Public Enemy – Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)

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“Mind over matter, mouth in motion
Can’t defy it cause I’ll never be quiet
Let’s start this right”

This is the refrain of Public Enemy’s song Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man), from their first album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, released in 1987. The general message of the song is that African Americans need to learn about their history, and use their minds and words to protect and better each other. Although the song never mentions race specifically, it is implied by the parenthetical phrase of the song title; Public Enemy is speaking to the community of African Americans who grow up without knowledge or concern about the slavery which brought Africans to the United States. The following lyrics speak to this point:

“Many have forgotten what we came here for
Never knew or had a clue, so you’re on the floor
Just growin not knowin about your past
Now you’re lookin’ pretty stupid while you’re shakin’ your ass”

Here, Chuck D is referencing the people who choose to party and be ignorant to the fact that African people were kidnapped from their home countries and forced into slavery, and because of this history, Blacks in America are oppressed. Public Enemy was a group that falls under the category of what Gwendolyn Pough calls “message rap,” a 1980s movement that focused on “political themes of unity, racial uplift, self-definition, self-determination, and Black diasporas connections…Each of these efforts used rap music as a vehicle to stop Black youth from killing one another and brought together a variety of rappers to get that point across” (285-286). This kind of message is reflected in the lyrics:

“Another brother with the same woes that you face
But you shot with the same hands, you fall from grace
Every brother should be every brother’s keeper
But you shot with your left while your right was on your beeper”

These lyrics also reference drug use and sale, pointing to the violence that comes out of these practices. Drug dealers were known to carry pagers before cell phones were available, and gun violence is also a huge part of drug and gang life. Public Enemy wants Blacks in America to wake up, realize that they are destroying their own race by contributing to the negativity, and educate themselves on their history so that they can understand and want to support each other rather than breaking each other down.

Source: Pough, G.D. Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential in Hip-Hop. In M. Forman, & M.A. Neal (Eds.), That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (pp. 283-289). New York: Routledge.

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