An American anti-racist rap anthem lives on in punk, trip hop, and Brazilian death metal
In 1989 rap group Public Enemy released a protest song about the treatment of blacks in America and the prison industrial complex. Your military buddies would probably not be happy about it.
The song is a story narrated by Chuck D about a wrongly imprisoned black man who’s been given the opportunity to join the military but refuses and plots his escape instead. The video matches the lyrics pretty exactly, with the notable difference being it implies his escape failed and he was hanged by the warden.
The song never became a mainstream hit like many of the other songs I’ve covered in this series, but its clearly had an impact on international black artists. Check out some of the lyrics:
I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for the army or whatever
Picture me given’ a damn, I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn’t wit’ it, but just that very minute
It occurred to me
The suckers had authority
Cold sweatin’ as I dwell in my cell
How long has it been?
They got me sittin’ in the state pen
I gotta get out, but that thought was thought before
I contemplated a plan on the cell floor
I’m not a fugitive on the run
But a brother like me begun, to be another one
Public enemy servin’ time, they drew the line y’all
To criticize me some crime, never the less
They could not understand that I’m a black man
And I could never be a veteran
On the strength, the situation’s unreal
I got a raw deal, now I’m lookin’ for the steel
British-Jamaican trip-hop master Tricky made a cover with his legendary partner, and on-and-off girlfriend, Martina Topley Bird. I am a really big fan of the Tricky-Martina-Massive-Attack era of British alt music so yes this one is my favorite. Maybe another day we’ll delve into that scene.
Rage Against The Machine (1996)
Ok not quite a “cover”, more like a live remix, but I’m counting it. Seven years after the song was originally written Rage Against The Machine performed it with Chuck D at a music festival, calling Chuck one of the “fathers of revolutionary music”. The meeting of rap and punk rock is pretty fun.
Sepultura and Sabotage (2002)
I personally can’t stand heavy metal, but this metal/rap cover from Brazil is pretty fascinating. Rapper Sabotage sings his verses in Portuguese but I’m unable to tell if he’s translating or adding new lyrics. Wikipedia tells me Sabotage was shot and killed in 2003, with no arrest made, eerily undervaluing of black life called out in the song if true.
Its been difficult finding much more about the song and its impact on the interwebs, so if you have some bits you’d like to share let me know in the comments! Educate me Public Enemy fans!