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Heather Weston

Interview: Raquel Cepeda On Identity, Race & Hip-Hop

"Extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything."

Raquel Cepeda is a fighter. The renowned writer, journalist and filmmaker is clad in light blue patterned tights and a gray crop top, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail— she is furiously jabbing a black Everlast bag. On this chilly Friday afternoon, we’re at Mendez Boxing where Cepeda spends a good amount of time training for her bouts.

Inside, the large space on the lower level is laden with black punching bags, swaying from the ceiling. Behind the cloud of sand-filled sacks, sits a red boxing ring. As Cepeda makes her way around the gym, she gets pounds and greetings from many boxing aficionados here. You can very much tell she is a regular and perhaps well-liked. Not to mention, she's quite comfortable kicking it with the boys. After we take a stroll around the facility, we settle in a wooden bench by a row of yellow lockers.

Born to Dominican parents in Harlem, and raised in Washington Heights during the early '80s when hip-hop was in a state of becoming, Cepeda is no stranger to battling adversity. From surviving a crime-ridden neighborhood to standing resilient in an abusive household, she details in her 2013 memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina her simultaneous journey of finding her roots through ancestral DNA.

Cepeda has lent her editorial wizardry to And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip Hop Journalism Of The Last 25 Years, and has served as Editor-in-Chief at the now-defunct One World Magazine by Russell Simmons. She's also penned for biggie publications like The Village Voice and The New York Times, among many others.

Her film credits include a documentary titled Bling: A Planet Rock, which tells the story of how hip-hop’s flashy lifestyle played a role in the 10-year civil war that took place in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The film features artist Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Wall and reggaeton star Tego Calderon, among others. And if you're into that sort of thing, you can also hear sound bites of Cepeda’s socially charged commentary on her ABOUT RACE podcast.

“I feel like life is a continuation,” she says. “You grow every single day. I learn something new everyday. I learn from my three-year-old and I learn from 19-year-old. I learn from everybody around me. Every time I travel. Everyday on the subway, in my neighborhood—I learn something new that challenges my beliefs on everything and I think that’s exciting.”

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, VIBE VIVA talked with the fearless Latina, during which we discussed everything from the inception of her journalism career, to growing up in Washington Heights, to how she self identifies. Gloves on or off, Cepeda is always down for the cause.

VIBE VIVA: When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
Raquel Cepeda:
Well, I always wanted to be a writer. I remember when I called my grandmother—my mother’s mother; to tell her ‘Mama I sold a book—my memoir and she started laughing. And I was like ‘why are you laughing?’ And she said because when I was very angry in Santo Domingo, at five-years-old I would say ‘One day, I’m going to write a story about our family and I’m going to set the record straight.’

My grandmother said ‘Well let me tell you something honey, I didn’t give a s**t then and I don’t give a s**t now.’ It's funny because it’s a book about our family, so I guess she told me that ever since I could speak—I was talking about being a writer. And that is something I guess I inherited from my birth mother, because my birth mother— her daughter—always wanted to be a writer.  If she didn’t meet my dad, she probably would have been a writer. That’s what she was studying to become.

How did the hip-hop and Uptown scenes in the '80s influence the woman that you are today?
Well, I was born in Harlem. I went to Santo Domingo like a lot of children of Dominican immigrants—they go back and forth. And I was shuttled back and forth between my maternal grandparents and with my birth mother and father. When I came back to stay with my father and stepmother who is from Finland in 1981, hip-hop, Uptown, Washington Heights was crazy.

One of the things that we were known for is the expression that you can arguably say comes out of hip-hop, or hip-hop comes out of this particular branch of the culture, which is graffiti. The Bronx really took it there, there were really great writers in the Bronx. The earliest photos that Henry Chalfant shot were Uptown all the way in Washington Heights and Inwood.

So, I was growing up around that. Also for me, rap music and the culture was a way for me to be able to talk people. To people that were Dominican, Haitian, Black-American, de-franchised white, whatever it was, hip-hop was a way that we can all come together and talk. Because it was a thing that we were creating that the authority figures and the old people hated. So the more they hated it, the more we used as a foil. Which was a way of communicating, which is very different than today’s hip-hop. It was something that definitely went into shaping who I am today.

I remember one time I was talking to Jay Smooth—cause he was born the same year as me, in the '70s, and we mix academic lingo with street lingo or whatever and I’ll hear like ‘you don’t have to talk like you’re in hip hop.’ But I thought 'I’m not adapting a culture, it’s my culture that everybody else is adapting.' I was just being myself and he got that. We were this little culture of kids that felt like tunnel rats, who basically ended up inspiring everything from language to fashion to a kind of so called high culture.

What were some of your best memories as a young girl in that culture?
What really took me over the edge, what gassed me up, was when Red Head King Pin came to one of our parties. You couldn’t tell me anything. That was definitely one of my highlights.

And then also, I was a very disengaged student, so I would cut school a lot. I would go to Washington Square Park and I remember just chilling looking back and looking around and seeing Russell Simmons and all these people that I would end up being cool with or working for. They would walk pass me and I'd think ‘one day I’m going to work for that guy, one day I’m going to do this and that.’ Just to see how all these things ended up connecting, that to me affirms that there is no such thing as a coincidence.

How was it like for you working at One World as a young woman? Was it male dominated?
It was definitely male dominated being at One World, but I had a publisher named John Pasamore that was very supportive with everything that I was doing. He allowed me to take chances. And because of that, even though he was a guy, I was able to do a lot of things that were interesting in the magazine. And because I was always a tomboy, I didn’t really care about dealing with men. I just deal with them the way I would deal with anybody. I’m from New York City. I grew up in the 'hood. I’m always used to dealing with male dominated spaces, so for me that wasn’t an issue.

The issue for me was making the magazine something that was really global, that was adult and that it showed hip-hop for what it was and what it had the potential to become. What it has become, for better or for worse, it has become the most important youth export to ever come out of the United States of America. So I really enjoyed my time there, and to this day I still think that we were way ahead of the curve back then. Sometimes when I think about what we covered back then, and I think to myself ‘It would make sense today.’

I love how you put Omahyra Mota on the cover…
Yeah, because I didn’t know any Dominican-Americans—I’m Dominican-American—at the time who were in the culture real thick. It didn’t matter that much because for me, as a Dominican-American, the part of me that’s American is from this well that we all come from, which is Africa. And indigenous America links us to our black American brothers and sisters, and our Haitian brothers and sisters.

Happy #HaitianindependenceDay to our brothers and sisters on the west side of the isle!!! #Ayiti #quisqueya

A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on

How do you define the term AfroLatina?
I don’t define the term AfroLatina, because I don’t like defining terms of identity, because they mean something different to everybody.

Would you consider yourself one?
I’m a Dominiyorkian of mixed decent. If you read my book you will find that I’m mixed and that I am just one example of the many of how the New World came to be. I’m the genetic evidence that the New World happened. So can't just turn my back on one side of my culture and just call myself one thing. I feel like I’d be selling out the parts of who I am for better or for worse. Because there are things that we have in our blood that we don’t want to have; that we don’t want to admit. That we don’t want to reconcile with. For example, growing up I always thought as the European man as the aggressor, but when you have European blood running down your veins too, you have to come to terms with that.

Why do you think it’s important for our mental health to find our DNA? Especially when it comes to young Latinas who are at most risk for suicide than their counterparts, which you explore in your new documentary Some Girls.
Not everybody can afford to go on an ancestral DNA quest and trace all of their ancestry, right? Some people are not in touch with their family members, and some people don’t have that desire. I thought it was interesting and I had a desire to that testing because I was just wondering ‘Ok, what are we?’ And using myself as an example, I just said ‘Let me just go in with my fist unclenched and my heart open.'

When I went on the quest, I was able to meet people I hadn’t known were related to me, and find information about them. What I found out, which is detailed in my book Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, was that my background was West African, Pre-Colombian, Indigenous American, Berber and English or Welsh. I’m not sure which side because they have the similar genetic makeup. And it re-affirmed to me that we are the physical evidence of how this new world, the Americas came to be.

It shows me that even though I’m being told that my people are illegal and that I don’t have any kind of agency in North America—to be Latino is to be American. The very essence of being Latino is to be American. That kind of grounds me and it also makes me feel like I am a part of this continuum of the narrative of human kind, of how the world has evolved. So for me it’s important, and that goes also to mental health. They don’t teach you that in school. When you go to school they teach that the people who made America and any kind of success here were white and American. So then, when I find out my ancestry and see that it took everybody to make this, it makes you feel more grounded and more part of your society. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the community.

When you don’t feel disenfranchised, you’re apart of something. It makes you kind of act differently and talk differently and do things differently. It kind of makes you feel like you have agency, and it makes you feel confident to do other things, which is why in my documentary, Some Girls, I embarked in a genetic ancestral DNA journey with a few girls from a suicide prevention program to show them that they come from people that survive.

My father’s ancestral mitochondrial DNA is pre-Columbian. My direct maternal DNA is West African. These people had to find a way, despite the indigenous slave trade, despite Columbus bum-rushing the New World, despite the transatlantic slave trade, despite the re-writing of history, they had to find a way to survive in my body. So it makes me even look at myself, like my body is a temple. And it makes me look at everything in a more holistic, spiritual way.

What do you hope to accomplish with your new book, East of Broadway?
Like in all my projects I try to be very balanced,  because I’m artist and I represent things the way I see them. For me it’s a memoir about my community in flux, and it’s me trying to kind of work out the fact that I’m in the middle. I’m from a generation where we 're traveled, we’re educated and a lot of times we have found ourselves having things in common with people that live for example on the west side of Broadway—the gentrifiers.

And then I grew up in the hood, right, that hood in the "battle days." I hate that term, by the way. Even though I grew up in Inwood during the time it had the highest crime rates, I found community and love there. I found people that took care of me there. It instilled in me the passion and the creative impulses to do everything that I have done ever since. So I’m trying to find a way to represent both sides in my book. Because I am in the middle, I left and I came back. I came back with a little bit more cash and a different way of thinking.

How do you feel about gentrification?
I also have a huge problem with gentrification, because I feel like the people that stuck it out and fought to build a community and better streets and put themselves in peril, they deserve to be able benefit from the beautification of the 'hood. So what I want to do is explore the question: why is it when people that are perceived to be white move into a area it becomes gentrified? But when people that are perceived to be brown and black move in, it's the 'hood, the slums? How does race play into that? And does it play into that today? Those are the questions that I’m interested in exploring in the book that I’m working on right now.

What do you think about the 2016 election?
Well, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Obviously it’s going to be between Hillary and Bernie. But I have a hard time reconciling the Clinton years with this war on drugs that was perpetuated against kids I grew up with.

I actually was living to see my friends and my family become casualties of the war on drugs and I saw what it did to my community and then I look at it today as one example of the war on drugs. I see how they are calling for us to have a kinder strategy with dealing with the war on drugs, because the face of it has turned white. But why wasn’t it like that when my black, Haitian and Latino American counterparts were suffering through that? Why did they have to be ravaged, while one community get to be coddled? I have an issue with that, but I also think it’s very important to have experience when you’re in office, and I feel like Hillary has a lot of experience when in office. Though, I like Bernie’s energy. It just can’t be Trump.

How did you first start getting into boxing?
I grew up in a very violent home, so I always had to defend myself. I had to learn how to put my hands up. I grew up also in a different time, were it was kind of violent. I grew up fighting in the street. I always wanted to be a boxer, but I wasn’t allowed to. I’ve always liked the sport. I remember my favorite boxer of all time was Lucia Rijker. I always wanted to be like her. As I've gotten older, it’s spectacular how I got into it. Sacha and I after dating for six years, on our first year of our marriage, we were just eating, screwing around and living. And the end of that year, I was in Santo Domingo and one of my mentors/closest friends Dr. Frank Moya Pons, asked ‘Do you work out? So I thought 'That’s it, I have to change, this is a sign from the universe I have to change.'

I just said I’m starting on Monday, I’m going to this Mendez boxing with my husband or not. And when I came in, none of the trainers believed that I could box in the ring. I took to it very quickly, and one thing lead to another and I started competing. I love it. It helps me write, and work out my issues. It helps me workout my stress and it helps me stay in shape, and it helps me keep up with my son who is turning 4 in a couple of weeks. It also helps me feel good. It helps me release. There is nothing like being in the ring, hitting somebody with all my might and then watching that s**t. I’m not going to front, I like going in and f**king s**t up. I enjoy it. [Laughs]

What advice would you give young women?
For young women in general I would say take the time out to really do the work to be selfish. And do the work in investing in yourself and identifying yourself and challenging people’s perceptions and challenge those check boxes that society forces you into and create your own. Create your own identity, redefine what is out there and don’t allow anybody to cram you in anything.

I feel like I wish I would have done more investing when I was younger in exploring my own self. I’ve done a lot of work on it. I wish I would have done more when I was younger, because knowledge of self is power, and there is nothing like that feeling than having knowledge and being powerful when you walk in these murky waters of 2016. So I would say take the time to really invest.

I would actually say this to my own daughter who is 19. You know, people tell her she isn’t one thing enough, or Latina enough, or black American enough or that enough. But thank God she is like me. She doesn’t really give a s**t about what anybody says at the end of the day because she knows who she is. When you know who you are, you don’t feel the pressure of having to stay that way. Since identity is like water, it shifts. We change every three years. Be like water. Keep on changing, keep on flowing, keep on growing. My other advice would be to really bridge the gap with and extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything.

#Baenation. ?? The #daughter and I. ??

A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on

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Jenny Regan

Freddie Gibbs Has Nothing To Hide With 'Bandana'

Talking with Freddie Gibbs, a Gary, Indiana native who came of age hustling during the ‘90s, can be a bit jarring at times. Discussing the Madlib beat that backs the song “Gat Damn” off his upcoming album, Bandana, the artist cheerfully details his desire to create a “dope a** melody and freak that motherf**ker” before quietly pondering one of the chaotic stories that make the track so impactful.

“Sometimes the violence feels good when you’re not on the other end of it, but when family members and children and women start getting killed, you know it’s a real serious thing,” he says. “So I don’t know, man, my whole purpose with this project was to let people know where I was at mentally and emotionally.”

A Los Angeles transplant, Gibbs is too busy raising his daughter, running a business and posting memes to worry about the streets. Almost three years after being discharged from Austrian prison for a crime he was ultimately acquitted of, he has more to celebrate now than ever, especially with Bandana dropping on June 28.

A follow-up to Piñata, Gibbs’ critically acclaimed 2014 venture with Madlib that paired the Midwestern rapper’s intricate, illustrative verses with the California-born producer’s jazzy, lo-fi beats, Bandana was teased for years before the artist started releasing information this February. The high-energy single “Flat Tummy Tea,” which touches on everything from the artists’ political disillusionment to his former drug habits, was inconspicuously teased on Instagram and then posted on YouTube shortly after, just a few weeks before the album’s biting, bass drum-heavy signature track was released to the public. Fast forward to the middle of June and Gibbs has unveiled the Quasimoto-inspired cover art, sent Zebra mascots to Hollywood and Times Square to publicize the release and dropped videos for “Crime Pays” and “Giannis,” his first collaboration with Anderson .Paak.

The album, which effortlessly moves between Gibbs’ speedy, hard bars and his softer R&B side, comes across like a meditation on his chaotic past. Talking to him, it’s clear that he’s “waxing, trying to get to a better spot in [his] career [and] as a father,” and that impression comes through in each track. Instead of focusing on the flashier aspects of his life, the artist forces people to examine his discomforting, long-winded path to success and the scars it left on his mind. Chock-full of beat changes that jolt the MC to switch styles midway through a song, Bandana is composed in a way that it feels like the listener is truly inside Gibbs’ head, following along as he jumps from one thought, or nightmare, to another. Sure, Gibbs may be enjoying his hard-wrought success now, but he never glorifies his past, choosing instead to highlight his sleepless nights and the masculine paranoia that permeated his days dealing.

“My sh*t is an open book,” he explains. “Artists now I feel like I don't even know who these ni**as are because everyone is just automatically rich when they come out, you know? That definitely wasn't my reality.”

More than just a long-awaited project, Bandana is Gibbs’ first release with a major label. After some career ups-and-downs that saw him sign with Interscope in 2006 before promptly being dropped a year later, he recently partnered with friend Tunji Balogun to release Bandana through Keep Cool, a subsidiary of RCA and Sony Music, in tandem with his own ESGN label and Madlib’s Invazion. Despite the corporate support and larger marketing budget, he insists he’s not doing anything differently.

"I kind of created my own lane, I got my own lane of things, so I'm not really pressured,” Gibbs says. “I'm dropping music to satisfy the people that rock with me, and if some new people rock with me, that's cool, but if not, I'm not tripping."

Gibbs’ lyrical skills helped him build a dedicated fanbase, but his business partner and manager Ben “Lambo” Lambert is an instrumental part of his success. A lifelong hip-hop fan who cut his teeth in the industry at 15 putting up stickers for Slum Village’s Fantastic Volume 2, Lambo first discovered 22-year-old Gibbs while working as a college intern at Interscope and has stuck by him ever since. If they’re not physically together, the partners speak on the phone daily, covering everything from merch design to beat selection, and they both agreed the time was right to utilize a larger platform.

“It's like we're on the AND1 tour,” Lambo said, referring to the traveling basketball competition. “We're on Venice Beach, killing it, but at a certain point, unless you put up some points in the NBA, there's always going to be a feeling of ‘what if?’”

As personal as creating Bandana was for Gibbs, it’s been equally emotional for Lambo. Since the team started working on the record five years ago, Lambo has had two kids, one of whom was born just weeks before its release. He said it’s difficult to even discuss the album’s early days, back before Gibbs’ trouble overseas threw a wrench in their plans, since everything is different now.

“We’re in a society where people need to see other people celebrating something and then everyone can celebrate it, so I'm excited to see that because we've literally put our lives into this,” Lambo explained. “I just feel like it's a culmination of a lot of years of stuff and I want to move onto the next phase, whatever that is. Which, resulting from this album, I think will be something really exciting and fun."

For a while, Gibbs hinted at Bandana being his final project, but he recently told Entertainment Weekly that he and Madlib are already working on a new record called Montana. According to Lambo, all three MadGibbs titles were conceived part-way into recording Piñata. While he’s hesitant to call the new albums sequels, he likens the unfinished trilogy to Quentin Tarantino’s filmography where disconnected movies share key elements in a way that makes audiences feel like they’re returning to a familiar world.

The reveal does come with one drawback though, as Gibbs, who said he was just in the studio working on three or four tracks for the album last week, insists “Montana is gonna be [his] last album.” For him, everything goes back to the strength and value of his catalog and he wants to cap things off with a few more “strong projects.”

“I feel like a lot of these ni**as just put out too much music, man. Every year it's like three mixtapes or a lot of sh*t that don't mean nothing. I want everything I give you to mean something.”

Music isn’t the only thing pushing this renaissance gangster forward. On top of writing rhymes and running ESGN with Lambo, Gibbs wants to break into filmmaking. The former dealer almost scored a role in the FX series Snowfall, a show about crack’s rise in Los Angeles during the ‘80s, but so far he hasn’t had too much luck with auditions.

“I’m not bitter about it,” he says. “I just look at it as God gonna give me the perfect role when I get it, so it is what it is."

Instead of sitting back and waiting for opportunities, Gibbs is hard at work writing his own scripts and tackling filmmaking with the same independent mindset he brought to music. With close associates like Nick Walker, the director on the “Pronto” and “Crime Pays” music videos, Gibbs wants to “develop [his] own kind of films.”

While he’s mum about the details for any future projects, a quick look at his past music videos, especially “Thuggin,’” shows that Gibbs strives for authenticity in the way he presents his stories.

“Everything I was doing in “Thuggin’” I was actually doing at that time. I was selling crack and all I did with that sh*t was take you throughout my day. I was in South Central selling crack and those are my real homies and everything was authentic, so it was like let's just walk everybody through a day in the life of what I'm doing, and I was doing a lot of bullsh*t that day.”

In his own words, the video sums up his life from 2010 until his daughter’s birth in 2015. Straddling the worlds of music and drug dealing, Gibbs made an artistic name for himself but couldn’t live solely on music. Comparing it to purgatory, the artist felt like he was too deep in both professions to give up but he had to deal with people pressuring him to choose between the streets and the booth.

 

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Timeless....

A post shared by Kane (@freddiegibbs) on Jun 14, 2019 at 8:57am PDT

“You know, I was on the cover of magazines and still selling like crack and heroin,” he says, "so it was kind of a tough thing to juggle, actually being out there for real and kind of being in the spotlight.”

Now comfortably living off his music, Gibbs is gunning for the respect and clout he thinks he deserves. For years he’s called himself the “most versatile rapper” in the game and believes he belongs in the “upper echelon of MCs,” but he’s well aware that a lot of talented people get overlooked in the industry. Now, with Keep Cool behind him, it’s time for Gibbs to find out if the public agrees with his self-evaluation.

“I always ask myself, if there was a rap hall of fame, would I go?” he says. “And yeah, once I finished this album I was like 'yeah, I think I'd be there.'”

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Rapper Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee and Chuck D of the rap group 'Public Enemy' film a video for their song 'Fight The Power' directed by Spike Lee in 1989 in New York, New York.
Michael Ochs

Music Sermon: How 'Fight The Power' Saved Public Enemy

It was “1989, the number, another summer,” and in New York City, the racial tension was thick as the season’s heat. For New York, it wasn’t just “another summer” - 1989 was a defining year for the city, and for its black and brown youth. The swift persecution of five black and brown boys for the Central Park Jogger attack, with little evidence, is in the national conversation today, but divided the city along racial and class lines that spring. The August murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins by a group of teens in Brooklyn’s Italian-American Bensonhurst neighborhood sparked protests across the city. In the middle of these two events, both of which are tightly woven into the fabric of New York, Spike Lee released one of his most provocative films: the prophetic Do the Right Thing.

At the time, Lee intentionally chose Public Enemy, the most radical group in rap, to set the movie’s tone. Their seminal anthem “Fight the Power” was not only one of hip-hop’s most monumental songs, but also Gen X’s first taste of movement music. The group’s 1987 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was unlike anything anyone had ever heard in music, let alone the still very new rap genre. Public Enemy’s sophomore album combined the tight flow of battle rappers, the spirit and energy of the Black Power movement, and the aesthetic presentation of the Black Panthers with their paramilitary backing group, Security of the First World (S1W), all packaged up with a logo featuring a black man in a sniper’s crosshairs (can you imagine all of that today? The “If a white group did that…” comments would be insufferable). PE didn’t just start the conscious rap movement, they sparked the gangsta rap movement – NWA’s Straight Outta Compton was directly influenced by Nation of Millions (Chuck sent an early copy of the album to the group, and you feel the inspiration in “F*ck the Police” especially. Along with the defiant social commentary in the lyrics, Dre channeled The Bomb Squad’s sonic chaos in the track. Cube went on to work with The Bomb Squad for his solo debut).

“When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “I wanted Public Enemy.”

But at the time of the movie’s release, PE had technically broken up; sidelined by controversy impacting their reputation not just domestically, but abroad. On June 29, one day before Do the Right Thing hit theaters, Russell Simmons announced: ''Public Enemy is disbanding for an indefinite period.”

THE STORM

Public Enemy was made up of distinctively different personalities: Chuck D, the leader, the voice, and the “adult” of the group; Flava Flav, the blueprint for hip-hop hype men and comedic levity to Chuck’s booming gravity; and Professor Griff, the “Minister of Information,” a black Muslim who didn’t actually observe any of the tenants of Islam but subscribed to the most incendiary rhetoric The Nation of Islam offered. As the Minister of Information, Griff sometimes spoke publicly on the group’s behalf and had been known to stir up controversy with comments that were just over the line, but not far enough to cause a mainstream firestorm. Then, on May 22, 1989, he sat down with reporter (and later writer for The Wire and Treme) David Mills for an interview with The Washington Times. Because he was talking to another black man, Griff got way into his bag, and sh*t went left, quickly.

“Griff opined that ‘the majority of them [i.e., Jews]’ are responsible for ‘the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe,” recounted LA Times rock critic Robert Cristgau in his summation of the controversy, properly titled “The Sh*t Storm.” “He… raved about how ‘the Jews finance these experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa,’ observed that ‘the Jews have their hands right around Bush's throat,’ and concluded that he must be speaking the truth because if he wasn't the Jew who owned CBS would long since have forced him, Griff, out of the group.” It was a mess, but it still flew largely under the radar until the story was picked up by The Village Voice (pours out liquor). You know how the timeline gets when there’s controversy? Imagine that in real life amongst the music community and media.

Even the most esteemed music critics had praised Nation of Millions, many even included the LP on their 1987 Album of the Year lists. Now they were being called on to defend or condemn the group they’d once praised.

Nelson George was one of the lone hip hop writers at the time aside from Harry Allen (which is why you will always find Nelson George references in my work), and as a black man in a space where we were still fighting for voice and position, he was careful to distinguish Griff’s comments from what the group stood for. "There's no question they say Farrakhan's a prophet," George told the LA Times at the time, "but Chuck D was very specific about what they like about Farrakhan. That Prof. Griff is a (jerk) doesn't invalidate the record. And Public Enemy was signed by Rick Rubin, who is Jewish, and one of their first managers is Jewish, as is the photographer that shot most of their album cover pictures, and (so is) their publicist Bill Adler."

Chuck was torn. He first backed Griff, then seperated the group’s stance from Griff’s personal stance, then banned Griff from speaking on behald of PE, before finally condemning Griff and apologizing for his comments, stating: “We’re not anti-Jewish or anti-anyone at all. We're pro-black. To use the same mechanism that you're fighting against definitely is wrong. We don't stand for hatred. We're not here to make enemies. We're apologizing to anyone who might be offended by Griff's remarks.” Griff was expelled from the group on June 21, 1989.

The continued pressure from the Jewish Defense Organization – including calls to boycott Do the Right Thing, Def Jam and Columbia/CBS, who distributed the group’s albums, and Rick Rubin even though he wasn’t involved with the group anymore – finally wore Chuck out. He told Kurt Loder during an MTV interview that the group was done. ''He (Griff) transferred misinformation, and it was just wrong. You can`t back it,” he explained. “But we got sandbagged, and being as I got sandbagged, the group is over as of today. We`re outta here. We`re stepping out of the music business as a boycott . . . against the music industry, management, record companies (and) the industry retailers.”

In Robert Cristgau’s earlier-referenced article, written shortly after that MTV interview, he opined of PE’s future: “…it's reasonable to hope that three or six or nine months down the road, after Spike Lee returns to the set and Chuck's label flops and Flavor Flav staggers under the weight of his own album, PE will regroup.”

Instead, it only took about a month. “Fight the Power” became a hit; The song and movie combined birthed one of the biggest cultural statements of the decade.

THE ANTHEM

Spike told Hank Shocklee (of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s famed production unit) and Chuck he wanted an anthem, but already had an idea in mind. “Spike originally proposed a rap version of a negro spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to be produced by someone else and with just Chuck D rapping,” Shocklee told the Guardian. “I was like: ‘No way.’” Hank found an example right out of Do the Right Thing’s world to make his point. “We were in Spike’s office on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, by a busy intersection. I pulled down his window, stuck his head out, and was like: ‘Yo man, you’ve got to think about this record as being something played out of these cars going by.’” Spike knew he wanted the power of Chuck’s voice, but Chuck and Shocklee knew that the moment called for something bigger, sonically. Gen X is now considered a generation without a social movement. Boomers were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, Millennials led Black Lives Matter, Gen X’ers were chillin’ - except we weren’t. Police brutality, the overcriminalization of black and brown people (hi, stop-and-frisk), the rise of the crack epidemic… these were our issues, and hip-hop was our movement: our way to give voice to the systemic injustices and bleak realities black people faced daily.

With “Fight the Power,” Chuck, Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad captured the energy of black resistance in a rare, perfect way – sonically and lyrically. It sounded aggressive, it sounded urgent, it sounded defiant, it sounded confident. It was the protest music of black Gen X’ers. “The song could have gone a lot softer, a lot neater, a lot tighter – but it would have lost the chaos,” Shocklee went on to explain. “When something is organized and aligned, it represents passivity. But any resistance, any struggle to overcome, is going to be chaotic. So the hardest part was making sure the track wasn’t monotonous. Lots of the samples appear only once, and a lot of stuff isn’t perfectly in time. I didn’t just want white noise and black noise – I wanted pink noise and brown noise!”

The title and thematic direction came from Ron Isley and his brothers’ 1975 song of the same name. The song struck a chord with 15-year-old Chuck D. Last year, Chuck and Ernie Isley (who, by the way, is the most criminally underrated guitar player in music history) compared notes on the two "Fight the Power's" for NPR: “I was 15 years old, so it was ingrained in me, but it was a record that I thought represented us. ‘I tried to play my music, they say my music's too loud’: That spoke loud to me,” Chuck shared with Ernie. “And I didn't even curse at the time, but that was the first time I ever heard a curse on a record.”

I can't play my music They say my music's too loud I kept talkin about it I got the big run around When I rolled with the punches I got knocked on the ground By all this bullsh*t goin’ down

Like the 1989 version, The Isleys’ joint catches you up in the undeniable bop of the track even while delivering power through the lyrics.

PE’s “Fight the Power” was also a big f*ck you to “American” pop culture, disparaging white icons Elvis and John Wayne, who in the late ‘80s were both damn near deified. It was a declaration that we black folks have our own history and culture.

'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps Sample a look back you look and find Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check

A song that feels and sounds like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” will never happen again, because the Bomb Squad’s trademark sampling methods would be a legal headache and financially crippling today thanks to changes in copyright laws spurred by the growing rap industry in 1991. “It was a totally different process from today, when cats listen to a finished track then put rhymes on top – that separates emotion and content,” Shocklee shared when discussing how the song came to be. “All the samples have to work with Chuck’s emotion. We’d have to find something from all our hundreds of records to fill a second, and it all had to be done by ear, without computers or visual aids.”

THE MOVIE

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song used as many times as “Fight the Power” is in Do the Right Thing. I can’t even tell you what other song is on the soundtrack without looking it up. Honestly, the entire soundtrack should have just been a “Fight the Power” maxi-single. Also, shout out to one of the most iconic opening title sequences ever. It’s like James Bond level. Better.

The song and the movie are inextricably linked. As mentioned earlier, Spike wanted “Fight the Power” playing whenever we saw Radio Raheem. Since Raheem is the movie’s pivotal character, PE underscored some of the movie’s most powerful moments.

Shocklee explained to Rolling Stone why using Radio Raheem as the vehicle for the song worked so well. “The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boombox playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.”

Even before they retreated into self-imposed career exile, Public Enemy weren’t radio artists. The film was their only real promotional vehicle for the single – but what a vehicle. “When I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh,” he shared with Rolling Stone. “We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver sh*t. We couldn’t rely on radio.” While the group laid low, “Fight the Power” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Rap chart and cracked the Top 20 on the Hip-Hop and R&B chart (Hammer would break down the barrier for rap on the Hot 100 and Pop charts about a year later). In August, PE came out of “retirement” to announce their renowned third album, Fear of a Black Planet.

THE VIDEO

The music video for “Fight the Power” goes down as one of the most satisfying visuals for a song, ever. In the history of music videos. It is the perfect accompaniment to the track’s energy and power. For the video, Spike created a modern-day version of the March on Washington in Brooklyn, which he called "The Young People's March on Brooklyn to End Racial Violence,” featuring Public Enemy. The march was Chuck’s idea, and Spike did the video as a favor, on the strength of them letting him use “Fight the Power” for free. If Chuck D wasn’t already firmly positioned as hip-hop’s political leader, watching him leading throngs of young people through Bed-Stuy did the trick. “It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn,” he later shared about the day. “It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.”

Flav added, “That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot… (W)e had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant…I would give anything to live that day one more time.”

Like the movie and the song, the video is on multiple “best of all time” lists.

While echoes of the controversy of 1989 followed PE through the early ‘90s, the sheer power of Fear of a Black Planet prevented it from slowing them down in any way. Nation of Millions blew the music community away, but Fear of a Black Planet surpassed it.

This has nothing to do with anything, really, except that I want y’all to peep how completely off the chain Flav is in this interview. Chuck and Fab 5 Freddie just gave up.

THE LEGACY

The legacy and impact of Do the Right Thing are perhaps immeasurable. The movie garnered two Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, was deemed one of the most important movies of the year, then later one of the most important of the decade, and is still largely considered to be Spike’s greatest and most complete work. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers, including John Singleton, who went home and wrote Boyz N The Hood after seeing the film. Radio Raheem’s boombox is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Fight the Power” is still one of the most important songs in hip-hop, has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is ranked by multiple lists as one of the greatest songs in music, period. Public Enemy went on to be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But as I said before, the power is in the two - movie and song - together. It’s hamburger and bun. Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cereal. Neither are as strong if they’d been presented to the world without the other.

In any other year, the movie and song just wouldn’t have hit the same. Do the Right Thing was one of the first “day-in-the-life” black movies that showcased the routine and connectivity of community - how we rely on each other, how we interact with each other, and the line between business owners integrating with the community and just making money from the community. “Fight the Power” came just as conscious rap was gaining a commercial foothold. Despite the group’s assumptions, the song did get radio play - lots of it. A year earlier, radio wouldn’t have been ready. A year later, the song wouldn’t have felt as special. Thirty years later, the movie and track aren’t just a snapshot of 1989, but they both still feel incredibly relevant and accurate. But without this partnership, the self-proclaimed Rolling Stones of hip-hop may have had an entirely different musical legacy - one smashed to bits the way Sal smashed Raheem’s boombox. Instead, they proved the galvanizing power hip-hop could have. 1989 was not just another summer; it sparked a hip-hop revolution.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Tobe Nwigwe wowed the crowd with a live musical performance at the McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden experience at BETX.
BET Expereience

Tobe Nwigwe's Southern Raps At The BET Experience Are Marinaded With Purpose

Thanks to Tobe Nwigwe, Houston’s presence could not be denied at this year’s batch of BET Experience events in Los Angeles. Sporting his signature sock/slippers combo and a mic in his hand, the Nigerian-American storyteller took the stage Friday (June 21) to perform some of his most revolutionary and captivating tracks.

There’s the lyrical strike that is “Ten Toes” and “Against the Grain” made popular from his #GetTwistedSundays series, a keen exploration of Houston. With a new batch of ears and hearts open to his music, the Nigerian-American rapper is at ease with his new purpose.

“I understand my purpose now. I understand that to do what I’m doing now is all of my life,” Nwigwe tells VIBE before taking the stage for McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden event which showcases music’s ability to continue the cultural narratives of the Black experience in America.

Before he was shining on BET Cyphers, performing at the Roots Picnic or delivering projects like Three Originals, Nwigwe had dreams of entering the NFL. Those plans were redirected after a physical injury during his senior year at the University of North Texas. The incident served as a catalyst for the rapper to transform his energy into purposeful rap for his hometown, Houston.

“That’s why I’m due diligent, persistent, and focused on what I’m doing because I understand the call of my life,” he added while speaking about his partnership with McDonald’s platform. “I just really like what the Black and Positively Golden theme is. Being bold, being brilliant, being resilient. I like the black community, I love it. I feel like black people are the most influential people in the world.”

 

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HISTORY WAS MADE AT THE @ROOTSPICNIC 🙏🏿 YASIIN BEY - - 📸: @tynie626

A post shared by Tobe Nwigwe (@tobenwigwe) on Jun 2, 2019 at 8:12am PDT

Houston’s re-emergence into mainstream hip hop culture, from a cultural enclave to an emergent regional capital in Southern rap lineage is evident acts like Megan Thee Stallion and Tobe Nwigwe. Draped in diasporic apparel and perched on a horse in the Texas countryside, Nwigwe is representative of the city’s rich ethnic demographic, and fusion of two Black sub-cultures into one told through the oral traditions of hip hop.

Nwigwe is currently dressed in all black, but it wouldn’t be without purpose. In small but noticeable text, his shirt says, “Mental Health is Crucial.” The fit speaks highly of intentions as an advocate for black youth. Nwigwe’s love for his community extends beyond the reaches of rap into the worlds of non-profit advocacy and mentorship. He’s the co-founder of TeamGINI, “Gini Bu Nkpa Gi?,” an Igbo saying meaning, “What’s Your Purpose?”

“I understand what people where I come from need,” he explains. “I feel that. I understand the void, so I do my best to play a role in being a part of the solution.”

His spiritual beliefs were highlighted in The Rap Map: Meet 5 Talented Artists From Houston featured on DJBooth. An ideology rooted in community-based upliftment drew motivational speaker Eric Thomas to sign Nwigwe for ETA Records, and establish a partnership focused on the implementation of solutions-focused rap for youth in neighborhoods across the United States, impacted by the terrors of community disinvestment, and high rates of violence.

Nwigwe recalled the outpouring of love experienced at one of his recent hometown shows. “I had the biggest crowd ever on my court at home," he proudly boasted in a Houston drawl. "I had over 3,000 people at a show with no openers, none of that. The mayor came out and gave me a dap, so it’s just a lot of love at home. There's like nothing better than being received well in your hometown, where you grew up and got all your influence from. It’s, wherever I go I wear Alief, I wear SWAT, I wear Houston on me like a badge of honor.”

His authenticity is felt throughout his setlist, a musical arrangement with a live band, background vocals from Beaumont-raised LHITNEY, and surprise guest performance from NELL, a frequent collaborator and producer on his music projects.

Nwigwe's purpose for the weekend was complete–he brought Houston to Los Angeles. “Make purpose popular,” Nwigwe’s mantra for his musicality sounds like a tagline from your local conscious rapper, but the intention in how the Houston rapper uses music as a space for community messaging is rooted in genuine Houston hospitality.

Stream Nwigwe’s latest release, “Searching” below.

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