How Public Enemy taught Black history to a generation of young people

Originally published at: How Public Enemy taught Black history to a generation of young people | Boing Boing


Music Video GIF


Within months of “Nation of Millions” hitting the streets I saw kids wearing Africa medallions in the grimy neighborhood I lived in. So I’d say that’s the wake up call.

But “Fear of a Black Planet” is definitely more consciously educational in its themes, “Nation of Millions” is a raised fist and a loud explosion.


Obligatory a/f:


Public Enemy’s promotion of noted antisemite Louis Farrakahn was pretty cringe tho.

Writing in Rolling Stone, Will Dukes takes a moment during Black History Month to examine how Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990) “hipped a whole generation to the extraordinary richness of the African-American experience.”

It would have been nice if the white segment of that generation had actually listened to the lyrics and tried to understand them in context. :man_shrugging:


I guess some did…


For me it was their prior album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. As a young white kid that was really into hip hop, that album was hugely influential and educational to me.

In school we learned about the the broad strokes of Civil Rights Movement (Jim Crow, MLK, and such) but here was Chuck D talking about people like Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Marcus Garvey, and Louis Farrakhan. They had the S1Ws as a kind of paramilitary backup band. They were openly preaching the ideals of Black nationalism and supremacy. Radicalism was presented as the only true option to rise above centuries of oppression.

“You’re quite hostile.”
“I’ve got a right to be hostile, man! My people are being persecuted!”

It’s hard for me to believe, but I was 10 when Nation came out. I thought was hip; I thought I wasn’t ignorant to the plight of Blacks in America, but hearing this album just blew my mind and opened my eyes to a world I had never seen before. Granted it took years for me to fully grok everything that was going on in this album. It was so densely packed with references, innuendo, and concepts. It mercifully included a lyric sheet* but there was no Wikipedia back then to decipher much of it. Despite this, from the very start I knew I was hearing something special that I needed to pay attention to.

Fear of a Black Planet was of course a great album and a worthy continuation of what its predecessor started. Songs like Fight the Power and Can’t Truss It are indisputable hip hop classics. But for me it was Nation that started me down that rabbit hole of moving past the broad strokes taught in school around “MLK fixed racism and the 60s were kinda crappy for Black folks” towards “holy shit America, what the fuck?”

* - I had Nation on cassette. The lyric sheet was this massive fold-out monstrosity as long as my arm that had microscopic print. Check out this scan of it:

There was an entire section just dedicated to shout outs to other rappers and groups that also helped me to find other like-minded stuff to listen to.


Same. By time Fear came out I’d moved on to other music styles, but Nation was easily enough to provide material for years and years of learnin’.

Side note: I did go back to Fear later on, and it is indeed a hell of an album.


Public Enemy was one of our go-to cruise cassettes, Yo! Bum rush the Show, I think, when we were just getting out of the house. I wouldn’t say I was educated with rote knowledge of Black history by listening to the lyrics, but definitely, at that time, we were pumped up with a feeling and awareness of the Black experience. I could relate, in a way, that my grandma might have, somehow, looked up to Elvis Presley, but I could’ve cared less about him. And back then in the early '90’s, like someone else mentioned, it’s not like we could hyperlink from the lyric sheet and learn about and read the works of Lawrence W. Levine or Booker T. Washington. But I wish I would’ve learned about them a lot sooner.

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.