It was 1989 and the most sweltering summer on record, and I’d already fallen in love with hip-hop. Through cheap foam headphones I had taped together, I listened incessantly to MC Lyte, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, KRS-One, 3rd Bass, Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B. & Rakim, repeatedly auto-reversing the cassettes in my Sony Walkman until I knew the buttons by feel and didn’t have to look to rewind or fast forward.
I read the liner notes. I memorized the lyrics. I extrapolated meaning. I obsessed over all things hip-hop.
As both a witness and a participant, I was highly aware of how negatively the world responded to hip-hop’s growing influence, even as it crept into the mainstream, one commercial at a time. Older folks, steeped in ’70s R&B and disco, bristled at the thumping bass lines, their ears struggling for the melody. It was too ghetto. Too street. Too black. They said it was only a passing fad. They didn’t like the lyrics. They didn’t like the clothes.
People were afraid of it, all of it.
That only made me love it more. The eruption of creativity from black and brown kids was not just a movement but an ethos and a code that was quickly spreading. Through the lens of hip-hop I learned to interpret the world and to understand the priorities and concerns of and connection to people who looked like me. This was for us, by us. And so what, if “they” didn’t like it.
And it was that summer, too, that I was introduced to Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.”
Got to give us what we want (uh)
Gotta give us what we need (hey)
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
The title alone spun my head. I had not considered a black planet, but Chuck D gave my young mind permission to imagine such a place. The first single of the album, “Fight the Power,” ignited my spirit. The summer anthem topped the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. The screaming sirens, the frenetic horns, the urgent, insistent call to collective action: It was irresistible—even scary—and purposely so. The chaos of the production activated my burgeoning activism. What could I do on my end to fight the power?
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved let’s get down to business
I felt part of something much larger. This was Black America’s CNN, as Chuck D famously described rap music, giving me information about “the powers that be,” and an unequivocal response to fight back—against injustice, poverty, police brutality, and all the things threatening the community. His voice thundered with maturity and a certainty that we must “fight the powers that be.” It also helped that Chuck D was a little older than some of the other popular rappers at the time. He had seniority and, it appeared to me, the wisdom to lead the revolution.
The video was evidence I was not the only one so moved by him. Flavor Flav, the group’s hype man, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, underlining what Chuck said with rubbery dance moves and his ubiquitous clock letting everyone know what time it was. The military precision of S1W, Public Enemy’s security detail outfitted in paramilitary uniforms, conveyed some organization under the chaos. Turning on their heels they moved in sync, a foil to Flav’s unrehearsed adlibs.
‘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
The album cover—featuring the group’s insignia of a black man in a B-Boy Stance in the crosshairs—was a metaphor for what was happening to hip-hop. The black planet about to eclipse planet Earth drove the point home. We knew at this time that all life on Earth originated in Africa; the whole planet had black roots. Yet, these were the Bush years, crack was taking its toll, and New York’s melting pot was about to implode. Racial tensions were high. Being black was hazardous. At that time, there was a sense that things would get much worse before they got better. Black and brown kids had a lot of reasons to be afraid.
We trusted Chuck D as he issued mandates to guide us over these troubled waters—“Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Can’t Truss It,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and my favorite, “Bring the Noise.” Anti-government, anti-establishment, power to the people. He rapped about the prison industrial complex, black masculinity, corporations, media. I consumed the album’s dense lyrics, track by track, its truths revealed with each listen.
Chuck D’s version of a black planet was empowering, safe, funky—but most important, it told the truth, uniting the experience of hip-hop kids. To me, the “fear” in the album’s title was a bit sensationalistic—there was nothing to be afraid of. Chuck D’s black planet is not scary at all, but a refuge, where we could re-imagine ourselves.
What we got to say (yeah)
Power to the people no delay
Make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be
Jackson is the director of communications for the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity.