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Who will be our leaders? Jeff Chang looks at how hip-hop tried to deliver leadership for a post-civil rights world.

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."

Ready or not, leadership was being thrust on the hip-hop generation. The problem of how the new young Black elite would direct its rage and where it would take the race in the new century would be entirely their own.

Black Artists as the New Black Leadership

Within two months of its release in 1988, Public Enemy's "It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back," had already sold a million copies and perhaps set off an equal number of debates. The rap rebels and the cult-nats might never leverage the lumbering political system that had begun rolling back over them, but they might figure out how to mobilize lightning-quick, idea-dumb capital for its uses.


So the question returned: What was the role and responsibility of artists to the liberation struggle? For the Panthers, and even for Karenga, artists were revolutionaries first. As cultural workers--a Marxist construct that meant to validate art-making as a form of labor--their job was merely to support the revolution, not to theorize, strategize or steer it. But in the urgency of the moment, given the irreparable break in political leadership development, rappers were now being asked not just to be mirrors to the people, but to be their leaders.

The Stop The Violence Movement was an example of what rappers could do well. In 1987, gang fights broke out during a U.T.F.O. show in Los Angeles, a boy was stabbed to death at a Dana Dane show in New Haven, Connecticut and two teenaged girls were trampled in an after-concert stampede at a show in Nashville, Tennessee featuring Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy and NWA. Violence was also on the rise in rock concerts, but the media suddenly had a new reason to stigmatize youths of color, and calls for rap show bans spread.

On September 10, 1988, the violence came home to the Black Belt. One youth was killed, and dozens of others were hurt at a Saturday-night homecoming show for Eric B. & Rakim, Kool Moe Dee and Doug E. Fresh at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. Frustrated with the sensationalist media coverage and worried about its effect on the emerging rap industry, journalist Nelson George, Jive A & R exec Ann Carli, publicist Leyla Turkkan and a number of execs met the following week. "It was time," Nelson George wrote, "for rappers to define the problem and defend themselves."


They conceived a project that would include a benefit record, video, book and a rally around the theme "Stop The Violence," the title of KRS-One's ode to his fallen partner, Scott La Rock. Working quickly, the ad hoc committee assembled an all-star group of rappers and producers to become the Stop The Violence Movement. They cut a record, Self Destruction, shot a video and staged a march through Harlem. The song went gold and added $200,000 to the National Urban League's anti-violence programs. The well-executed marketing strategy significantly shifted the terms of the debate over rap concert bans.

But Stop The Violence was always less a movement than a media event. The project was never intended to be a political campaign against the Black-on-Black crime; that was for a civil rights organizations like the Urban League to build. Stop The Violence meant to counterspin the mainstream media, reassure the entertainment business and show that rap artists could be responsible and that hip-hop was a self-policing and stable industry. Nothing more should have been expected.

Many compared rappers to griots--the mythmakers, genealogists, praise singers, oral historians and social critics of Senegambian society. One would expect the griots to be valued members of their societies, wrote Robert Palmer in Deep Blues, but in fact they are both admired, for they often attain considerable reputations and amass wealth, and despised, for they are thought to consort with evil spirits, and their praise songs, when not properly rewarded, can become venomous songs of insult. By definition, griots were not leaders, much less messiahs. They were a separate caste, an outcast class.

But many elders insisted that rappers, who clearly had the ability to move the media like no one since the Panthers, take their place in the community as leaders. At Howard University in 1987, Bill Stephney found himself on a panel discussion with Amiri Baraka, dub poet Mutabaruka and musician James Mtume. The three asserted that rappers should be held to revolutionary standards of leadership. Stephney was aghast.

He argued, "Woe be it unto a community that has to rely on rappers for political leadership. Because that doesn't signify progress, that signifies default. Now that our community leaders cannot take up their responsibility, you're gonna leave it up to an 18-year-old kid who has mad flow? What is the criteria by which he has risen to his leadership? He can flow? That's the extent of it? If our leadership is to be determined by an 18-year-old without a plan, then we're in trouble. We're fucked."

The elders protested, wondered if he wasn't just trying to duck responsibility. A young woman stood up in the audience to defend Stephney. She was Lisa Williamson, the anti-apartheid and antiracist activist who was one of the most visible student leaders of the day. In three years, she would transform herself into Sister Souljah and join the Public Enemy camp as a self-described raptivist. In this generation, it was no longer about being a cultural worker, but being a political rapper. Stephney muses, "It was a reversal of the process."

Chuck had begun to recognize his role and with it, his limits. In a generation, George Clinton's "Chocolate City" talk about painting the White House black and filling it with cultural icons like Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor and Aretha Franklin was no longer a joke--it was what folks actually seemed to be asking for. But to call yourself a Black Panther of rap was one thing, to replace the Party was another.

"I'm not a politician, I'm a dispatcher of information," Chuck D complained to John Leland. "People are always looking to catch me in fucking doubletalk and loopholes. They're looking to say, 'Damn, in this interview he said that, and in this interview he said that.' They treat me like I'm Jesse Jackson."

Chuck fashioned a new sound bite, describing a role he felt more capable of fulfilling. "In five years," he would say, "we intend to have cultivated five thousand Black leaders. Maybe another Marley or a Jesse Jackson, a Marcus Garvey or another Louis Farrakhan." And if that seemed to some to be a political retreat, it still ranked as one of the most ambitious claims ever advanced on behalf of art.

Jeff Chang has been a hip-hop journalist for more than a decade and was a founding editor of ColorLines magazine.
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Title Annotation:culture
Author:Chang, Jeff
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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