Blame it on Bernie: did Public Enemy really split over politics?

The hip-hop legends have broken up – supposedly over a Sanders rally. But plenty of other bands have coped with their own political divisions

The Democratic party primary season is a rancorous, high-stakes affair that divides families and ruptures friendships. This year’s campaign has the unhappy distinction of severing one of the most longstanding alliances in hip-hop.

When Public Enemy founder and frontman Carlton Ridenhour, AKA Chuck D, announced that the group would play a rally for Bernie Sanders in Los Angeles last Sunday, the lawyer of his livewire sidekick William Drayton, AKA Flavor Flav, sent a letter of complaint: “The Public Enemy Movement cannot allow its cultural identity, likeness and life’s work to be misappropriated by political operatives in support of a fictional revolution.” Perhaps unwisely, he quoted one of Chuck’s most indelible lyrics: “Don’t believe the hype!”

Flavor’s position in the band had survived not only a $2,600-a-day crack habit but also four seasons of the dating show Flavor of Love. However, this was the last straw. Chuck promptly sacked his old friend. “Are you kidding me right now??? ... over Bernie Sanders??? You wanna destroy something we’ve built over 35 years OVER POLITICS???”, Flavor tweeted, as if POLITICS were a ridiculous distraction from the core business of the group behind Fight the Power and Rebel Without a Pause.

Chuck clarified that “it’s not about Bernie with Flav … he don’t know the difference between [former NFL player] Barry Sanders or Bernie Sanders.” For Chuck, it was mundane band drama: Flavor doesn’t like performing for free and was already on thin ice, having missed several shows over the past few years, including a charity fundraiser for Harry Belafonte in 2016 (Flavor reportedly chose to judge a bikini contest instead); in 2017, he sued Chuck, alleging unpaid royalties (the suit was dismissed). The Sanders rally appearance was actually billed as Public Enemy Radio, the Flavorless incarnation that Chuck launched “to get away from this ridiculousness”. It seems that Flavor’s unreliability, rather than his overwhelming affection for Joe Biden, was the last straw.

Bands are inherently unstable coalitions. Cram a group of young people into a tour bus for a few weeks, add booze and sleep deprivation, and watch the cracks start to form. Throw in some combination of musical differences, commercial pressure, media scrutiny and clashing egos, and it’s a miracle that any band lasts longer than a couple of albums. Band dynamics are as hard to fathom as other people’s marriages, which is why our cultural obsession with splits and reunions goes far beyond music. They are case studies in the forces that bring people together and drive them apart.

Chuck has previously described himself and Flav as the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of hip-hop. When he formed Public Enemy in the early 1980s, Chuck was inspired by the Rolling Stones and the Clash, as well as sports teams, to construct a line-up of different personalities, each one with a unique skillset. He has described Flavor, with his comic-strip grin and giant clock medallion, as “a visual character with audio bonuses”: the capering hypeman in a band otherwise defined by stony-faced gravitas. On tracks such as Bring the Noise and Fight the Power, Flavor is halfway between performer and fan, babbling with excitement about what is going on around him.

Sister Souljah.
Sister Souljah. Photograph: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

What made Public Enemy great also made them volatile, but when they stumbled into a media firestorm in May 1989, the problem wasn’t Flavor but Richard Griffin, AKA Professor Griff, the group’s forbiddingly stern “minister of information”. As Chuck told the NME: “Flavor is what America would like to see in a black man – sad to say, but true – whereas Griff is very much what America would not like to see.” Griff’s antisemitic remarks were already causing unrest when he gave a bombshell interview to the Washington Times in which he blamed Jews for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe”. The backlash caused an existential crisis for Public Enemy, with Chuck forced to choose between reputation and unity. The controversy almost broke them before Chuck steadied the ship, minus Griff.

Their next brush with notoriety came out of the blue during the 1992 presidential election campaign. Public Enemy didn’t endorse a candidate (they rarely do, although Chuck later called Obama “the right man for the job”), but one of the candidates certainly noticed them. Their 1991 single By the Time I Get to Arizona featured a young rapper and activist called Sister Souljah. In May 1992, after the Los Angeles riots, Souljah commented: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” The full quote made clear that she was not actually encouraging violence, but Bill Clinton saw an opportunity to distance himself from the radical left by denouncing her as a racist. The practice of a candidate repudiating perceived extremism in their own party in order to appeal to moderates is still known as a “Sister Souljah moment”. Chuck compared his experiences with Griff and Souljah to playing paintball: he was prepared to take flak for his own positions, but found himself caught in the crossfire generated by the words of his associates.

These were extreme situations. When the media isn’t fired up, it is quite possible for band members with even diametrically opposed political views to coexist. In the Police, for example, Sting was on the left while the drummer, Stewart Copeland, the son of the famously hawkish CIA officer Miles Copeland Jr, was a self-described “raving capitalist”. As he cheerfully acknowledged in a round-table debate with Billy Bragg and Paul Weller: “Me and my mate Sting are violently opposed to each other politically – not a single inch of shared ground.” (To his credit, Copeland agreed to reunite the Police in 1986 for Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour, thus helping the victims of some of the regimes that his dad had conspired to bring to power.) But politics didn’t break up the Police, any more than the Spice Girls split over Margaret Thatcher or Slayer over Donald Trump. Bands fracture over musical direction, or money, or infidelity, or just because they need a holiday, but not over who to vote for.

A song, however, can bring tensions to a head. In 1985, Joey Ramone, who was Jewish, was outraged by Ronald Reagan’s visit to a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, which housed the graves of members of the Waffen-SS, and wrote the furious protest song Bonzo Goes to Bitburg. This did not go down well with lifelong Republican Johnny Ramone, who insisted that the title was changed to My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down. “They couldn’t talk about my favourite president like that,” he huffed in his memoir, Commando. “I never wanted the Ramones to be about politics.” Last year, the Who’s Brexit-loving frontman, Roger Daltrey, refused to sing the original lyrics to Street Song, about the Grenfell Tower fire, because: “It had a lot of political lyrics that kind of pointed fingers,” so Pete Townshend wrote a less accusatory version.

The Ramones in 1976.
The Ramones in 1976. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

The issue is often not specific political positions but how far to take them. With precious few exceptions – Bragg, Jay-Z, Bono – musicians don’t have the stomach for the grubby machinations and compromises of serious politics. Most would rather ask questions than commit to solutions; throw their weight behind an issue rather than a candidate. That’s understandable. If the campaign to which you have nailed your flag loses, then it’s embarrassing. John Lennon’s intense phase of political activism ended in a shriek of despair on the night of 7 November 1972, when the Democrat George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon by a historic landslide. If your party wins, on the other hand, then you are tied to their record in government and any subsequent criticism becomes newsworthy. In 1997, Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant was a prominent Labour donor; nine years later, he was writing scathing satirical lyrics about Iraq and ID cards.

If it is risky for a single artist to endorse a candidate, and harder still for a band, then it is almost impossible to rally a broad-based coalition. The musicians’ collective Red Wedge may have failed in its mission to elect a Labour government in 1987, but its very existence was an extraordinary achievement, creating an umbrella broad enough to accommodate everyone from lifelong Labour supporters to wary outsiders – at least for a while. “Whatever misgivings I had about being involved in the Labour party or becoming that partisan were overshadowed by the fact we should get people out thinking about politics and maybe change the way we were going in the country, naive or not,” reflected Weller. “But I think we were used and it put me off politics. I’m not really one for joining clubs.”

That speaks volumes. Musicians, as a whole, are not so much leftwing or rightwing as instinctively libertarian. They want to be free to do what they want to do. It has been argued that the first rock’n’roll protest song was Summertime Blues, in which Eddie Cochran protests to his congressman about his parents and his boss getting in the way of his dating plans. You can draw a line from that to Rage Against the Machine’s more radical version of this primal complaint: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”

In 2017, the Grime 4 Corbyn movement stirred up disagreements that would have been familiar to veterans of Red Wedge. “Your main focus is to live with that not existing in your life,” Skepta told the Guardian about his refusal to participate. “I don’t want to have a say in the country.” When his Corbyn-boosting younger brother JME protested: “You must have an idea of something that you think is bullshit in the country you live in today and that could change,” Skepta stuck to his ultra-libertarian guns: “Everybody should run theirself.”

The brothers’ altercation wasn’t party political; it was about the eternal question of whether there is value in musicians being political at all. In that exchange Skepta was the Flavor to JME’s Chuck, the Keith to his Mick. Many successful bands benefit from the push and pull between one member who believes that music should be a vessel for ideas and activism and one who just wants to give people a good time, the optimal result being music that is simultaneously righteous and fun. “Chuck D, he’s the politician of the group,” Flavor told the Guardian this week. “I’m just the friendly jester.” It’s a shame that after 35 years Public Enemy is no longer able to contain both impulses, but whoever is to blame, it’s not Bernie Sanders. Electoral politics is child’s play compared with band politics.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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