It's hard to imagine a more perfect setting for Chuck D to speak in than a library. He divulges just enough information to whet the listener's appetite -- and prompts the audience in both subtle and overt ways to use the resources at hand. In a packed auditorium at the Akron Public Library's main branch on 23 May, Chuck D preached. He preached to the converted, but sometimes you need to hear these things again to make them stick. He talked about the ignorance of America, about understanding your history, and about Flava. Chuck D speaks from the heart with a charisma and sense of showmanship that you're either born with or not. Spend just five minutes in his presence and you understand why he led arguably the most influential rap group of all time, Public Enemy. When Chuck D holds court, all in attendance take note.
In an effort to level-set the conversation, Chuck D attempted to define "rap" and "hip-hop". According to him, rap is not a style of music, but a vocal style between talking and singing. Fair enough. Hip-hop, however, takes us down a slipperier slope. Hip-hop is the essence of black creativity that began in the mid-'70s when New York City schools began to cut music programs, pushing the black community to develop its own musical culture as an outlet. It produced music, a style of dress, lingo, graffiti, dancing (breakdancing), turntablism, DJing, and MCing. Despite this rather specific definition, when asked if a white person can "be" hip-hop, Chuck D responds with an emphatic "Hell, yeah, because [hip-hop is] culture."
Chuck D had a lot to say about America and the ignorance of Americans. After stating only 22% of Americans have passports, he tried his best to make the crowd understand that "the best American is a citizen of the world," and derided the "anti-lectualism" and "young-ass-ification" of our society. He spelled-out MTV as "E-M-P-T-Y" and BET as an acronym for "Booty 'En Thug" (it doesn't make sense, I know, but forget it, he's rolling)-- saying that while it's parody to our generation, it's reality to young people today. And that is one of his key points: The dialogue between the generations has to resume, particularly in the black community, because otherwise history and lives will continue to be lost.
Chuck D is quick to point out that he is not amazed by the resurgence of Flav's 15 minutes of fame, but rather he is amazed America's gullibility. Of Flava specifically, Chuck D says that "there's one [crazy person] in every family, he's ours... he's 48 and he wears a clock!" It illustrates his point in that truthfully sad way that celebrity is "the drug of America."
History, time, and geography are the keys to education, according to Chuck D. Pop quizzes are the norm as he rails on Canada, praises Estonia, and talks about water as the "oil of the new millennium." When touching on the situation Don Imus put himself in, Chuck D -- purveyor of free speech -- says if you can't use the "S" word or the "F" word in broadcasting, then you shouldn't be allowed to use the "N" word, the "B" word, or the "H" word... but, he is still against banning words from records.
Wrapping up the hour-and-forty-five minute talk, Chuck D told the crowd that he doesn't want Barack Obama in the White House in 2008. He told the crowd, "Barack in 2016! Let someone else clean up this mess [Bush started in the Middle East]," and get Obama in there as the Vice President on the ticket. Joking as a sidebar that if that were to happen, "then they really protect that President" in order to keep a black man from ascending to the presidency!
Adam Besenyodi is an associate music editor and writer at PopMatters.com