I’ve been listening to a lot of Public Enemy lately. I have been a member of the monthly record club Vinyl Me, Please for years. Calling VMP a record club really doesn’t do it justice, but it’s the best I can do. Every month they reissue an album in one of four “tracks” including Classics, Essentials, Hip-Hop, and Country. I am a member of the Hip-Hop track and this month’s album was PE’s Fear of a Black Planet. In all my years as a VMP member this is my favorite album they’ve ever issued. Not just because it’s an amazing album, but because of the entire package. Immediately one of the best albums in my collection. For what it’s worth, their Essential album this month was Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and their classic album was Take Twelve by the Lee Morgan Quintet. This is not an ad for VMP. September was just an amazing month and I spent too much money. This is all beside the point…
As I said, I’ve been listening to a lot of Public Enemy lately because of my beautiful Fear of a Black Planet vinyl. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is my personal favorite PE album, but Apocalypse ’91…The Enemy Strikes Black is up there as well. As I listened to “Can’t Truss It” I realized what an impact Public Enemy’s lyrics had on me as a kid. Much of my worldview as an adult was formed by the lessons Chuck D taught me as a teenager. Nothing hits like a good Public Enemy track. I know there are hundreds of other instances of artists and bands creating protest music, but Public Enemy was my introduction. It also seemed to be the lone reason for their existence. PE’s entire catalog is protest music. Most artists only occasionally reach the urgency and emotion of a song like “Fight The Power.” D’Angelo got there with “The Charade.”
“The Charade” is the third track from D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s 2014 album Black Messiah. The lyrics were written by D’Angelo and Kendra Foster with music written by D’Angelo and Questlove. Popular opinion is that “The Charade” was born out of the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Interestingly, producer Ben Kane told Okayplayer.com that “The Charade” was actually conceived during the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. The release of Black Messiah was ultimately pushed up because of the murder of Michael Brown and a grand jury’s decision not to indict his killer, police officer Darren Wilson. D felt he had something to say and needed to get it out as soon as possible.
“The Charade” is the rare track that is all at once tragic, upsetting, inspiring, and hopeful. I’ve been listening to this song for nearly seven years and the lyrics still blow me away. How did D’Angelo and Kendra Foster even dream of this combination of words – equally poetic and thought-provoking – much less add a melody and make them sound beautiful? There are certain pieces of art that I believe should be required listening/viewing if you wish to continue to take part in American society. Listen to these words and tell me you don’t feel D’Angelo’s pain? Anyone who would turn a blind eye to the struggles of people of color need to truly listen to this and begin to understand the suffering experienced by those who don’t have equality but long to achieve it. If you can listen to this song and not be moved by the lyrics I won’t go as far as to call you soulless, but I’ll politely say that you lack compassion.
When people say that freedom isn’t free it’s usually a reference to the very real sacrifices made by military members and their families. I listen to “The Charade” and I hear the phrase “freedom isn’t free” differently. For everyone to truly be free, people in a place of privilege must make sacrifices to ensure that nobody can relate to the words D’Angelo is singing in this song. It’s long past time for us to continue building on the progress we made in the past several decades and make sure that the Donald Trump era was the final cry of a dying movement and not the spark that ignites a white nationalist inferno. That’s what I think when I hear “The Charade.”
That’s enough of my soapbox for this Thursday. My apologies if this appears trite. I’ll conclude by saying that I believe “The Charade” is on a very short list of the greatest protest/social justice songs of my lifetime. A perfect anthem for Black Lives Matter. I doubt I’ll see the day in my lifetime when I think, “Man, remember when things were so bad that D’Angelo had to sing that song about degradation so loud that you can’t hear the sound of our cries? I’m glad that’s over!” But if we continue fighting maybe our kids will. We must keep progressing. I thank D’Angelo for creating music like this that fuels our souls.
Back with something (maybe) lighter tomorrow. Happy Thursday, y’all. Enjoy this performance of “The Charade” from Saturday Night Live circa February, 2015.