Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
“Who Stole the Soul?” The Political Poetry of Public Enemy
March 1, 2013
By Aaron Belz
Three Kings (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999) opens with American soldiers sniping an Iraqi, mid-surrender, but the establishing montage includes a medley of Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate,” Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” and Public Enemy’s “Can’t do Nuttin’ For Ya Man.” Soldiers jump around, dance and drink, their partying all but swallowing up the ruthlessness of the previous scene. The contrast is a brilliant flash of satire in a movie that ultimately loses momentum in its effort to reveal the Gulf War as folly. Plot takes over, becomes cumbersome, and poetic filmmaking is lost.
A reporter begins interviewing a soldier: “They say you exorcised the ghost of Vietnam with a clear, moral imperative.” He replies confidently, “We liberated Kuwait,” while his fellow soldiers cheer. They start singing Lee Greenwood’s schmaltzy ode to America, the popularity of which swells every time the U.S. involves itself in a military conflict. The interview scene dissolves into a tent party at some point later, and everyone continues to sing God Bless the USA, until the syncopated beats of Public Enemy’s “Can’t do Nothin’ for ya Man” swell and Flavor Flav’s voice emerges through the celebration:
was you that chose your doom
You built a maze you can’t get through
I tried to help you all I can
I can’t do nuttin’ for ya man
In the context of the Gulf War, lines like “Make ya love the wrong instead of right” and “Uzi down the bullets in a gun” take on new meaning. It’s a moral song, one of many angry, justice-hungry tirades on Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam, 1990).
For anyone who assumes that poetry’s relationship to politics, or its ability to speak to justice issues, is rarified, philosophical or deeply historical, Fear of a Black Planet stands as a corrective. It sold more than a million copies in its first week alone and has since been universally recognized as one of the most important albums, not only within its genre but in all of 20th century popular music. In 2005 the Library of Congress cataloged it and 49 other recordings under the National Recording Preservation Act.
Three Kings shows Public Enemy’s broad applicability, but Fear of a Black Planet’s strongest suit is its cry against entrenched socioeconomic and racial injustice. It’s hard to say what its finest moments are. Every song is rich. “911 Is a Joke” exposes preferential treatment given by emergency services to middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. “Every day they don’t never come correct / You can ask my man right here with a broken neck,” sings Flav, and advises, “Call a cab, ‘cause a cab will come quicker.” “Who Stole the Soul?” laments white flight: “Yo, they say the Black don’t know how to act / ‘Cause we’re waitin’ for the big payback […] When the Black moves in, Jack moves out”—and digs to a historical root: “Forty acres and a mule, Jack— / Where is it? Why’d you try to fool the Black?” Another great track, “Burn Hollywood Burn,” memorializes “those that starred / In the movies portraying the roles / Of butlers and maids” and suggests “Black women in this profession? / As for playing a lawyer, out of the question.”
What’s so great about this poetry is that it did, in fact, through its verbal precision and immense popularity, help correct cultural assumptions that hadn’t been considered since the Civil Rights Movement. Public Enemy updated the terms of the Civil Rights argument and made it danceable. “I don’t know, I’m just the rhymesayer,” sings Chuck D in the album’s title track. It’s a posture of humility that, combined with attack after searing attack on injustice, and appended by Flavor Flav’s trademark laugh, makes Fear of a Black Planet an almost Dante-esque masterpiece of political poetics.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”