“Ladies and gentleman, be woke! Be woke!” shouted rapper Chuck D in the closing moments of a Los Angeles campaign rally for Bernie Sanders on Sunday (March 1). “Use your minds, y’all!”
For the iconic hip-hop frontman, it was another revolutionary turn in the story of Public Enemy, a group not known for mainstream party politics. The group’s half-hour set — officially performed under the name Public Enemy Radio — was fired up and defiant in support of Sanders, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president.
This wasn’t Bruce Springsteen with an acoustic guitar, but a typically militant set that included “Bring the Noise,” “Shut ‘Em Down” and “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” with frantic beats and noise from band member DJ Lord. Chuck D was joined there by rapper Jahi and two S1Ws security men in military-style camo gear. “You’re a human being, use your mind, don’t be a robot,” Chuck D riffed during one of several speeches between songs. “Listen to somebody, be grown, make yourself important in your locale. It’s a simple thing to do.”
One Sanders supporter, Dee Chang, 32, said he was shocked to initially see the poster announcing the Public Enemy event, showing Sanders raising his fist in silhouette and the title of the band’s signature song: “Fight the Power.” “I’m like, wow, really? I told myself no way is this real,” said Chang, who arrived in a black Mohawk, reflecting his interests in metal and punk rock. “Public Enemy was pretty badass. They still have it going on.”
That same afternoon, Public Enemy released a statement announcing it was cutting ties with the group’s unpredictable hype man and cofounder, Flavor Flav, after more than three decades. The break came after Flav protested Public Enemy’s name being used in connection with the presidential candidate, calling it “deceptive marketing.”
Ahead of the rally, Flav’s lawyer in Las Vegas, Matthew Friedman, issued a cease and desist letter to the Sanders campaign, noting that he was definitely not appearing, and that Chuck D alone could not speak for the group. “Those who truly know what Public Enemy stands for know what time it is,” he wrote. “There is no Public Enemy without Flavor Flav.”
In repsonse, Public Enemy announced coolly it “will be moving forward without Flavor Flav. We thank him for his years of service and wish him well.” With word of Flav’s exit, some commentators began posting online that Sanders had broken up Public Enemy, jokingly referring to him as the group’s “Yoko.”
Barring an immediate reconciliation, Public Enemy is moving deeper into a political year without him. The lack of solidarity between Flav and the group’s activist impulse created an impasse, as Chuck D posted angrily to Twitter: “If there was a $bag, Flav would’ve been there front & center. He will NOT do free benefit shows. Sued me in court the 1st time I let him back in. His ambulance lawyer sued me again on Friday & so now he stays home & better find REHAB.”
At the rally, Chuck D repeatedly referred to being “old” at age 59, but the years haven’t softened his politics. As ever, his voice won’t be controlled or edited, which makes Public Enemy a startling musical choice for a politician vying for votes across the Democratic Party. Prior to his appearance at the rally on Sunday, Chuck D tweeted: “I dig aspects of Bern. Hate the party Bulsht.”
Sanders arrived for his speech accompanied by the sounds of John Lennon’s “Power to the People,” with some added DJ effects. “I know you’re going to want to listen to music in a few minutes, right?” Sanders told the crowd, then joked, “I’ve decided to limit my remarks to 3 hours.”
Behind the stage was a giant U.S. flag, with large DJ station emblazoned with a cartoon icon of Sanders, a Mac laptop open and ready.
It was a typical Sanders speech for this campaign season, railing against the sitting “most dangerous president in history,” and promising Medicare for all. He also noted to cheers: “It turns out you can legalize marijuana by executive order.”
After his speech, and a quick hug with Chuck D, Sanders left the stage, and some in the crowd began to exit. Others pushed forward, waving blue and white “Bernie” signs to the hip-hop beats.
In the crowd was Warren Ani, 27, of Inglewood, California, in short black dreads and a T-shirt with the event’s poster image. A fan of modern hip-hop (Kendrick Lamar, Drake) and old school artists (Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest), he said Public Enemy’s performance aligned with the Sanders message.
“Now isn’t the time necessarily for moderation,” Ani said. “I’d say it aligns pretty well: Power to the people, going against the corporate interests that are working against us, and always questioning power.”
Political conflict has been a destabilizing tradition within musical acts for generations. In 1980, the Eagles broke apart in the aftermath of a benefit concert for liberal U.S. Senator Alan Cranston, where guitarist Don Felder made a dismissive comment to the Democratic politician backstage, enraging bandleader Glenn Frey.
When Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry posted a photo of themselves visiting with President Obama on Air Force One in 2016, drummer Joey Kramer tweeted his disapproval, calling the summit “not representative of Aerosmith.” The photo was taken down from the band’s account, though Perry, a Republican, reposted it to his own Twitter page.
Sour political notes between band mates can only accelerate the resentments that eventually lead to breakups. For Chuck D and Public Enemy, this week’s firing of Flavor Flav came at the end of a long season of conflict with their wildcard hype man.
The letter from Flav’s lawyer called the rally and its association with Public Enemy “whitewashing” and creating a “fictional revolution.” At the bottom of the letter, Flav himself scrawled, “Hey Bernie, Don’t do this!!”
Flav’s public complaints and his cease and desist letter to the Sanders campaign may have been one very public embarrassment too many.
In another tweet Sunday, Chuck D wrote: “I am a political artist of song … I make myself heard & seen outside my ART.” He then explained that his music was aimed at listeners to help fuel their minds, make a decision, “& NOT be a damn robot in 2020.”