The moment Carlton Douglas Ridenhour left the stage in the Campus Center Ballroom to wild applause and a standing ovation, Student Activities Program Coordinator Charles Henriques knew he was in trouble.
“We've painted ourselves into a corner now,” he said, “I don't know how we're going to top Chuck D.”
On Wednesday, March 9, the former frontman of rap group Public Enemy visited UMass Boston to speak to a crowd of about 300 students, faculty, and staff members on race, politics, music, and the power of education. His appearance on campus, which had been rescheduled due to a campus-closing blizzard in early February, was coordinated by Student Arts and Events Council Program Coordinators Zach McCoubry and Izzy Pulido, Henriques said.
“He was their choice for speaker, and they made it happen,” he said.
Public Enemy was best known in the late 80's and early 90's for calling attention to social injustices in their lyrics; in an era when rap was just beginning to achieve mainstream success, they were pioneers who fused art with political messaging. Now that Public Enemy is no longer recording, Chuck D uses his iconic voice to speak out against racism and what he calls the “dumbassification” of America as he tours college campuses nationwide.
Chancellor J. Keith Motley, in his introduction, praised Chuck D's ability to “call out any institution in our society for perpetuating racism and oppression, even when it's been an uncomfortable conversation.”
Henriques said that although some students weren't familiar with Public Enemy before the event, “a lot of students ended up finding out who he was, and they became interested that he was coming. And then they passed that excitement onto their friends.”
Chuck D's observations on pop culture and the struggles of people of color to succeed in tough environments were often met with widespread applause and agreement from the audience.
“They strip people of color of their history and force them to buy back their present and future,” he said of societal institutions such as the media, the government, and the hip-hop industry.
The media was a focus of Chuck D's address, particularly, he said, because of the recent coverage of actor Charlie Sheen, which he compared to media attention paid to his erratic Public Enemy bandmate Flavor Flav.
“Why focus on drama when there's real problems?” he said to cheers. “They capitalize on the laziness and dysfunction of people. Let me leave up out of here and rob a gas station – and that'll be on the news. A dysfunctional story gets more attention.”
Later, Chuck D added, “The problem with [reality TV show Flavor of Love] was that Flavor Flav's the one with the most sense. I never thought anyone would be in tears because she didn't get a clock.”
Chuck D's overall message was a supportive one for students, encouraging those who are from difficult backgrounds and/or the first in their families to attend college to remember the value of their education, and share their learning with their families and communities.
“I had five friends at different colleges when I was a student – and I got five majors for the price of one because we shared our knowledge,” he said. “How many of you share your knowledge? How are you going to spread love, knowledge, wisdom, peace, and understanding among your community if you don't share what you're learning here?”
Decrying pressure on young people of color to act tough at all costs, Chuck D called out students who are quiet at home and in their neighborhoods about the fact they attend college.
“You either college or you street. Don't try to pretend you're something you ain't. Don't let anti-intellectualism silence your intelligence. There's nothing wrong with being a nerd for what you paid for. There's nothing wrong with being a nerd for what you like,” he said.
One student, says Henriques, was particularly affected by this message. “This [student] is the first one in his family to go to college, and every time he goes home for breaks, people get on him about it. After the lecture, I heard him say, 'I have to talk about my education like it's a positive thing. I have to share my education – because I am that kid that Chuck D was talking about.'”
Before and after his talk, Chuck D met with students, posed for photos, signed autographs, and answered questions – but had to leave on time to catch an evening flight to Los Angeles, where he and his family have a home. Fielding questions from students and staff, he kept interacting with the audience until the very last minute.
“He probably would have kept speaking for another half-hour and would have sat there until everyone got their questions answered, and everyone got an autograph," Henriques said. "This is what he loves doing; he was disappointed that he couldn't stay longer.”
Chuck D's positivity, humor, and down-to-earth attitude were appreciated by all of those who heard him speak, especially Henriques, who hopes this won't have been Chuck D's only visit to UMass Boston.
“We'll try to get him back here,” he said. “He's coming back.”