Usually the talks at the Martin Luther King,jr.birthday program at Western Michigan University-Kalamazoo are sparsely attended, and are deadly dull, but this year with more student input on the planning committee, Chuck D, frontline rapper for the radical hip hop group Public Enemy (and his newly-formed rap-rock group, Confrontation Camp)was chosen as keynote speaker. Excitement (and fear and loathing)has been in abundance.
This caused an uproar among the conservative political establishment of Kalamazoo, who apparently felt some businessman, educator, or politician would be more appropriate to the occasion. The staid Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper first disrespected Bro. Chuck D by mixing up his picture with that of Public Enemy co-lead rapper, Flava Flav. To make matters worse however, they questioned his intelligence and integrity to the effect as "what could a rapper possibly say" that was relevant to the nonviolent legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. They also claimed that the 1991 video "By The Time I Get to Arizona" advocated the murders of the governor and white officials, and was "irresponsible and contrary to Dr. King's beliefs." They obviously saw Chuck D himself as a real public enemy, and he was coming to Kalamazoo.
In his talk tonight, he alluded to these critical newspaper articles, pointing out that although he may be best known as a hip hop artist, he in fact has been on the college lecture circuit for over ten years, and had spoken at over 381 colleges. He indignantly pointed out that he was a college graduate, and that as a rapper/musician was an articulate person who fashioned together "lyrical poetry", not mindless violent phrases. He also pointed out that for years he was a leader who had spoken out about police brutality, racism, and the issues of the day for his community and the poor. He said his voice has been heard on all manner of issues effecting the Black community, and that he had a right to speak in honor of Dr. King. He was clearly offended.
He pointed out that like Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.- he respected the ethnic differences in people, and that nowadways because of the pervasive culture of hip hop it was impossible to even tell whether a youth in baggy clothes and hoods were Black, Asian, white or Latino. He pointed out that hip hop had a world wide reach, and was the major youth culture of this past century, more so than even rock and roll.
One of the major parts of his talk dealt with the dominance of major record labels, which has pushed "gangsta rap" as the dominant expression of Black youth culture. He said the Black innovators of rap music have been almost forgotten or relegated to secondary status, while the major corporations push people like Eminem, a Detroit white artist as the current best selling rap star. He said this cultural theft of Black art forms has historically happened over and over, aided and abetted by white music moguls.
He talked about how rap/hip hop has been bastardized by major record companies, and many of the artists exploited, and that this was why he had sought an independent approach with his current music efforts, the internet and small labels. Chuck D is one of the major proponents of computer distribution of music, called MP3, which allows samples and whole albums to be sold and distributed online. He supported Napster when it was legally attacked by the Recording Industry of America and major labels in a lawsuit last year.
Finally, Chuck D talked about the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King as a revolutionary, not just a pacifist, saintly, or weak-willed person. He described King as tough-minded and fearless, willing to confront racists eyeball-to-eyeball. He accused the government and media of selling us a corporate King, to pacify our desires for freedom and strong leadership.
After speaking for 30-45 minutes, Chuck D signed off to deafening applause. He had made his point and captivated the crowd of over 3,000 persons, who hung on his every word. This was a racially diverse crowd, mainly students, but also youth and adults from the community. He had left a lasting impression, reached people who had never been reached, and captured the imagination of youth who had never met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but made the acquaintance of a strong fighter by the name of Chuck D.