Saturday, June 22, 2024

Public Enemy and mass incarceration are at the heart of episode 4 of ‘Being Black: The ’80s’

Flavor Flav, left, and Chuck D of Public Enemy performs during the 2003 Rock the Vote Awards at the Roseland Ballroom February 22, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Two of the most important elements of the ’80s are the aggressively political music of Public Enemy and the horrors of mass incarceration. That’s why they’re the focus of the fourth episode of my podcast, “Being Black: The ‘80s.” 

Public Enemy was like the second coming of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers except that they had a funky and chaotic beat behind them to rap over. Lead rapper Chuck D was a well-read intellectual who rapped about Malcolm and Minister Louis Farrakhan and Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur the revolutionary Black Liberation Army member who is the author of an amazing autobiography “Assata.” Chuck approached the mic like he was an activist, and he created music that was intended to uplift and liberate Black people. As he watched the rise of mass incarceration, he made an incredible song about being in prison called “Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos.”

In the song, Chuck echoes the story of Muhammad Ali, who was drafted by the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War and famously refused to go. Both Ali and the character in Chuck’s song rejected the Army’s demand based on a shared critique of America. They both essentially ask, “Why would I fight and die for a country that isn’t fair or just to me and my people?” But where Ali avoids prison, Chuck’s character does not, launching his story into the horrors of prison and the notion that Black people in America are in prison. 

In the 1980s, the number of people who were incarcerated exploded. From 1980 to 1990 the prison population went from about 400,000 to about 800,000, according to Prison Policy. Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs was all about putting more cops on the streets and locking Black people up to prove that he could be tough on crime. The government was overpolicing Black neighborhoods, arresting truckloads of Black men and giving them prison sentences that sounded like basketball scores, even if they were non-violent offenders. Mass incarceration ruined lives, destroyed families and damaged the Black community. Michelle Alexander’s landmark study, “The New Jim Crow,” explains the world of mass incarceration in detail.

Chuck D and Public Enemy emerged as a powerful countervoice. For “Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos,” he created a video where he shows himself inside the traumatizing environment of prison. He also showed himself being lynched in the video even though in the song he leads a prison riot and helps lots of men escape. Two different endings but both posit Chuck as a savior. In the song, he’s leading people out of the belly of the beast and into freedom. In the video, he’s martyred.

Public Enemy is one of my favorite rap groups of all time. Their music was deeply political and it exposed me to political ideas and great Black political thinkers that I had not previously encountered. Chuck was like a mentor in the way he was able to combine politics and music in a seamless way. In some ways, his work is perhaps the precursor to this podcast for me — the first time I really saw politics and music mesh in the best way. 

Don’t miss my podcast, “Being Black: The ‘80s,” available anywhere you get podcasts.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s.” He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today! 


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