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« An Interview With Poet, Activist and Teacher Diane Wahto | Main | An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards »

Public Enemy and the Plight of the Inner City

By Angelo Lopez
April 13, 2012

I've never really liked rap music much as a kid. I'd like the occassional song from Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, but I had a hard time understanding the anger of the gangster rap that came during the late 1980s and early 1990s. As time has passed, however, I've gained a greater appreciation of what those rappers were trying to get at with their lyrics and strong sound. The rappers of the 1980s and 1990s were expressing the anger and despair of the black youths of the inner city in the same way that punk rockers in the 1970s were expressing the anger and despair of the working class white British youths of England's inner cities. Both rap and punk rock were criticized for its angry lyrics and its harsh sound. Yet both movements were just reflecting the despair of a young generation trapped in dismal economic conditions. One of the most influential and political rap groups of the 1980s and 1990s was Public Enemy

During the 1970s and 1980s, there were major changes in the economy that would severely hamper the economies of the inner cities of many cities in America. This would greatly limit the economic opportunities for the minority communities that made up a large part of the inner city population. Michael B. Teitz, of the Public Policy Institute of California and University of California, Berkeley, wrote an article called The Causes of Inner-City Poverty: Eight Hypothesis In Search of Reality which describes the effects of the economic changes on the inner city:

Most observers of the economy now accept that a major shift occurred during the 1970s. The rapid productivity growth of the postwar years came to an end—for reasons that are still being debated among economists and historians. Wage growth lagged, and the economy suffered multiple shocks from energy prices and rapid inflation. The surge of births in the postwar baby boom meant that the labor force grew rapidly, while women were entering the labor force in numbers unprecedented in peacetime. For workers in the inner cities, these phenomena were reinforced by powerful technological and competitive forces. Beginning in the 1960s, total manufacturing employment in older cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, had begun to fall, but this decline accelerated in the 1970s. Initially, the process was driven primarily by technological and market changes that rendered inner-city locations for manufacturing less profitable (Vernon, 1960). Evolving mass-production technology favored single-story plants on extensive sites to permit efficient handling, and the development of the suburbs and freeways provided the labor force, transportation, and communications that facilitated the transformation.

By the 1980s, however, manufacturing losses in both new and old plants were being exacerbated by foreign competition. As the United States embraced free trade, the aggregate effect was beneficial, but in some sectors and regions adverse impacts were undeniable, especially in older cities. The rise of new competitors—notably from Japan—opened the way to globalization of consumer goods production, both durable and nondurable, that was cheaper and frequently better. In many sectors, domestic production as a percentage of sales fell sharply and in some cases, such as television manufacturing, dropped effectively to zero. Perhaps as important, whole new product lines, including consumer electronics such as the videocassette recorder, never gained a production foothold in the United States. Plant closures and employment losses left the populations of the cities facing a future in which the hitherto cyclical fluctuations had turned into permanent job losses (Bluestone and Harrison, 1982). In key sectors, such as steel, automobiles, consumer electrical goods, textiles, and machinery, factories were vacant and decaying. Large cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, and smaller ones, such as Camden and Newark, New Jersey, alike were in trouble. Population groups, especially minorities, which were segregated in location and had quite recently been able to gain jobs paying decent wages, were now cut off from employment. Those remaining manufacturing and construction jobs were subject to intense competition in the labor market, even as they were being eliminated by technology. The social bargain between labor and capital disappeared, and unionization declined dramatically—along with growth in real wages. There emerged in society at large, but especially in cities, growing inequality in income distribution, combined with very high levels of unemployment, welfare dependency, and labor market detachment among the very poor.

In this time of economic distress in the inner cities, the Reagan administration began cutting many of the social services that the inner city communities relied on to weather periods of unemployment and reduced economic opportunities. At this time Reagan was criticizing those who went on welfare as being "welfare queens", which stigmatized welfare recipients, when in reality, individuals committing welfare fraud were a very small percentage of those legitimately receiving welfare. According to a website on the 1980s

The decaying Rust Belt communities that figured prominently in Bruce Springsteen's songs were not the only parts of the country that had been in decline long before 1980 but continued to endure economic hardships, even through the boom times of the Reagan Recovery. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the predominantly African-American communities of many American inner cities endured serious economic disinvestment, resulting in crumbling infrastructure, endemic joblessness, and epidemics of crime and drugs. Even as structural forces in the American economy moved jobs and capital out of the inner cities, those left behind found themselves demonized by a prevailing ideology that suggested that poverty resulted mainly from individual laziness. Reagan's "Morning in America" never really dawned in the ghetto.

A June 10, 2004 article by Dennis Romero for City Beat captures the mood of the inner city at that time and shows the roots of the rap music that was to express the frustrations and anger of many of its residents:

For inner-city dwellers, it was an age when the vitality of neighborhoods was sucked dry, with boarded-up storefronts and crack-based economies. The Reagan era was when a new wave of homeless roamed alleyways, crack cocaine wreaked havoc block by block, gang wars rocked peaceful neighborhoods, and civil rights were pushed against the ropes.

In places like South Los Angeles, Pacoima, and San Diego’s City Heights, working-class neighborhoods once proud with brightly painted homes and manicured lawns fell into decay as crack-heads crawled through the night streets searching for sustenance, and drug dealers guarded street corners with automatic firepower. The first of the month brought less cash flow and food stamps, thanks to Reagan’s tough-on-welfare stance, but he did let them eat cheese – surplus government cheese, long, cold blocks of square, orange cheese. For many in the ’hoods of America, that’s how Reagan will be remembered – for his petty, patronizing dairy overstock that became the butt of a novelty rap hit called “Rap Master Ronnie.”

“There was no middle ground with Ronald Reagan,” says Los Angeles author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “There was no shade of gray. You either loved him or hated him. When Reagan’s name comes up, I’m still hearing from African Americans that they couldn’t stand the guy. They remember all the damage that was done in the 1980s. They say, ‘We’re still suffering today from Reagan policies.’ A lot of African Americans do not have the fondest memories of the Reagan years, and those memories still carry on 20 years later.”

Some of those memories are now institutionalized in ghetto culture, fostered by frustration, disillusion and idle time eating federally subsidized nachos. Hip-hop – rapping, DJing, break-dancing, and graffiti – flourished. Before the decade was over, Chuck D. urged listeners to “fight the power,” while Schoolly D. and N.W.A. put gang culture on cassette. From the streets, Reagan’s “Morning in America” was a nightmare.

It was in this context that Public Enemy was formed. Formed in Long Island, New York in 1982, Public Enemy's members included Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X and Khari Wynn. They produced a series of critically acclaimed and popular albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s including It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear Of A Black Planet and Apocalypse 91 . . . the Enemy Strikes Black that dealt with subjects important to the African American community. "Fight the Power" was conceived for the Spike Lee movie "Do The Right Thing" and it denounces the abuse of power and for the empowerment of the black community. "911 Is a Joke" criticized emergency response units for taking longer to arrive at emergencies in the black community than those in the white community. The song "By the Time I Get to Arizona," denounced Arizona's refusal to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day. "Shut 'Em Down" is about the lack of black-owned businesses.

In a Rolling Stone review of the 100 best albums of the 1980s, the article quotes Chuck D as saying:

"I wanted to try to make a Hip-Hop version of Marvin Gaye's What's Goin On," says the leader of Public Enemy, Chuck D. "Something that was there, something that was a staple, something that no matter how many times you played it, you had to go back to it again and again." Only time will tell if It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a potent rap discourse on drugs, poverty and black self-determination, will compare with Gaye's eloquent classic of social realism.
I have to admit that I still don't go out of my way to listen to rap music. Over the years, though, I've grown to like a few rap songs and have begun to understand the context to which rap music grew out of. Chuck D continued his activism beyond his music, becoming involved in the music CD set Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement and is a board member of the TransAfrica Forum, a Pan African organization that works on Africa, Caribbean and Latin American issues.

I wrote in this past month a series of blogs on musicians who have acted as social commentators of communities in economic distress because our country is going through a similar situation today. Republican governors and legislators seek to enact similar economic programs that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan enacted in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's economic policies did tame the high inflation and high interest rates that were hampering the economies of Great Britain and the United States at that time. But Thatcher's and Reagan's policies of cutting social services, breaking union power and favoring corporations also had a devastating economic and social effect on many communities in both countries. The distressed economic conditions led to more crime, more prejudice, and more drugs for communities not equipped to handle those problems. The musicians of the time gave voice to those people who were left behind, who saw economic opportunities disappear and saw their communities deteriorate due to foreclosures, crime and neglect. The punk rockers and ska groups described the desolation of the working class Brits. Rockers like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp sang of the struggles of blue collar and farming communities. Rappers like Public Enemy described the plight of the poor African Americans in the inner city. These musicians were able to express in their music the despair and anger that graphs and economic statistics cannot convey.

I'm sure that if today's Republicans are able to pass their austerity programs and cut government services, they'll be able to cut the government deficit. But their proposed cuts to government services will come at the expense of the poor and the working class, who are struggling as it is. Margaret Thatcher's and Ronald Reagan's programs did bring down high inflation and high interest rates and this led to an economic upswing in the mid to late 1980s. But it came at the expense of communities that still have not fully recovered thirty years later. I want our country to get out of this recession. But I want an economic recovery where everyone benefits and no one is left behind.

A youtube video of an interview with Chuck D talking about the making of "Fear of a Black Planet"

A youtube video of Public Enemy's "Fight The Power"

A youtube video of Public Enemy's "911 Is A Joke"

A music video of Public Enemy's "By The Time I Get To Arizona"

A music video of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"

A youtube video interview of Chuck D

Comments (2)

Diane Author Profile Page:

I'm not a fan of rap music either, but I gained an appreciation for it when one of the journalism students at Butler came to my English composition class and gave a presentation on rap, specifically Public Enemy. He pointed out that this group was an advocate for the poor and downtrodden. I must admit I hadn't paid much attention to the words until this kid did his presentation. Just goes to show you--don't prejudge.

I agree. We can't have an economic recovery that leaves certain people out. That's exactly what's going on in Kansas right now, though.

Diane Author Profile Page:

I'm not a fan of rap music either, but I gained an appreciation for it when one of the journalism students at Butler came to my English composition class and gave a presentation on rap, specifically Public Enemy. He pointed out that this group was an advocate for the poor and downtrodden. I must admit I hadn't paid much attention to the words until this kid did his presentation. Just goes to show you--don't prejudge.

I agree. We can't have an economic recovery that leaves certain people out. That's exactly what's going on in Kansas right now, though.

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