What Gave Public Enemy the Right to Call Elvis and John Wayne Racists?
In the 1960’s Elvis Presley and John Wayne stood together as the coat of arms for the American Dream and embodied societies perceptions of white supremacy. Their seemingly endless fan base and mass appeal, coupled with a ‘whitewashed legacy’, distinguished them as icons amongst a vast range of underrated and extremely talented colored artists. Chuck D and Flava Flav articulate their disdain by labeling them as racists and insulting them in Public Enemy’s most notorious song Fight The Power. What right did they have in doing this?
John Wayne was an extremely popular Movie star at the time, during an interview with Playboy in 1971; he stated, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgement to irresponsible people”. This statement illustrates the immense change from culture and society then and now. The normalization of segregation during the 1970’s is illustrated by the allowance of John Wayne’s statement to receive public attention.
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Ultimately, Public Enemy had every right to speak freely on their thoughts of the inherent racism and the racism being encouraged by the Hollywood superstar. Such a bold statement need be reprimanded publicly with a voice of the coloured people expressing the unfair and undue treatment to provide a piece of hope for minorities that have persevered through the unbearable prejudice of society. Elvis, on the contrary was not actually racist. His sponsors required he perform concerts to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP’s) as this was the target demographic of all white artists throughout Presley’s era.
Elvis was born in a black community and once he achieved his stardom he gave back to the black community in many different ways. Elvis made many charitable contributions to the less fortunate coloured people he met across the United States. However, his largest contribution to the black community would have to be the fact that he popularized “rock n’ roll” which was ultimately a byproduct of black music. This focused the attention of the public, less towards the ‘whitewashed’ media and art forms, and more towards the black ommunity. This immense stardom and fame was the quintessential element that justified black artists like Chuck D and Flava Flav expressing their dislike for him. Fight The Power was written to depose societies prejudiced attitudes in segregated America. The reason black performers then and now feel bitter towards him was that he was getting all the attention while they were struggling to get noticed. To add insult to injury, Elvis was even dubbed the “King of Rock”.
It is no wonder that after a long battle by the black community to fight for their right to create art and distinguish themselves, uproar would ensue when a charming white man incorporated their songs, their style and their flare into his act. This left black artists infuriated; Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard who pioneered the sounds and styles, received no recognition for their contribution and brilliance. To these pioneers, Public Enemy and black artists in America, it was frustrating to see time and time again a white artist take a style from any group of colour and gain acceptance and popularity.
Elvis used the tunes, rhythms and performance style from black artists and far overreached the cultural acknowledgement of the originals. Chuck D stated in an interview that his attacks were against Elvis’s “whitewashed legacy”. He claimed that due to Elvis’s enthronement as the ‘King’, the achievements of those that had inspired him (black artists) were obscured. Many black artists believed he unfairly achieved the commercial success denied to his black peers in rock n’ roll.
Ultimately, the verse is an attack on embodiments of the white American ideal in Presley and Wayne, as well as its discriminative culture. Public Enemy had every right to be outraged at the popularity of a white man who personifies their musical style and elements, consequently absorbing all the fame and riches. Despite the hard work of black music and the black community to develop rock and roll, a white man took the title of “King of Rock”. Public Enemy expressed their outrage of the inequity of society and the unjust and unspoken impediments to the black community. And they had every right to do so.