invoked the Almighty as they preached against the reigning cultural powers: "I'm considered the man. I'm recordable. But God made it affordable," they rhymed, before adding, "They tell lies in the books that you're readin'. It's knowledge of yourself that you're needin'."
Chuck's lyrics, too, have always demonstrated his affinity with religiously motivated critics of modern society. Whether it's songs like "Burn Hollywood Burn" or "Who Stole the Soul," he has railed against both political and cultural injustices and the apathy that allows them to happen: "Ain't no different than in South Africa. Over here they'll go after ya to steal your soul. Like over there they stole our gold."
Returning to music after three years of lecturing, writing, and developing an internet radio project, Chuck D has a new album with his new group, Confrontation Camp, and, seemingly, a new sense of mission.
In person, the prophet of rage is down to earth and humble. His brand of prophecy is more Jeremiah or Amos than Isaiah: He refuses to let people "hear what they want," but understands that changing society or the self "is a life-long process," he said. "God did not create any perfect human being, and we in the entertainment business are trying to fight against the things that affect people every day, and can affect any one of us."
The ultimate goal of art, Chuck D says, is to transform listeners into prophets themselves, so we can guide ourselves out of our collective ignorance. While a lot of rappers fire up audiences against authority, preaching an "us versus them" ethic to work up their street cred, Chuck D is in touch with the grass roots. He worked during his hiatus with get-out-the-vote organizations and volunteered for public-service appearances. With Confrontation Camp, he feels he is poised to take the lead in rejuvenating the irreverent spirit of young people to fight against the status quo. In "URS," one of the best songs on the new album, he deplores the "VIP culture" and loudly proclaims the band's identification and solidarity with its fans with the refrain, "You are us. We are you. We are you. You are us."
For Chuck, the internet is a ready instrument for his new cause. "Without controlling radio and TV, it's almost impossible to change anything, which is why I'm excited about the developments within internet technology. It's exploding just as today's youth are challenging the passivity and apathy of the last generation."
For Chuck, Public Enemy was one of the last bastions of independence against the artistic and political status quo of the mid- to late-'80s. He still talks enthusiastically about the "P.E. moment," when Public Enemy was able to strike a powerful political and cultural chord not only in hip-hop but in the larger American culture. The spread of free music over the internet (now being closed down by the courts) has similarly allowed people to create their own musical tastes and sensibilities in ways that were until recently nearly impossible.
Gaining control over the music we listen to is, for Chuck D and other artists who have seen record companies get a lock on their art form, only a beginning. The point, Chuck D reminds us, is to rid ourselves of the myths, as he calls them, the media keeps in place: religious and racial differences and ethnic groupings that stand in the way of reconciliation and real dialogue. If he's right, and his new call for human solidarity is as successful as his former call for rage, Chuck D could be remembered as a true prophet.