'Chuck D' On The Possibility Of An Obama Presidency

Tell Me More continues its series on the potential significance of America's first black president. Rapper and activist Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, also known as "Chuck D," of the legendary rap group Public Enemy, shares his thoughts on an Obama presidency and what it means for the fight for the freedom. Just recently, VH1 named Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" the best hip-hop song of all time.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

There are 40 days left before voters head to the polls to participate in an historic election. On the Republican side, Alaska governor Sarah Palin could become the first female vice president. And for the Democrats, of course there's Barack Obama, the first man of African descent to win his party's nomination. He could become the president. Last month we begin a series of conversations with the question, what if there's a black president of the United States? What would it mean to old stereotypes, expectations and fears? We've been posing this question to influential thinkers, political figures and artists. In the latest in the series, I speak with music impresario and political activist Carlton Douglas Ridenhour. And you probably know him as Public Enemy's "Chuck D."

(Soundbite of rap music)

Mr. CHUCK D: (Rapping) Raise the power. Raise the power. Drop the power.

MARTIN: Chuck D. joins us now. Welcome.

Mr. CARLTON DOUGLAS RIDENHOUR (Music Impresario and Political Activist): Thank you.

MARTIN: Did you ever think to yourself, when you're honest with yourself, that you would see in your lifetime an African-American president, even one coming this close?

Mr. CHUCK D: I had an idea that I would see a black president, and let me use the word black because you can use black all over the world so. But he is a truly African-American because his father is from Africa and his mother is from America, so maybe the term applies more to Barack Obama than the norm, I should say. But I thought it was inevitable. I didn't know when. Now whether it would work for all of the people and all of us, you know, I also had to be clear that to say although we have a black potential president, we have to also understand that this is just not about us.

MARTIN: Not about black people?

Mr. CHUCK D: Us as black people.

MARTIN: OK. But let's start there, with what it means to you. Let's just start with you. What do you think it would mean to you?

Mr. CHUCK D: Me as a person, born in 1960, what it means to me, it means that it's a wakeup call as a black man in America based on his past record to make sure that I have my hardhat on, meaning that I have to really be prepared for anything, and there's no excuses no longer coming from black people to America saying that, you know, we don't have, because the rest of America is going to say, hey, you're man is in there, we're a perfect - this is a perfect society, it's true equality, when I know there's a lot of hypocrisy within. So it's pretty much a situation where we have to be prepared to be at our best.

MARTIN: But I'm not quite - I guess I'm not clear on whether you think it has the potential to make African-Americans more complacent to think that there - or to make - is it African-Americans who would be more complacent, or do you think other people who think there's no more left to be done?

Mr. CHUCK D: Black people would be more complacent, and everybody else would just think that everything is cool and we can move on from the race issue in America. And I just think that's just not the case because I think the people that think that everything is equal, they don't know the language of the people who wait at the busstop and go to the Laundromat. And I'm saying that's a step below the barbershop and the hair salon conversation, people that really have a hard way to go just to get a job.

You know, usually back people have been at the bottom of the totem pole. Bottom of the totem pole to build businesses in America, bottom of the totem pole to recognize that we are a collective, looked upon as a collective. So do we look upon ourselves as being a collective in order to exist and sustain ourselves here? Any whipping of mass destraction to make us feel complacent is not advised, I think, so I just think that we just have to be prepared and be ready just as much as he is. You know, Barack Obama looks like he's going to be doing three times the work of anybody else. So why should I feel any different? I should be doing three times of work as a black man citizen living in America, just like I think this guy at the top is going to do. So I think that's the wakeup call we need to recognize.

It's not time for us to sleep because we have to realize as black people in this country that we are looked upon base on our characteristics as opposed to our character. And if that is the case, then we have to be kind of like, you know, super people in a way.

MARTIN: Your music known is known for imagery. As an artist, have you thought about what it might mean having an African-American family, a black family in the White House? Has that sparked anything for you?

Mr. CHUCK D: Yeah, it sparked concern and interest and at the same time some pride and joy. And I make no bones about it, there's only one race, the human race. And when it all comes down to it, we are human beings that need to take care of this planet a little bit better than we are. And I think Barack Obama brings some of that - that ideal to the table when he looks across and says, hey, you know, really straight up, you know, I'm a person here, you're a person, and let's try to work on this planet together because we only have it so much of a time. And so when you use and abuse this place, it's doubtful whether any of your policies will work. It actually - it destroys the place that you're sitting.

MARTIN: As a person who performs around the world, travels widely, what effect do you think a Barack Obama as president would have internationally?

Mr. CHUCK D: Number one, the rest of the world is seeing that this country has detached itself from the rest of the planet. The election, I think, is the biggest reality show in the world right now, the biggest reality show in the world. The rest of the world, via television, radio, Internet, Web, people can watch a speech in its entirety on their own time. Whether you're in - you know, Perth, Australia, whether you're in - you know, Nairobi, Kenya. And so you can actually micro-examine the words and the scene that's coming out of the United States, which they have. So the rest of the world is just waiting for the United States to get off of its high horse and join the world instead of arrogantly thinking it's a step above and begin to think about consolidating the best uses of this planet for all.

MARTIN: What if he loses?

Mr. CHUCK D: Well, I will be having my hardhat on regardless. If he loses then you actually know that this is a country that doesn't want to align itself with the rest of the planet and get better. I think it will be a situation where individualism will run rampant, and sorry excuses like, oh, well, just do better by getting a job and then you'll do better, and that's how we'll get better, by just doing better. It takes more than that.

MARTIN: Do you think, I mean, he's only - what, a year younger than you, right?

Mr. CHUCK D: I think he's at the right age to do it. I feel that he's strong enough and he has enough inner strength and outer strength and he's young enough to actually handle the pressures of the job. It's doubtful that McCain, if he seriously does the job and rolls up his sleeves, that he'll be able to withstand the pressures of the job, you know, from 72 to 76. Unless you do just like Reagan did, and it's just kind of like coast along.

MARTIN: Finally, and I know you've got to go, and you've been generous with your time and we appreciate it, do you have any rhymes or lyrics in the waiting?

Mr. CHUCK D: No. I mean, I'm a songwriter so I'm going to basically - you know, as far as being a songwriter, you know, you kind of like let the world come to you and what comes out of you is based on what you see and what you hear. So I would tell you, surprises are yet to come.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHUCK D: So - and what I haven't written yet, I've probably written before in one way or another. So I tell people I'm going for Barack for all the right and the wrong reasons, and you can spell them both with a W.

MARTIN: Which are? Oh, I see, as in?

Mr. CHUCK D: Figure it out. See, I'm a songwriter so you have to figure out the pun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. Thank you.

Mr. CHUCK D: So it was meant that that didn't startle me, you know. He reaches me. Whether he'll reach people and, you know, serve in Colorado, you know, that's the way - hey, he knows what he's going for. He's not stupid. So obviously he's got it figured out and he's going to go for it and he's going to put his best foot forward.

MARTIN: Chuck D joined us from Philadelphia. Thank you so much.

Mr. CHUCK D: Thank you.

MARTIN: We leave you know with a little bit of another classic Public Enemy song, "Rebel Without A Pause."

(Soundbite of song "Rebel Without A Pause")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Singing) Yes - the rhythm, the ripple. Without a pause - I'm lowering my level. The hard rhymer where you never been I'm in. You want stylin, you know it's time again. D the enemy - telling you to hear it. They praise the music, this time they play the lyrics. Some say no to the album, the show...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song "Rebel Without A Pause")

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