Public Enemy, 1987

I’ve been a Public Enemy fan for a long, long time. They were one of my primary gateways into hiphop. Loved the production, the politics, the interplay between Chuck’s and Flav’s voices, the whole package. And the aesthetic. Let’s not kid ourselves, Public Enemy has a very distinct aesthetic.

It’s a very militaristic aesthetic. Uniforms, military signifiers, a lot of berets. The guys in the berets, of course, are the S1Ws (for “Security of the First World” in PE parlance). Theoretically, they’re PE’s security force. Functionally, they dance at shows and look cool at press events.

Anyway, Public Enemy is a smart band and Chuck D is a smart guy in particular. This isn’t random. This resonant look came from somewhere. It’s naggingly familiar.

Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers

Chuck D

 

It’s naggingly familiar because it’s pretty much a direct visual quote of the distinct aesthetic of the Black Panthers. It’s clearly not an accident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Panthers, for what it’s worth, were very savvy about the use of imagery. They were great at mass communication; I’ve seen some fascinating presentations about their use of visual art in their newspaper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK. A militant rap group borrowed some visual tropes from a militant political group. So what?

Well, the interesting thing is that the Panthers pretty clearly borrowed a lot of elements of their look – the military signifiers, the regimentation – from the Nation of Islam. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know who the Nation of Islam are; if you don’t, they’re a major combination Black nationalist/religious group. They have supporters and detractors, but you can’t really minimize their importance in the history of 20th century America.

Members of the Nation of Islam

Muhammed Ali in NOI regalia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s where it gets really interesting… the Nation of Islam, in their turn, clearly borrowed a lot of their imagery from Marcus Garvey, the pioneering pan-Africanist / Black nationalist who was active in the early part of the 20th century.

Marcus Garvey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These pictures of Garvey are from 1924. The one on the right was taken by James Vanderzee, a prominent Harlem photographer.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey, photo by James Vanderzee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK, we can trace this thread of visual signifiers for Black militancy back to the 1920s. What of it?

Well, here are some paintings of heroes of the Haitian revolution, the only successful rebellion by African slaves. Pretty obvious thing to hearten back to if you’re Marcus Garvey.

General Toussaint Louverture

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Henri Cristophe

 

 

 

 

 

Pictured above, we have Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Cristophe. Those uniforms look a lot like the uniform Marcus Garvey was wearing, which of course inspired everything after.

 

 

 

(By the way, do Michael Jackson’s bedazzled military uniforms make more sense now? They should)

 

So… Public Enemy is old news. Barely a band now. What does this have to do with today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show wasn’t that long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that freaked some people right the fuck out.

This imagery is obviously still present, and still powerful.

–Fin–

Oh, but:

Emperor Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David

Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers

One of the recurring themes of my adult life has been my getting the itch to go back and take a look at some book or movie or album that I loved when I was younger but haven’t re-engaged with for a while. The vast majority of the time, I walk away from the revisit shaking my head and telling myself that hey, it’s no crime to have liked something bad or silly when you were younger.

So, recently I got the revisit urge for Lord of the Rings. I was pretty sure I knew how this was going to play out; I hadn’t read Tolkien since 2002, and I did vaguely remember not digging it at the last go-round. Which had been a bummer- these were foundational books to me in the 80s and 90s, but my turn-of-the-century reaction had been that the books were humorless, and trite, and just generally kind of bad.

A few things have happened to me since 2002, though. Big-picture, I’ve lived an adult life, with attendant ups and downs. More directly relevant, I’ve gained a historical consciousness, reading a ton of history (both cultural and political) and particularly boning up on World Wars 1 and 2.

And that’s the key. While I think there’s a lot of valid criticism that can be aimed at Lord of the Rings, I absolutely loved it on this reread, and a great deal of that love is based on my fascination with the way that Tolkien’s experience in World War 1 is smeared onto every page of the book (even beyond the physical descriptions of places around Mordor sounding almost word-for-word like descriptions of Western Front battlefields). Tolkien was at the Somme, arguably the most disastrous and harrowing British military experience of the 20th century. As he points out in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring, by 1919, most of his close friends were dead. British tactics at the Somme were, essentially, to hop up out of somewhat-safe trenches in waves, charging into a maze of barbed wire covered by German machine guns. You’d watch the wave ahead of yours go over the top and get cut to pieces. And then the officers would blow their whistles and your wave would go. Tolkien survived the war because a serious illness brought on by lice bites took him off of the firing line. But he saw a lot of people he knew die. And, as a junior officer in WW1 infantry, he was trained to order men to immediate, useless deaths and display leadership by joining them.

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