Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Melody Maker, February 15th 1992

by Simon Reynolds

When Apocalypse ‘91 came out, it felt like Public Enemy were in a rut. Sure, they still gave good interview, but the music was breaking no new ground and even the rap/metal link-up with Anthrax seemed old hat. But, over here, Public Enemy have managed to put themselves back on the cutting edge. Releasing their new single, “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (by far the best track on the LP, with its superbad-ass stink-funk riff) in time for Martin Luther King Day on January 20, PE have ignited a national furore.

See, Arizona is the only state that doesn’t recognize King’s birthday. And PE’s video is a “revenge fantasy” in which Security of The First World paramilitaries assassinate a local senator with a poisoned candygram and detonate a bomb under the state governor’s car. These inflammatory scenes are juxtaposed with re-enactments of King’s assassination and the civil rights struggles of the Sixties (blacks being splattered with food for sitting in whites-only diners or being expelled from apartheid buses). The ensuing controversy has put PE on the TV news and the front covers of America’s most mainstream papers.

On one hand, you sympathise with the outrage that prompted Chuck D to dub Arizona a “devil’s haven”--in 1990, the Arizona electorate rejected two proposals to re-establish a paid King holiday. Can you blame Chuck D for interpreting this to mean that most Arizonans would like to roll back the civil rights gains of the Sixties and return to Fifties-style segregation? At the same time, the video jars with Martin Luther King’s creed on non-violent protest and has been duly censured by civil rights activists and King’s family as a disgrace to his memory. Public Enemy’s riposte to that is, “while Dr King may have stood for non-violence, we wonder what he would have stood for after that bullet ripped violently through his neck. Being assassinated will often change your political viewpoint." Ho hum.

So is the video a valid symbolic expression of black rage, a publicity stunt for a group suffering the mid-career stagnation blues or a naked incitement to political violence? In a call-in poll, over 60% of MTV viewers supported the promo as legitimate protest and rejected the notion that it could encourage violence. But Public Enemy themselves have never said the video should not be taken literally; Chuck D’s declared belief in “a tooth for a tooth, a head for a head” suggests the opposite.

Where do us white liberals stand? Probably, like me, all over the place. On one hand, you empathise with the rage, especially considering the backdrop of escalating bias attacks (two black children just got sprayed with white paint) or the bid by the “former” neo-Nazi David Duke for the governership of Louisiana. At the same time, you feel perturbed by reports of paranoia in the PE camp: Chuck D (who’s been described as a man who’s never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like) apparently believes that AIDS, Muhammed Ali’s speech problem and Richard Pryor’s multiple sclerosis are all part of a government anti-Black plot, while Sister Souljah’s new record imagines a President David Duke reinstating slavery--in 1995!

But wherever you stand or falter, there’s one thing you have to admit with more than a trace of awe. Four albums in, Public Enemy still do what no rock band today can seemingly pull off: not just comment on, but connect with, real issues, real stakes in the outside world; aggravate the contradictions, make the wounds rawer and harder to ignore. Compared with that, the petty debates and dissensions of “alternative music” seem awful puny....

No comments: