Be the power
Chuck D accepts the Woody Guthrie Prize in Tulsa
Chuck D, founding member of Public Enemy, accepted the Woody Guthrie Prize on Nov. 16 at Cain’s Ballroom.
Chuck D is a lot of things: rapper, author, activist, curator and overall hip-hop legend to name a few. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, the founding member of the iconic rap group Public Enemy can now add the Woody Guthrie Prize to his list of honors.
Awarded annually since 2014, the Woody Guthrie Prize recognizes artists who use their talents to speak for those without a platform. Chuck D has been bringing social issues to the forefront his entire career, and now he joins the ranks of past honorees like Pete Seeger, Mavis Staples and Kris Kristofferson.
Chuck D and Woody Guthrie might not be the most obvious pair musically, but the work of these two disparate artists shares a commitment to social justice and equality for all. “Woody was a fighter for the people, and Chuck D’s message has consistently aligned with Woody’s: Choose a side, fight the power, and work for a better world,” said Deana McCloud, director of the Woody Guthrie Center.
Cain’s Ballroom welcomed Chuck D to Tulsa for the award ceremony on Nov. 16. I talked to the living legend about Guthrie, music activism, the current state of hip-hop and more.
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Ty Clark: Can you tell me about your connection to Woody
Chuck D: I’m a musicologist, man. So if I’m gonna hear Woody Guthrie, I’ll have to know who Woody Guthrie is. You know, Bob Dylan and Pet Seeger, those two right there would lead me straight into that. If somebody doesn’t think that Chuck D should understand what Bob’s feeling or what Pete Seeger was about, then they’re either terribly misinformed or they’re probably not using their phones the right way [laughs]. Cause you can find out what the connection is between Chuck D and Woody Guthrie easy.
Knowing about his life, he was a character that was real—wise and wild at the same time.
I enjoyed reading about his forays not just in music … but what he did in radio and dared to explore. [He went] out from his home territory and still gave it props and still gave a voice to the voiceless in his home territory while being in New York or L.A. or wherever. He was a musician’s musician, so I dug that.
Clark: I spoke with your former [Prophets of Rage] bandmate Tom Morello when he joined the Woody Guthrie Center (WGC) advisory board. Can you talk about your relationship with him and your shared involvement with the Center?
Chuck D: Tom Morello is my brother but his dealings with the WGC and mine come from two different vantage points. Tom is in a world of rock and dares to go beyond himself and contribute and give back. I do the same in hip-hop, all around the world. It’s about two different genres coming together with the brothers in Prophets of Rage. … That was a beautiful experience, you know.
I say that we went to the University of Brotherhood for four years. We did a term together. We went around the world together and spoke and sang and played truth to power.
Clark: How do you feel about the current state of hip-hop and rap?
Chuck D: There’s a lot of people who don’t know what [hip-hop] is. It’s because there’s not enough curation or detailing about it to let the masses be as informed as they should on the genres. There is a lot of ignorance going around, but I’m always here to clarify … I’m also here to be a voice for people who feel that music can be an asset to their lives.
We live in different times,Ty, where music to younger generations could be a combination of four different areas: sound, sight, story and style. All those, to me, are cultural projections that come outside of something we usually call music. I think imagination is a powerful aspect to be tied and woven into music. I like to hold to those beliefs and be able to touch real people at the same time.
Clark: What or who would you consider America’s public enemy number one?
Chuck D: [Laughs.] Oh, stop. Just stop. It’s obvious. I’m not even gonna say his name.
Clark: How has your approach to writing changed with time?
Chuck D: Well, in my younger days [I wanted] to be a center fielder for the Mets but that’s not my calling. This is what I do with rap music and hip-hop. I think through use of words, words can permeate and make real change and be a reminder and informative, even though in a song you truncate and try to get the best point across with the least amount of words. I’m just thankful to be in a position where I can say something, be heard, perform it and permeate some change.
Clark: How can music spark that change?
Chuck D: Music can fill in the spaces that the newspapers and the media does not … artists and music should be in there to fill in the cracks. [But] you gotta be watchful for that, too, cause a lot of times genres get swept up to project the worst of it. I’m a believer that everything is everything. Just like Woody Guthrie. A lot of times he’d be in low places but that was not the projection of him. His projection was like, ‘Look: I’m trying to get up out of the low places. I don’t love being in low places.’ I don’t think the goal was, ‘I want to drag everybody down to this level.’ I don’t think that was the goal.
A lot of times when people talk about rap music and hip-hop, they quantitate it in numbers, analytics and metrics and whatever’s popular—but I’m saying [just because something is] popular doesn’t mean it should be the theme or the front cap on the total efforts of the music and culture. Things get projected for a whole lot of different reasons. When people start looking at the quantity as opposed to the quality, you know, that’s the soul of a machine.
Clark: What’s next for Chuck D?
Chuck D: I spend most of my time with my label SpitSlam Records and I curate hundreds of artists who come to my [radio] station, RapStation.com. I’m not a gatekeeper of the artform. I consider myself a curator of the artform. I’m non-biased and non-discriminating, you know. It’s about the artform.
Coincidently, one artist who I helped break his record four years ago was Jabee [from Oklahoma City]. It ended up being a [front page] article in the Oklahoma Gazette and I was like, ‘Wow,’ you know. ‘This is what it’s all about.’ It’s not about me. I already have a story and career, and I try to give a spark to somebody else—wherever they may be.