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Hip-hop artist Chuck D of the ’80s rap duo Public Enemy is facing a backlash for some recent twitter comments. He was one of many voices commenting on NFL star Ray Rice’s termination from the Baltimore Ravens. Rice received a minor reprimand when a video of him dragging his then-fiancé’s unconscious body from an elevator surfaced six months ago. However, Rice was “suspended indefinitely” by the NFL on Monday when TMZ released a second video showing the former player’s attack on the woman who has since become Mrs. Janay Rice.
The social media response to the video has included many voices, Chuck D among them. Many responders have been accused of victim blaming for asking "why did she stay?" or "what did she do to provoke him?" Chuck D’s response has a different angle, but one that didn’t sit well with many, including me. He wrote:
I can see Chuck D’s positive intention here. If young women grew up in loving families where fathers were non-violent, supportive and emotionally present, then they would have a stronger model for relationships in which gender violence would be an aberration. If they had male relatives who cared about their welfare, those men could serve as allies who would confront batterers.
However, there are many problems with this argument. As African American blogger Peechington Marie put it, “So Chuck D's whole argument is if men weren't absent fathers, men would be too afraid to victimize women? Way to erase victims altogether.” Britni Danielle on MommyNoire explained that “Women who are ‘really raised’ by their fathers are abused by their husbands and boyfriends every single day.”
I agree with both and would add the criticism that Chuck D's outlook envisions individual men alone as the answers, the actors, and the agents in protecting women from violence. Not only does it cast women in a passive role, relying on male attention and protection as our primary defense against gender violence -- worse still, it doesn’t challenge the underlying structure of male domination. This form of benevolent protective patriarchy isn’t even understood as sexism. The criticisms of Chuck D’s perspective have left him bewildered as to why people are upset when he just wants to make sure that vulnerable women like Janay Rice are defended.
Chuck D has always been aligned with Black Nationalism, which is known for its advocacy of strong black manhood and women taking a more secondary role. In his early work, Chuck D defined himself as “The follower of Farrakhan. Don’t tell me that you understand until you hear the man,” referencing Louis Farrakhan from the Nation of Islam. However Chuck D’s specific allegiances may have changed in the last 25 years, his twitter comment shows he still aligns with what bell hooks calls “narrow forms of black nationalism which wholeheartedly embrace patriarchal thinking.”
Two recent articles have seriously challenged this position on black fatherhood and the heterosexual nuclear family. One is Mychal Smith’s article “The Myth of the Magical Black Father” in The Nation. He says, “I just want to know if there’s a single problem in black communities that can not be blamed on missing fathers.”
A very different article in PolicyMic -- “A Major Study Reveals What Happens to Children Raised by Same-Sex Couples” -- also challenges Chuck D’s perspective. The study concluded that, “children in same-sex parent families had higher scores on measures of general behavior, general health and family cohesion,” specifically “about 6% higher than kids in the general population.” The study consisted of 80% female parents, and noted that these “same-sex parents ‘take on roles that are suited to their skill sets rather than falling into those gender stereotypes,’ and the result is a ‘more harmonious family unit and therefore feeding on to better health and well being.’” This study would indicate that it’s not the presence of fathers, but rather equal cooperating parents, and the absence of sexist gender roles and conflict that matter most to children’s well-being.
Chuck D’s immediate default position to a benign vision of father-knows-best Black Nationalism is really just a “kinder, gentler” version of sexism. As bell hooks puts it, “despite all the flaws and proven failures of patriarchal logic, many black people continue to grasp hold of the model of a benevolent patriarchy healing our wounds.” Given the vicious and misogynist turn that sexism in hip hop has taken, it’s easy to look back on Public Enemy’s heyday in the late 80s as the good old days, but Chuck D’s brand of sexism has always been “in effect,” and not always the kindest, gentlest.
Byron Hurt puts it well in his introduction to his brilliant documentary “Hip Hop, Beyond Beats & Rhymes,” which explores gender, sexuality, violence, and misogyny: “I want to make this very clear to all my viewers out there. I love hip-hop. I grew up with Big Daddy Kane, The Jungle Brothers…De La Soul…I listened to their music. I partied to their music. I listen to hip-hop to this day.”
I feel the same way. In my own late teens and early 20s, I loved all those artists. However, Chuck D and Public Enemy were the voice of my black hip-hop awakening. I danced to their songs, bought all their albums on vinyl and cassette, memorized their lyrics, drew their logo on my clothes, and went to their concerts. It was at one of their concerts that I had my black feminist hip-hop awakening — an awakening of disillusionment.
I wrote about it later in my hip hop theater show about fighting sexism, “Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip Hop”:
Chuck D: All right, all right. I want all the brothers to put a peace sign in the air. Cuz we’re about peace tonight. Yeah brothers. It’s all about peace up in here.
Me: you tell em, Chuck!
Chuck: That’s right brothers, you look good. Now sistas, don’t think I forgot you.
Me: What do you want me to do, Chuck? Put a fist in the air. My fist is ready chuck! I’m down with the revolution! Whatever you say, C huck! I’m ready to battle! Malcolm said by any means necessary, and you just name the means, Chuck. You just name the means.
Chuck D: I want all the sisters in the house….
Me: I’m ready, Chuck. Just name it, Chuck. You just say the word.
Chuck D: All the sisters in the house….to scream.
Me: [whispers] What? You just want the sisters to scream? What kind of revolution is that? That’s what every rapper wants women to do. Every stupid sexist sucka mc. I thought this was supposed to be about knowledge of self, Chuck? You can’t really mean that’s all you want from me. This was supposed to be too black, too strong. That’s too whack and too weak. What about the revolution, Chuck? I was ready.
I was stunned by his inability to imagine us, as women in the audience, having anything more to offer than a frenzied, inarticulate, subtly sexualized squeal about the music. Furthermore, I couldn’t help but notice that there were moments in his rap narrative where women popped up unexpectedly as objects of ridicule or targets of violence.
In “She Watch Channel Zero,” Public Enemy creates an imaginary woman to be the target of their wrath against the black community for passively accepting racist media messages. This is certainly a suspect choice, when black men and women consume media in equal measure.
Even more telling is the role of a woman in what is otherwise one of my favorite Public Enemy songs: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” In the fantasy narrative, Chuck D assumes the first person of a draft resister who ends up in jail, steals a gun, takes six corrections officers (C-Os) hostage, and leads a daring escape.
6 C-Os we got we ought to put their head out [kill them]
But I'll give 'em a chance, cause I'm civilized
Got a woman C-O to call me a copter
She tried to get away, and I popped her [shot her]
Now who wanna get nice?
I had 6 C-Os, now it's 5 to go
What happened here? The female officer is the one who gets shot? What happened to being “civilized”? This is the problem with the beneficent patriarchal vision of male protectors; on any given day, they get to decide if they are feeling protective or homicidal.
Chuck D’s form of sexism looks attractive to some in contrast to the trend that began in the 90s of openly celebrating sexual objectification, exploitation, and violence against women. However, as bell hooks says, we “cannot state often enough that patriarchy will not heal our wounds,” and we must reject “the idea of benevolent black male domination in family life.”
The idea of black fathers valuing their daughters is a lovely idea, but I don’t envision fatherhood as the source of our salvation. Fathers valuing daughters would be a natural outcome of changing our society into one where all women are valued both in and outside of the family. We need a society where all families have economic and social support to thrive with or without fathers. My goal isn’t to rescue or protect individual women from abuse, my goal is to end the systemic conditions that allow abusive relationships to thrive. I want to build a culture where violence against women, like record players and cassette tapes, is a relic of the past.