Today on Pitchfork Craig Jenkins reviewed two albums by Public Enemy that I like very much—It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. These reviews were scheduled weeks ago but happened to run this morning, the day after the announcement that there would be no indictment of the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. I worried a little bit last night and this morning about the coincidental timing of these reviews, that it might seem as these records—which, after all, contain hyper-political music about the violence that exists as an outgrowth of racism in America, among other things—were reviewed today for a topical reason, which was not the case. I suppose I worried about this because after the announcement last night pop music suddenly seemed very, very small.
I have been listening to these records a bunch in the last couple of weeks, ever since the reissues were announced. Both came out when I was in college (as did Apocalypse ’91, which is almost as good). It’s hard for me to convey how exciting it was to be following along with Public Enemy during this time, especially as a 19, 20, 21-year-old whose mind was being blown on a daily basis. I really believe this is the best political music ever made, but I should also point out that I don’t listen to a ton of music that is overtly “political” on a daily basis. But something happened to me that it seems like happens to a lot of people between the ages of, say, 17 or 18 and 25 or so. These are the years when you leave home and start to see that, hey, the life I knew at home is not like anything approaching “reality” and in fact I have internalized all kinds of assumptions and biases that I have never thought twice about. And these startling realizations about your own mind can really scramble things; some people join cults, some people become artists. It’s the time when you shed the skin of childhood and become your own person. And for someone like me who grew up like I did, that meant thinking hard about race and racism, how I feel about it and how the world feels about it and how I might have benefitted from being who I was born and how other people have been punished for being who they were born. And at that moment in your early 20s when all this hits you in a rush, you might feel for a moment that you have it all figured out, that you’re somehow cleansed by your new knowledge, but then over time you learn that such things are impossible. No matter what you think, you are still you, stuck inside your own body, and you have no special insight into a deeper reality. You always need to be listening and thinking.
I saw Chuck D speak in college, thinking now it was probably 1991. He was on a lecture tour between Black Planet and Apocalypse ’91 and he came to the Michigan State campus and spoke in the auditorium. As I remember it, he was in 1991 a much better rapper than he was a lecturer; he spoke for several hours, and there was some fascinating stuff but it also kind of rambled. Onstage to his left was a large bodyguard named Crunch. Chuck talked about how he saw the world and where Public Enemy fit into it. He talked about the rap he liked and respected. He spoke positively of MC Hammer because he admired how many people he employed, something like 100 to Public Enemy’s 25 or 30. He said that his favorite rapper was Treach from Naughty by Nature, that he would love to be able to rap as well. And then at some point he took questions and a white college student asked him what he, as a white person, could do to help the cause. Chuck said something like “Live a righteous life,” which was appropriately open-ended, I think, and he also said to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I took note of and did in the weeks that followed.
I hesitate to mention all this stuff because, in the larger scheme of things, this is not my story and who cares what I think. When I was listening to “Fight the Power” in 1990 I was probably not fully aware that I was the power. I am very conscious that there are many situations where the best thing I can do is shut my mouth, open my ears, listen, process, and think about what comes next. There is a central tension that can never be resolved, between something like “I am with you, because we both are human” and “I can never be fully with you, because society thinks of our humanity differently.”
This morning I was walking to the subway and playing to Fear of a Black Planet and for the first time it struck me as crushingly sad, like I was on the verge of tears while listening to it. Most of my life it was the kind of music that made me feel powerful, I suppose mostly by virtue of how it sounded, but also because of the supreme confidence with which it was delivered. But this morning it seemed so sad because it seemed so incredibly optimistic. It would have been hard to realize it at the moment, when there was so much controversy swirling around Public Enemy and they seemed “angry” and were sometimes associated w/ violence, but the group was ultimately looking to the future and believing there could be something better. They really thought that the world could change and that music, particularly their music, could be part of what made that happen. Imagine that. And so listening to “Fight the Power”, 25 years after the fact, on this morning, it sounded naive in the face of so much hopelessness.
Back when hip hop was still revolutionary. I think it’s about to become that way again for the very worst reasons.
For years I was sad because I was too young to have been really aware when the Clash were at the top of their game. Then I realized I was around for P.E. who were just as important and great.
I once saw Chuck D at the Burbank Airport and got to thank him for P.E. and all of his music.
Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep.
They Live, Carpenter’s 1988 paranoid freakout, deserves to be thought of as a masterpiece, an artist’s defiant last grab at substance before losing the thread. It’s a cheesy but lovable movie about a working-class hero (WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), struggling to find work in a harshly class-riven Los Angeles. He discovers, after slipping on a pair of special sunglasses, that the city’s abundant population of yuppies are aliens. It’s that simple: Yuppies are aliens. In interviews, Carpenter often goes further than his screenplay (based in part on Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” which became a 1986 graphic novel), flatly calling the secret ghouls Republicans. They Live portrays these goo-faced interlopers, as viewed via the black-and-white sunglasses-cam, in three-piece suits, being pushy and uncaring, blithely telling their coworkers to “Go for it.” And when they’re finally seen for what they are, by this nothing of a denim-clad construction worker (Piper character is named Nada), they panic.
Accordingly, Hemphill says we cannot just “positively think” away structural hardships. She says it’s an “anti-sociological” perspective that distracts us from larger systemic problems. “In this way the belief in positive thinking also functions as a way to blame victims,” she says. “Further, the status quo remains unchallenged by such thinking, as these types of sentiments serve to individualize broader social problems.” At the same time, she says it works to serve the benefit of the privileged, especially those who are already experiencing “positive lives.”
For many of us, The Hunger Games is personal, not only because we love the writing or the heroine, but because we live under Capitol-like policies ourselves. We live in a culture defined by class divisions, and by an unwillingness to talk honestly, let alone remedy, those divisions. For us, The Hunger Games are not about box office takes or marketing tie-ins with Doritos and Subway (two particularly perverse corporate choices on the part of Lionsgate, who are already making millions on a movie about hunger).
The marketing for The Hunger Games isn’t personal, but this has the power to be a very personal franchise — and a very communal one. We can fill in the gaps — the hundreds of millions of dollars surrounding the Hunger Games franchise does not have to be the prevailing narrative. We can make it our narrative. We can use our voices. We can tell our stories. We can let the world know that this is real. Tell your story — use social media, talk to your friends, take whatever platform you can. From student loans to the minimum wage and deficits based on factors like race and gender, every reality, big and small, matters.
We can explain to the world why this narrative means so much.
These are #MyHungerGames. What are yours?
Read Alanna’s brave and moving story, then share yours.
You can read more #MyHungerGames stories here.
STEALTH MODE: OFF
This passage in Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking touched a nerve. My mother was a computer programmer in the 80s, and my sister is a Woman of Microsoft.
Following the success of my TED talk, Microsoft called. They were offering to fly me to Seattle to speak to a group of women who worked there (apparently a whopping 16 percent of the employees at Microsoft were female).
I asked the speaker coordinator what I would be speaking about.
Whatever you want, she said.
I started to panic— I had no idea what I’d talk about. Crowdsourcing? Music? Surely I could wax poetic for a half hour about something. But these women were smart.
The Fraud Police were paying me a call.
For two months, I avoided coming up with an idea worth Microsoft-ing.
The night before the talk, I was pacing frantically around Jason Webley’s Seattle houseboat, still having written nothing, when it occurred to me: my mother. She’d been retired for a decade, but she’d worked as a freelancer for almost forty years, applying her math-whiz brain to the emerging field of computer programming.
Growing up, I had no idea what she actually did all day after she threw her heels in a bag and drove her car into rush-hour traffic. Whenever she started to explain to me what her job entailed, the words blurred into a wall of noise.
I hadn’t called my mother in a while. But now I had something to ask her. I needed her.
She talked for two hours straight while I furiously scribbled notes about what it was like for her to be one of the only female computer programmers at various companies around Boston in the sixties and seventies. I poured myself a glass of wine . On the other end of the phone, on the opposite side of the country, so did my mom. For the first time, in earnest, it was like we were drinking together. I listened to her stories about the sexism, the judgment, the weird harassment.
She told me a story about the guy she programmed with who got fired for looking at too much porn on his office computer.
In nineteen seventy??
Oh no no no. This was way later, when we were working on a Y2K conversion. There was Internet porn by then.
I couldn’t believe my mother had just said the words “Internet porn.”
I wanted more stories.
Well, you had to work harder than the men just to keep the job, she said matter-of-factly. And, she said, you know… you had to be perfect.
The way she said it hit a nerve.
Perfect? What kind of perfect?
Well, if a guy messed up a project, there was always another job waiting for him. But a woman? Forget it! You’d never get a job in that town again. And Boston was a small town. There were only a few of us. The men all stuck together.
She told me the story of the accountant, Jerry, who paid all the male freelancers on time but kept withholding her paycheck, claiming offhandedly that she “had a husband” and probably didn’t need the money as badly as the men did. She asked nicely for months, persistently, and still it didn’t arrive.
One day she called him up (at 6:02, she said, when I knew the switchboard operator had gone home for the day and I would get him directly). She said, Hi Jerry! Just wondering when you’re going to be able to process that check! It’s eight weeks late. And when Jerry made some grumblings about how they would send it out as soon as possible, my mother said, What are you having for dinner tonight, Jerry? Jerry said, Excuse me? My mother said, I need that money to buy groceries to feed my family. If you don’t cut my check, I’m coming to your house for dinner tonight. And I don’t like salmon . And I don’t like peas. The check was on her desk the next day.
I’d never known any of this stuff. But then again, I’d never asked. As we were wrapping up our two-hour conversation and were well into our second (third?) glasses of wine, she said, You know,Amanda, one thing always bothered me. Something you said when you were a teenager.
Oh, no. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. I was a terrible teenager, an explosion of hormones and nihilism.
She can do this imitation of me as a teenager that makes me want to crawl under a table. She did it now.
You said: “MOM, I’m a REAL ARTIST. You’re NOT.”
Oh, god. Then she added, more kindly, You know you, Amanda, you were being a typical teenager.
I winced, and felt my neck tighten and my teeth grit down into mother-fight-or-flight mode.
She continued, But you know. You would say, “I’m an ARTIST… fuck you, Mom! What do you know?! You’re just a computer programmer.”
I had to admit… I could totally imagine myself saying that as a teenager. Maybe not the “fuck you, Mom” part. But still.
And then my mother said something that absolutely demolished my defensiveness. I don’t think, in all the years I’ve known her, that I’ve ever heard her sound more vulnerable.
You know, Amanda, it always bothered me. You can’t see my art, but… I’m one of the best artists I know. It’s just… nobody could ever see the beautiful things I made. Because you couldn’t hang them in a gallery.
Then there was a pause.
I took in a deep breath.
God, Mom. Sorry.
And she laughed and her voice turned cheerful again.
Oh, don’t worry, sweetie. You were thirteen.
As I related this story the next morning to a small theater filled with two hundred Women Of Microsoft, I added a confession. In all my rock-and-roll years of running around, supporting people, advocating for women, giving all these strangers and fans permission to “embrace their inner fucking artist,” to express themselves fully, to look at their work and lives as beautiful, unique creative acts, I’d somehow excluded my own mother.
And maybe, by extension, a lot of other people. I looked out at the Women Of Microsoft, seeing present-day versions of my 1970s programmer mother. Maybe they all felt thoroughly misunderstood by their own bitchy, teenage wannabe-poet daughters. Who knew?
So I thought about all the things she’d told me over the phone, I said to the room, and I thought about her work that I couldn’t possibly comprehend, about the actual creative work she had done. All that delicate, handmade programming she did into the dead of night to switch one platform to another on some critical company deadline, how outside of the box she would venture to fix a problem… and how insanely proud she felt when it worked, and the true… beauty of that. And the sadness, too, because nobody ever, you know, clapped for her at the end of the night.
As I looked up into the audience, I saw that three or four women were sniffling and dabbing their eyes. My own throat tightened up.
She couldn’t hang her work on a wall. I can. I do my art in public. People applaud. My mom never really got that… and she’s retired now.
After the talk, I hugged a handful of the Women Of Microsoft, got back in my rental car, turned the radio up to eleven , and peeled out of the office park.
Take that, Fraud Police.